28 January 2006

Ever Fallen In ...?

Jim Jersey Beat relays this rather amazing story of a BBC Passion Play featuring the music of, among others, the Smiths and the Buzzcocks.

As a Buzzcocks fan from way back, my interest was immediately piqued, but at the same time I was reminded of my unfortunate encounters with Pete Shelley on a couple nights when the Buzzcocks lead singer was not, shall we say, at his best. Or maybe it was me...

Actually, the first time, it was me. I was hanging out with the Spazzys on their first visit to London, and Pete, who's a friend of theirs, came down to the pub to meet up with us. Although I've met my share of pop stars, I have to admit I was more intimidated by Pete Shelley than I've been by most others. Not that he was difficult or haughty in any way; in fact, he was just the opposite, very genial and down-to-earth. I wanted to talk to him, but couldn't think of anything to say until the evening was nearly over.

"I've never seen the Buzzcocks," I admitted to him as we were walking down to the Dublin Castle. "In fact, one of my biggest regrets was missing the Buzzcocks/Gang of Four/Dils show in San Francisco in 1979. It was only a couple blocks away and I was too bored and jaded (and high on drugs, I didn't mention) that night to bother walking over."

Pete seemed about as impressed by this as I would be if somebody was telling me they couldn't be bothered to walk across the street to see my band. Somehow, I thought, that didn't come out quite right. Still, he offered, you could come see us on one of our tours now...

"Yeah," I acknowledged, "but I've never been big on reunion shows."

Looking rather pained, he said, "We've been back together since 1986." (This was in 2004, I believe.)

"But it's not quite the same as 1979, is it?" I awkwardly back pedalled, digging myself in deeper.

"It never is," he shrugged.

We walked a while in silence, and he seemed sad, so I tried to brighten his spirits by reminding him of what a huge influence his music had been on several generations of punk rockers. "Why, just the other week I saw Green Day cover a Buzzcocks song in front of 50,000 kids at Reading."

"Green Day," he intoned, looking considerably more pained than before. It seemed to be a sore subject with him. His old bandmate Steve Diggle would later get into the news claiming that he'd never heard of Green Day, but Pete surely had. Perhaps, I thought, he took seriously all those claims that Green Day had gotten fabulously rich and successful by ripping off the Buzzcocks sound, so I hastened to assure him: "Actually, Green Day had never even heard of the Buzzcocks when they were coming up as a band. They'd already developed their sound before they ever heard your band, but they definitely became fans later on."

This wasn't helping, either. It was like one of those bad dreams where everything you do or say comes out wrong, and every attempt to fix it makes things worse. But Pete finally brightened up enough to say, "Which song did they cover?"

"Who? Oh, Green Day. Well, um..." I had been standing on the stage with Green Day when they played it; I've had Singles Going Steady since it came out, and my mind had gone completely blank. Was it "Ever Fallen In Love?" "What Do I Get?" "Um, I can't remember," I finally had to admit.

And that was the end of my encounter with one of my original punk rock heroes. I tried to redeem myself by arranging a ride home for him with Sebby Zatopek, but I didn't expect it to help much, and the best slant I could put on things by that point was that I would probably never see him again.

But that was not the case. Come Christmas time, the Spazzys were back in London, and so was Pete, this time much the worse for wear. (Why do people use that as a euphemism for being drunk? I don't know. But he was.) I didn't go out of my way to talk to him, figuring I'd tortured the poor man enough, and he and Sammy Zatopek huddled over in a corner, deep in conversation about God knows what. But was I imagining it, or did they keep looking over at me, pointing and gesturing? After about an hour of this, Pete separated himself from Sammy, slouched over to the table where I was sitting, and heaved himself onto the bench alongside me, where he sat staring at me while what looked like the beginnings of an evil grin played across his face.

"I know you, don't I?" he finally said.

"Um, yeah, we met last time..."

"You're a fooking coont, aren't you?"

"Sorry?" (Britspeak for "excuse me" or "please don't start a fight with me.")

"You're a fooking coont. I'm not saying it in a bad way, yer just a fooking coont. You know what I mean?"

"Um, not exactly. Is this some sort of Northern thing?" (In Britain all sorts of aberrant behaviour can be explained or even justified by calling it Northern, and Pete was, after all, from Manchester, hence my attempt to transliterate his "u's" into "oo's.")

"Nothing Northern, yer just a coont, aren't you?"

This went on for some time, and I could tell from the way Pete was slurring his words that he was far drunker than I'd originally realised. If it had been anyone else, I would have gotten up and walked away, but there was a morbid fascination, I guess, to being called rude names by one of your favourite all-time singers, so I let him go on. I wasn't really afraid it would turn physically nasty, since he's about half my size and decidely out of shape, and besides, I was genuinely curious about the reason for his antipathy. Could he still be nursing a grudge from my foot-in-mouth outbreak some months earlier? I would have been surprised if he'd even remembered it beyond the night.

"But is there some particular reason you feel I'm a cunt?" I asked for about the tenth time. Until now he'd just repeated his charge, but this time he says, "I met you before."

"Um, yes, and I'm sorry if..."

"And you didn't tell me who you were."

"Who I was? I'm nobody, I'm just a guy who loves the Buzzcocks."

"But now I know. I found out who you are. And you kept it secret. I find that very dis..." He laboured mightily to bring forth the next word: "...disingenuous."

Considering he'd been barely managing words of one or two syllables, I found that astounding, and said so. Well, astounding that he could pronounce it, yes, but what I said was that I was astounded he could think such a thing about an innocuous little Buzzcocks fan who felt awkward around one of his heroes.

But all I got for my pains was another barrage of "coont" punctuated by "fooking," and repeated claims that I had been keeping my identity a secret for the sake of putting something over on him. A couple other people had sat down at our table, at first amused, and then trying to smooth things over, but the ritual abuse continued until last orders, and when the pub shut, we left Pete there on his own, still muttering with dogged satisfaction about what a coont I was.

I've never seen him again, which is probably just as well, and never completely solved the mystery of what had so roused his ire, but as near as we can tell, it was Sammy Zatopek who had stirred him up by telling him I had something to do with Green Day. Either Sammy inflated my credentials or something got lost in beer and translation, because by the time he was done, it seemed as though Pete had got the idea that I had somehow played a much more important role in Green Day's success than I actually had. For all I know, Pete may have been nursing the rather sodden impression that I was the eminence grise who'd single-handedly stolen the Buzzcocks sound and handed it over to Green Day to exploit.

Well, just in case Pete should read this, no, I didn't; I always kept my Buzzcocks records safely locked away whenever Green Day were around. And the last time I tried to give them musical advice was probably around 1993, advice which they treated much the same way they did most other musical advice I ever offered them, i.e., ignored it.

(I think it was while they were recording Dookie, and I suggested to Tre that they make their first video for "Welcome To Paradise," because, "You guys could bring some social comment into it, show some pictures of the Oakland ghetto, talk about the polarisation in American society," etc. etc.

"Yeah, that would be cool," said Tre. Long pause. "Nah, we wanna drive a car into a swimming pool.")

27 January 2006

Dr Frank Defends The Honour of St Paul

I seriously doubt whether Frank will remember this particular theological debate, as it occurred some 14 years ago and was only a tangential dispute that slipped into a much further-ranging discussion as to whether Jon Von, co-founder and at the time still a member of the Mr T Experience, was or was not a space alien.

I was reminded of this only because Frank has been talking a bit about religion here and here, something I haven't heard him do for a while. Back in the early 90s he and I used to argue the subject with some vehemence, mostly egged on by me, I'm afraid, as I was still in my (very) late adolescent "Religion is evil and hateful and must be destroyed" mode, a la Richard Dawkins or Philip Pullman or innumerable teenage anarchists and Marilyn Manson fans.

Frank, on the other hand, often spoke favourably about the Catholic church, which, having been raised Catholic myself, was my particular bete noire at the time (as an example, I give you this Lookouts lyric from "Fuck Religion": "They'll cut off your balls and roast them on the altar, They'll feed you baby Jesus sauteed in holy water." Since I was convinced that no self-respecting punk rocker or intellectual (the two were not always mutually contradictory, I maintained valiantly) could see any value whatsoever in religion, I harangued Frank mercilessly about this, trying to get him to admit that he was only claiming to be a Catholic to wind people up or make some kind of point.

Despite my argumentative tendencies, I was invited along for a Mr T Experience tour through Poland and (what was then) Czechoslovakia. It was during the long, tedious drive from Bialystok to Bydgoszcz that the Jon-Von-is-an-alien-cum-the-Catholic-Church-should-be-destroyed imbroglio broke out.

I tried to soften up Frank's defence of religion getting him to admit that the Church might play a useful role in managing the behaviour of the lower classes who didn't know any better, but that it was worse than useless when it tried to interfere with the thinking of enlightened beings like ourselves. Frank professed to find this completely offensive, claiming that any doctrine worth its salt would have to be applicable to all, and if anything, should be more, not less relevant to the educated and cultured classes.

This sounded a little too much like Kant's categorical imperative, something about which I know little but like to cite a lot. I feared that if I pursued it, Frank would wipe the philosophical floor with me (this, after all, is the man who was able to condense his Berkeley thesis on the complicated history of the concept of the soul into a two and a half minute punk rock song).

So I shifted my approach, bringing up the popular hippie concept that Jesus himself was an all right dude, practically a hippie and a communist himself, but that his message had been subverted and perverted by a power-mad St Paul when he laid down some of the foundations of what would become the Catholic Church.

Frank wasn't biting. He steadfastly maintained that it was impossible to make such simplistic assertions, at which point I tried to goad him further by saying, "Come on, though, you've got to admit St Paul was kind of a wanker."

I've seldom seen Frank flustered or angry, at least not in the conventional sense, but this seemed to have done the trick. He first looked aghast, then did a very slow burn during which he seemed to be trying to gather his thoughts sufficiently. Finally he gave up and half-sputtered, half-shouted, "St Paul was NOT a wanker!" In virtually the same instant, a horse-drawn hay wagon pulled into our path, as they were wont to do on Polish "freeways" in those just-after-the-fall=of-communism days, and our van went screeching to a halt, sending us all bouncing and crashing into each other and effectively putting an end to the discussion. A few feet less braking room and we might have all died in a fiery wreck on the highway, but Frank alone among us looked completely unruffled, almost beatific, in fact. He said not a word, but he didn't have to. And it was the last time I ever talked shit about St Paul. Just to be on the safe side, you understand...

Looks Like I Missed Out On All The Fun

If only I'd hung around Redfern a little bit longer last night, I could have been there for this.

26 January 2006

He Doesn't Sound Very Much Like George Bush

Too often history has succumbed to a postmodern culture of relativism where any objective record of achievement is questioned or repudiated.

John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, that is. Although he's in the same volume, if not on the same page as the American Prez, can you imagine George coming up with (or even pronouncing) stuff like the above, from his Australia Day message?

Un-Australia Day

I decided to mark Australia Day by taking a trip up to Redfern, the aboriginal ghetto a couple miles south of Sydney's gleaming (well, mostly) Central Business District. My main reason for doing so was to take in a free concert I'd read about, wherein indigenous rappers and similar multi-culti artists promised to lambaste the racist system and mourn the ruination of Australia by the infernal white man.

Unfortunately, the infernal white man was doing a lousy job of getting the trains to run on time, and that, combined with my laziness that led me to lounge about watching the cricket for much of the afternoon, meant that I got to Redfern too late, and thus I can't report on how things went. There were no riots, I'm guessing, based on the fact that several police were hanging around outside the Redfern Police Station as though they didn't have a care in the world, but then again, that doesn't prove anything around here; politicians and police officials are still squabbling over why, the night after last month's Cronulla riots, the police stood by and watched as a mob of about 100 Middle Eastern youths gathered in a park in Sydney's southwest and then set off in a caravan to the coast, where they attacked people and property in revenge for the previous day's attacks by Anglo-Australians.

To be perfectly fair, those riots had absolutely nothing to do with aboriginal people, and some aborigines have been quoted in the media that they feel grateful for the Anglo-Middle Eastern conflict because for once the police are leaving them alone. Of course Redfern had its own riot a couple years ago, which broke out when a young aboriginal man died while he may or may not have been being chased by the police (the police deny it) on what may or may not have been a stolen bike and while he may or may not have had a warrant out for his arrest (you don't get a lot of definitive information around these parts).

The whole affair sounded remarkably similar to the way 2005's French riots got started, though on a far smaller scale, and predictably enough, there were plenty of "activists," both indigenous and white, weighing in on why the poor, oppressed aborigine "youth" had no choice but to riot (this hippie paper being just one example. But strolling through Redfern this evening told me another tale, too, an all too depressingly familiar one: apart from the differing appearances and accents, it was virtually identical to publicly funded slums that you can find all across the USA and, increasingly, in Europe.

You had the same gangs of sullen young men congregating on corners and in alleys, apparently so stunned by their constant oppression that they can't think of anything to do with themselves but smoke dope, drink beer and look menacing. You had the same squalid housing, where it apparently never occurred to anyone to pick up a broom or throw a bit of rubbish in a bin instead of on the street. Nobody's expecting people who scrape by on a minimal welfare cheque to live in palaces, but at the same time, basic cleanliness and order doesn't cost much, if anything.

Who do you blame for this state of affairs? The ghetto-dwellers who seem unable or unwilling to make the effort to change their circumstances? The government officials who find it cheaper and more convenient to write off certain sections of town by providing the occupants with a minimal life-support system in the form of the dole but offering or expecting nothing more but generation after generation of dysfunction? My favourite villain in this piece is actually the middle-class activists, the race-based ideologues, who, whatever colour they may be, make their livings or get their kicks by telling people that all their failures can be explained by "oppression."

You see it in the sad parody that the American civil rights movement has become (come on now, Martin Luther King to Al Sharpton in only two generations?), in the burgeoning Asian and black ghettoes of Britain, and certainly in the dire state the French have got themselves into with regard to their Arab and African populations. Is racism a factor? Of course it is, but the racism of the supposedly "oppressed" peoples is just as bad and probably more self-destructive than anything the white population, in utter thrall to a muddled and benighted multiculturalism can throw at them.

What's especially frightening is what I would call the politicisation of thug culture, the dangerously romantic notion that gangsta rappers, street gangs, and the almost oxymoronic "hip hop culture" constitute some sort of revolutionary movement. Any moron with a grudge and a brick (or an AK47) can tear down the structures of society, but there's nothing revolutionary about that unless you also have the means of recreating a new and better one. It reminds me of Jacques "Dingbat" Derrida's explanation of his philosophical methods, where he describes deconstructionism as pulling on a thread of a sweater until the whole sweater collapses back into the ball of yarn from whence it came. But a five year old can do that just as easily as a philosopher, where not one person in a thousand has the skill and the discipline to turn that ball of yarn back into a sweater. The same goes for a city or a state or a culture.

25 January 2006

On The Line

“If you don’t keep up with your studies, you’re going to end up working on the assembly line,” was one of my dad’s favourite threats to me as a Detroit schoolboy. It was a popular local version of the boogieman stories parents use to elicit good behaviour from stroppy children.

I didn’t keep up with my studies, I did end up on the assembly line, and it took me about five minutes of back-breaking, mind-numbing labour to admit that for once in his life, Dad might have had a point. He had done time on the line himself back in the 1930s, but when he came back from the war, opted for a lower-paying but more secure job at the post office, and remained there for the rest of his working life.

He wasn’t too keen on the post office, either, though he was moved to defend it at one point when, at the height of my adolescent New Left moral arrogance, I accused him of being complicit in the Vietnam War because, “You work for the federal government.”

“But…” he sputtered, for once in his life at a momentary loss for words, “I work for the Post Office. I bring people their welfare cheques.” Including some of your no-good hippie friends, he didn’t have to add.

But most of the time Dad urged me to get a good education so that I wouldn’t have to work at the Post Office. Or Ford or Chrysler or GM, or at Great Lakes or McLouth Steel, one of which was where kids in our neighbourhood who didn’t go to college seemed destined to spend their lives. Well, there or prison, I suppose.

Being a stubborn proponent of learning things the hard way, I had worked at every one of those establishments except the Post Office by the time I was 22, and narrowly escaped serious prison time. I never stayed long at any of them; in those days auto and steel manufacturing jobs were so plentiful that you could quit any time you wanted, goof off until your money was gone, and then just show up at another factory or mill and start over.

They paid well, too. If, like me, you didn’t waste money on paying rent, buying cars, getting married and having kids, the sorts of things my co-workers persisted in doing, you could live well by working half the year or less. “You a lucky young man,” I was told by my camshaft-drilling partner at Chrysler’s Trenton Engine Plant. “You got yourself a good job and here you are only 20 years old. You stick with it and work hard and the company’s gonna take good care of you. When you get to be my age, you gonna retire a rich man.”

He was an older black guy, maybe in his late 50s or early 60s, who’d grown up as a sharecropper in the Deep South. From his point of view, landing the Chrysler job when he’d come north in his 40s was the next best thing to winning the lottery. He owned his own house, drove a brand new car, and kept his family well fed and dressed, all of which added up to unimaginable wealth compared to what he’d been used to.

I’d been reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and told him he had a slave mentality. “The company doesn’t care about you or me” I said. “They don’t care about any of us. If I was a Negro, I’d be out in the streets with Martin Luther King, or rioting like they did in Harlem and Watts.”

He looked at me in quiet wonder. “Easy enough for you to say.”

A couple months later, I walked out of that job to join the hippies, and inside a year, was dead broke, living in a series of squats and crash pads, and hiding out from the cops and the FBI, who seemed to think I belonged in prison. A hard life, true, but, as I often remarked, “At least I’m not stuck on the assembly line.”

A few years later came the first energy crisis and the collapse of the American auto industry. Suddenly manufacturing jobs weren’t so easy to come by, and if you had one, you hung on to it for all you were worth. Anyone who didn’t have 5 or 10 years seniority was laid off, sometimes permanently. If I’d stuck with my job, as the old black guy had advised me, I probably would have made the cut, though barely. Conceivably I could still be working there today, just about ready to retire on a generous pension.

But most of the jobs I spurned as a young man are gone now, and are unlikely ever to come back. Ford and General Motors have announced massive cuts in their work forces, and Chrysler will soon match them. Ford and General Motors are in real danger of going bankrupt; to someone growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, that would have seemed as ridiculously implausible as the government itself going out of business.

But even in the mid-60s, long before better-built and more economical Japanese cars laid waste to Detroit’s auto building monopoly, you could see trouble coming. Detroit cars might have been flashy and powerful and loud, but they were also clunky and unreliable, and nobody, not the workers, not the engineers or management, seemed bothered. It was like Lily Tomlin used to say about the phone company: “We don’t care. We don’t have to.”

Silly conspiracy theorists like Michael Moore made their own industry out of blaming the big auto companies for deliberately pulling the plug on Detroit, Flint, and similar cities, but it was a confederacy of dunces that destroyed the Rust Belt, and workers, particularly in the form of their unions, were just as guilty as management. The American auto industry was doomed in the same way, and for some of the same reasons, as the planned economy of the Soviet Union.

All these years later, and from thousands of miles away, life on the assembly line looks very different than it did to a young man who thought it was his purpose in life to avoid hard work of any kind. Considering the vast environmental and social damage wreaked by the American auto industry, it’s hard to feel fully sympathetic, but it’s equally hard to deny what that industry meant to hundreds of thousands of men and women: the opportunity to earn decent wages and benefits, often for the first time in their lives, enabling them to move out of the hardscrabble working class and into a solid, comfortable middle class existence. Most of the kids I went to high school with were the sons and daughters of factory workers; nearly all of them went on to college or careers that would have been unimaginable to their parents’ generation.

And Detroit, though a bit rough and ready, dirty and smelly during its industrial heyday, was a thriving city, full of opportunity for just about anyone who cared to take it. Now it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and people like me, who in the 50s and 60s complained that the whole place should be burned or bulldozed to the ground, are reminded once again to be careful what you wish for.

Oh Canada

I don’t think any Canadians I know, with the possible exception of a couple elderly relatives, will be pleased with the outcome of this weeks election. A reborn version of the Conservative Party, once thought to be all but extinct, has taken the biggest share of the votes, and leftists on both sides of the border are bemoaning the result in typically phlegmatic fashion.

“Man, I didn’t vote myself, but everybody I know says this totally sucks,” says one message board poster. “Now Canada’s got its own George Bush.”

This is a common refrain, though just a bit over the top, considering that the Conservatives, with nowhere near a majority of the vote, barely have their foot in the door and can and will be overruled in Parliament if they try anything too drastic. Nor does the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, bear much resemblance to President Bush, though one could draw some uncomfortable parallels from his origins in the oil-rich province of Alberta, often referred to as the Texas of Canada.

Another parallel is the cultural backlash that seems to have been as crucial as any other factor in propelling the Conservatives into power. Pundits frequently cite the “corruption” endemic in the Liberal administration that’s held sway for the past 12 years, but the Canadian economy has been a roaring success under the Liberals, and voters are generally inclined to overlook a little dodgy dealing at the top as long as their pay cheques keep going up.

Which brings us to another uncomfortable parallel with the US: the economic record racked up by the Liberals compares favourably with that of the Clinton administration, including budget surpluses “as far into the future as we can see,” as one Canadian official bravely predicted while trying to explain to the BBC why prosperity would continue regardless of which party was in office.

The trouble was, I heard virtually those same words in the waning months of the Clinton presidency. The paradigm had shifted, we were told; America would never need to go back to deficit spending, and in a matter of decades, we’d have the entire national debt paid off. Even a doofus like George Bush wouldn’t be able to derail that economic engine.

A couple of swingeing tax cuts along with what’s beginning to look like the most expensive war in history, and the idea of budget surpluses or paying off the national debt sounds like the stuff of fairy tales. Could Canada go the same way? Incoming Prime Minister Harper says he has no intention of taking Canada into Iraq, and even if he did, the US would continue to bear the brunt of the cost. And although Harper plans to increase military spending, it’s very unlikely to become a huge drag on the economy, if only for the simple reasons that Canada has no realistic aspirations of being a superpower and can count on the Americans to defend them in the event of serious trouble.

But Harper also campaigned on the promise of tax cuts, most of which will probably benefit the oil and timber industries that helped bankroll him. Could that be enough to upset the applecart? Probably not, again based on the ability of the left-leaning parties to outvote anything too extreme.

But several commentators here have pointed out the resemblance between Canada’s conservative resurgence and the way that Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s conservative Coalition unexpectedly took power from a left-leaning government that people were beginning to assume would be around forever. Since then, Howard has steadily solidified his position, been re-elected three times, and completely transformed Australian politics.

Personally, I think the deciding factor in both countries was neither economic nor political, but cultural. The bulk of Canadians were just not as radical as their government became. Being a generally fair-minded lot, they were fine with national health care and workers’ rights legislation, but were never as anti-American or as “progressive” as the Liberals seemed to assume they were. It wasn’t a single tipping factor like gay marriage or semi-legalisation of cannabis or the bias toward “multiculturalism” and a massive increase in immigration that sent voters fleeing to the right, but all played their role in creating a general unease, a sense that this was no longer the Canada that they’d grown up with.

Even still, Canadians might have been willing to accept these changes had it not been for the perceived arrogance of the governing party. It was a classic case of left-wing elitism, the assumption that the common people couldn’t be expected to know what was good for them, so why bother asking? I’m reminded of Jim Sleeper’s excellent book Closest Of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race In New York, which describes how the administration of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, pursuing the laudable aim of racial integration, balkanised and destroyed New York’s working class neighbourhoods with a similar arrogance.

It seems to be a recurring problem with left-of-centre parties, and may also contribute to the sectarianism and factionalism that undermines most leftist parties sooner or later. Those committed to social justice and coalition-building end up butting heads with the legalise marijuana and dress up as endangered species crowd, and the ensuing conflict over which faction really speaks for “the people” allows the hard right to slip into power with a firmly committed – but united - minority of the votes.

It’s what happened in the United States (hello, Ralph Nader!), and while what’s just happened in Canada represents nowhere near such a seismic shift – yet – it could still play out that way in the long run. Left-wing baby boomers and their anti-globalisation acolytes need to get it through their heads that most people don’t see the 1960s and 70s as the cultural or political apex of modern times. Many of them, in fact, feel precisely the opposite, and believe that an important part of the political agenda should be to undo and roll back the excesses of that era.

Does that mean that we have to accept the most extreme demands of the religious right? No, of course not, though today’s Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court (thanks again Ralph Nader and his “Republicans and Democrats are all the same” supporters) may well mean that women’s control over their reproductive lives is on its way out, along with some of the other personal freedoms we’ve come to take for granted. But until the moderate centre-left can find more in common with the moderate centre-right than with the libertines, hippies and nihilists of the hard left, that’s what’s likely to happen.

23 January 2006

Midsummer

Wandering through the back streets of Darlinghurst and East Sydney tonight, I thought of Ann Arbor.

That may seem like a strange association. Sydney is a major metropolis of 4 million, Ann Arbor a university town with about 100,000. Sydney exudes sunshine and hedonism and endless days at the beach; Ann Arbor spends half the year shivering and most of its all too brief summer sweltering. There are places to go swimming if you're willing to drive quite a way out of town, but it would be a rather extreme stretch of the imagination to call it a beach town. It's barely even a river town, as the muddy old Huron that wends its way through and around town serves mainly as a mosquito breeding ground and drainage ditch.

But I spent a few happy summers in Ann Arbor (for some reason, all the disastrous things that happened to me in that town, and there were quite a few, seemed to take place in autumn or winter), mostly doing not much of anything but walking around or riding my bike up and down the deserted streets, quiet but for the hum of air conditioners and the lethargic swish of lawn sprinklers and the occasional sturm and drang of somebody's too-loud television program spilling out onto the pavement.

I never quite understood what I found so appealing about those aimless summer nights. There was something intoxicating about them, yes, but at the same time, they drove me, through sheer stultifying boredom, to devoutly wish for intoxication. Of course in those days, the late 60s and early 70s, intoxication was generally the order of the day (and night). Most often, though, it was drugs, not alcohol, coursing through my system, and I was still in thrall to the hippie ethos, which held that drugs enhanced rather than demolished consciousness.

I'd hate to think that it was only the marijuana or LSD (or mescaline or psilocybin, etc., etc.) that made Ann Arbor seem like such a magical place, and I don't think it was, because I haven't taken a drug in years and yet I can still walk those same streets (and did, as recently as last July) and feel positively entranced. Similar towns, even Berkeley, don't do that for me, and I wonder whether it's because of the architecture (a hodgepodge of 19th century Victorian gothic that someone once told me evoked such strong feelings because it reminded me of childhood fairy tales) or because so many dramatic events in my youth occurred there (if you don't want to be bored silly, don't ever go for a walk in Ann Arbor with me, because I'll have a story or two for every house we pass that I used to live in, and there's one of those on pretty much every block).

There was something in the midsummer air, the way it hung close around you, enfolded you, so thick and warm that it felt like you were swimming through it. One time in 1972 there was a ridiculous hot spell. The daytime temps were nothing remarkable, 98F/37C, but by night it never went below 90F/32C, and it was impossible to sleep or even stay indoors. So, wearing nothing but Levi cutoffs, I spent the whole night coasting around on my bike. That was the thing: most of Ann Arbor is so flat that you can give a couple kicks on the pedals and coast for half a mile. And because the night was so thick with humidity, it felt like I didn't even have to make that much effort; the air seemed to hold me up all by itself, and I just floated effortlessly back and forth across the town.

I think what I'm trying to put my finger on - and what the warm, humid Sydney air evoked for me tonight - was the sense of timelessness, the way that summer slows everything down to the point where it seems both inevitable and obvious that it's going to stay this way forever. And no matter how hard your logical mind argues that, no, autumn's on its way, you'd better get ready because soon you'll be freezing your ass off and another year of your life will be shuttling off to the graveyard, your senses tell you never mind, forget all that, live for the moment and the moment is eternal.

In a way, it's even easier to slip into that state of mind in Sydney, because winter, such as it is, is such a mild affair that it would pass for summer by San Francisco or London standards. But it's a little harder to slip into that state of mind when you've seen summer and winter come and go as many times as I have, and when you know that regardless of what the weather or the seasons do, you'll be on a plane out of here not so terribly far in the future. I haven't even passed the halfway point of my time here in Sydney, but already Australia Day is coming up this week, marking the end of the semi-official summer holiday season (it stretches from Christmas to A-Day, the fourth Thursday in January). Kids are going back to school next week, the new TV season is starting, the beaches and parks will be emptier, the days getting shorter as the sun starts its journey back toward the north.

Melancholy? A bit, but tonight, strolling along that dark street thickly overhung with trees, their leaves hissing and whispering ever so slighly in the barely perceptible wind, I was back there in the never-ending Ann Arbor summer of my youth, and it felt just as magic, just as pregnant with promise and possibility as ever. So what did I do with that priceless moment? Sidled into the nearest internet cafe to write about it before it got away. In the internet-less Ann Arbor of old, I would have probably gone to Tommy's Holiday Camp to play pinball for 7 or 8 hours. Progress? Or not? I leave you to decide.

20 January 2006

No One's Ever Satisfied

"I Wanna Be A Crackhead Author", the San Francisco Chronicle's drug-addled, awkwardly aging post-baby boomer Mark Morford laments in his latest logorrheic upchucking. A crackhead newspaper columnist is no longer enough?


Afterthought: actually, I don't even particularly disagree with the article cited, hamhanded as his attempts at satire might be. But I'll put this down to stopped-clock syndrome. I remain convinced that Morford is part of the vast right-wing conspiracy to make San Francisco an international laughingstock. Redundant as any such efforts might be.

18 January 2006

Being Ben Weasel

There’s been ample publicity given to my various disputes with Ben Weasel, enough so that most people will have forgotten (or never knew) that we were once good friends. For a few years in the late 80s and early 90s, we talked frequently, sometimes daily, and shared a lot of acerbic jokes at the expense of bands, politicians, and just about anything or anyone else that came up.

But one of my favourite Ben Weasel memories remains the time I visited him for what might have been the first time in Chicago. He’d picked me up at the airport, and we were driving back to his place. The Roy Orbison song, “In Dreams,” came on the radio, and we both started singing along. If you’re at all familiar with Roy Orbison, you’ll know the man had one of the most amazing voices in the history of rock and roll, with a vertiginous vocal range that went from deep baritone to heart-shattering falsetto.

Needless to say, neither Ben nor I are similarly gifted. But that wasn’t going to stop us, and as the skyscrapers of the Loop went weaving past on a bright, sunny winter’s day, we sang on, making up with volume what we lacked in precision, simultaneously sharing a moment of sheer exuberance and slyly competing, in the way that guys almost always do, to see which of us would come closest to matching the almost unearthly crescendo Roy’s voice reaches at the song’s conclusion.

As competitions go, it was probably a draw; both of us fell short of being able to sing the song all the way through to the end, but not by nearly as much as we might have if we’d been trying to do it on our own. And when it was over, for once neither of us tried to make fun of the other one’s vocal shortcomings or musical tastes or any of the thousands of other things we normally tormented each other about. A great song can do that sometimes, and speaking of which, what should come up on the iPod just as I typed those words but “Clare Monet,” my favourite Screeching Weasel song from my second favourite Screeching Weasel record, Anthem For A New Tomorrow. Climactic line: “If she can’t go on being Clare Monet, who can?” Ditto for Ben Weasel.

Tampering With The Weather

Still raining here in Sydney, as it has been all week. Today I finally broke down and bought an umbrella. I’m assuming that will put a stop to it.

Rock And Roll Was Never This Fun

Connoisseurs among you will of course recognise that header as the title of a classic track by the Smugglers. The first of many times I saw them play it, I thought Grant was singing “Rock and roll will never forget,” which made just as much sense in its own way. But never mind what he was singing; what I remember most is being simply mesmerised. It was one of those moments, when the rock and roll man becomes indistinguishable from the preacher man, when the band is bathed in white light, time slows down and almost stops, and in that electric instant you get a private glimpse into eternity.

In over 40 years of going to concerts, gigs, shows, jam sessions, band practices, whatever, I’ve had a handful of those moments. Just enough, I guess, to keep me coming back despite all the lousy shows, the bands with more attitude than talent, getting my head kicked in in the pit – more than once, I might add – and despite the especially disheartening experience of seeing music turned into a cold-hearted commodity.

Whoops, that makes me sound like an innocent bystander. Let me amend the foregoing to read: “the disheartening experience of helping to turn music into a cold-hearted commodity.” Some people would phrase it in harsher terms; for a while back there in the 90s I was, at least in the eyes of some punk fundamentalists, the guy who sold out the scene for the sake of a quick buck. At the same time, the truly corporate music biz types were sneering at me for being so na├»ve and idealistic about the way my little record company operated.

After I left it all behind, I found myself feeling a little shell-shocked, enough so that it was a while before I could enjoy listening to music again. And it’s still not the same as it once was. I don’t know if it ever will be. I’d been gone from the music business quite a while before I could be just a fan again, and that came about only because Grant, of the above-named Smugglers, dragged me to a show in 1998 to see this new band called the Weakerthans. They sang a slow, country-tinged song called “None Of the Above,” and when the steel guitar kicked in, I had one of those moments I was beginning to think I’d never have again.

Over the next few years, I became something like the 21st century equivalent of a Deadhead, following the Weakerthans all over North America, seeing them in about a dozen American states and four Canadian provinces. It was the first time since the 80s that I’d been able simply to like a band without worrying about whether I should be doing a record with them.

It’s been a while now since I’ve seen the Weakerthans, a couple years, at least. I miss them, as much as people as musicians, but our paths haven’t crossed of late, and I guess I don’t feel as motivated as I once did to fly across the country at the drop of a hat to see a gig, no matter how good it promises to be. I often wonder how they’re doing, and when or if they’ll have a new record out, but not, I guess, enough to go back to being the rabid fanboy I was for a while

Anyway, what brought on all these musical musings? I hate to say it, but the combination of a rainy day, being cooped up in the house, and my iPod. I’m not much of an iPod person as a rule, and though I tried it briefly, I never took to wandering about London plugged into a set of earphones (besides, it’s a surefire recipe for getting mugged).

But here in Australia, my iPod, along with a tiny set of speakers, is the only music source I have, and I’ve taken to letting it play for hours at a time, randomly selecting tunes from a collection that spans some 70 years, from Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman of the 1930s to the Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens, fresh from 2005.
Actually, it’s more like 80 years, as I just remembered some Rodgers and Hart selections from the 1920s, but whatever, it’s a long time. And I’m more than old enough to marvel at these newfangled inventions, and the idea that you can take your whole record collection along in your pocket wherever you go in the world.

What really boggles my mind, though, and I’m curious whether other iPod users have had this experience, is the way that the machine seems to have a mind of its own, when it randomly strings together sequences of songs that a DJ would think himself very clever for coming up with (at least I would have in the days when I was a radio DJ, but perhaps I’m just easily impressed with myself).

But seriously, how does this little mini-computer figure out to follow up a Softies track with a Tiger Trap song? I’d suspect it of recognising the lead singer’s voice, except that the Tiger Trap track it picked was their one and only instrumental. Or line up a half-hour set of classic Lookout-style pop punk just when my mood needs uplifting, and then, just as I’m beginning to get burned out on the sameness of it all, suddenly shifts into a Roy Acuff or Carter Family number?

As I say, you guys who regularly use iPods are probably familiar with this phenomenon, or maybe you’ve similarly becoming convinced that your machine has a brain of its own. I do think, though, that if I ever went back to DJing, I wouldn’t even bother trying to come up with interesting song selections; I’d just plug in the iPod and let it do it for me.

Or is that what DJs already do these days anyway?

17 January 2006

Man, I'm So Depressed...

Yet more evidence that Australian politicians may be even more bonkers than their counterparts in other countries: less than a year after being resoundingly re-elected, Premier (for you Americans, that’s a bit like a governor) Geoff Gallop of Western Australia (for you Americans, that’s not just like a state, it is a state) has abruptly resigned his office, citing “depression.”

If it were merely Mr Gallop, a college friend of Tony Blair (and best man at his wedding), one might presume it an unfortunate anomaly, but only a few months ago, the leader of the New South Wales opposition similarly quit in conjunction with a suicide attempt after intemperately slagging off the NSW Premier who'd also just gone walkabout for no apparent reason. And then there was the federal Labor leader, Mark Latham, who, drummed out of office after being humiliated by Prime Minister John Howard in the 2004 national elections, wrote a vindictive and childish tell-all book revealing how he’d hated all the sanctimonious bastards anyway and bragging about smoking pot in the halls of Parliament.

(A word about Australian political parties, again mostly for the benefit of Americans: the country is run by something called the Coalition, which is an alliance between the Liberal and National Parties. The Nationals are red-meat conservatives, roughly equivalent to flag-waving Republicans, while the more numerous Liberals are actually left-leaning conservatives, something along the lines of American Democrats in the Lieberman to Clinton spectrum. The Australian Labor Party comprises your standard race-based identity politics warriors, trade unionists, old commies, and cultural leftovers from the 1960s and 70s. In other words, rather like the Berkeley City Council.

While the Coalition controls the national government, all of the state governments are under the control of the Labor Party, which means that no matter what branch of government you’re working in, there’s always someone to blame for the fact that very little actually gets done.)

But enough about that, since I suspect very few people are interested anyway, and back to the topic of mental illness in government. (Which reminds me, I understand by way of the BBC World Service that by being away from Britain these months, I’m missing flamboyant jabberjaw George Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother.) Or just mental illness in general, since, in a democracy, we’re all theoretically part of the government.

I know we’re not supposed to make light of such things, but it’s such a tempting target, and besides, I feel like I’m entitled to an exception, since depression has played such a large part in my own life. In retrospect, I can safely say it was the major reason behind my own resignation from the most exalted public position I ever held, namely CEO of the Lookout Records punk rock record corporation. So I have some idea how depression is no respecter of material or social success, that even someone who appears to “have it all” can feel absolutely wretched inside.

At the same time, there’s an element of self-pity and self-indulgence that appears to go with depression that makes it difficult for others to sympathise or even to understand that there is a problem. Admit it: if you’ve just passed half a dozen homeless beggars on your way to work, just read a newspaper account of someone who’s lost her whole family in an accident, or someone you love is dying of cancer, it’s kind of hard to take seriously the complaints of some guy with more money and more opportunities than he knows what to do with, but can’t stop telling you, “Sometimes I just don’t see the point of going on with my life.”

That more or less describes my attitude during the 1990s, a time when the record company I’d co-founded was enjoying its greatest success and making me richer than I’d ever dreamed of being. My “job” consisted of flying around the country to hang out with bands, meet fascinating people, and participate in creating some of the best and most exciting music of our times. Sure, there were a few tedious aspects, as with any job, but it beat digging ditches and paid about a thousand times better.

Nonetheless, I was miserable, and couldn’t stop telling everybody about it, in person, in the articles and songs I wrote, or simply with the hangdog expression I constantly wore. “You don’t understand how hard my life is,” was the message I constantly put out, and most people, who had to work normal, boring jobs, often for little more than subsistence wages, said, “No, actually we don’t.”

In reality my state of mind had little to do with my job or its imagined pressures, and nearly everything to do with the fact that I’d been seriously depressed most of my life. When and how and why I started, I have no idea: I can only remember that by the age of three or four I already had a sour, cynical outlook on life. Everyone was out to get me, I’d decided, and I might as well have tattooed “Born To Lose” across my forehead and “Live Fast, Die Young, and Leave a Horribly Mangled Corpse” across my backside.

I channelled my anger (not to be too simplistic, but depression is largely anger directed inward) into various causes, being a rebel without a clue in my teens, then devoting my 20s and 30s to overthrowing the government and/or society, but by the time I’d got to my 40s, I’d begun to accept that my ability to change the world around me was limited, and what really needed to change was the world inside me.

And that I felt completely powerless to do. I was just too sensitive, I told myself; things affected me more strongly than they did other people. Beneath this reasoning lay the conceit that somehow I was this great but misunderstood artist doomed to die alone and unappreciated (the classic definition of a “tortured artist” who deserves every bit of torture he gets). Never mind that most of my “art” consisted of sitting around thinking of the things I could or should be doing rather than actually doing them. In my increasingly addled mind, “they” or “you” were always stopping me from achieving what was rightfully mine. Are you beginning to see why it’s so hard to feel sympathy for a depressive? At the moment, I almost want to hop in a time machine so I can go back and punch myself in the nose and say, “Grow up and quit your whining!”

During this same time I spent a great deal of money going to shrinks, much of which I correctly perceived even than as paying someone to be my friend and listen to me complain when everyone else who knew me was sick and tired of it. That’s not to say it didn’t do me some good, and my last shrink was perspicacious enough to regularly aski me, “Have you thought that your drinking might have something to do with your depression? After all, alcohol is a depressant…”

“No, you dolt,” I’d answer exasperatedly. “I drink because I’m depressed, not the other way around. And anyway, I was depressed even before I started drinking.” (If you count the years from say, age 5 to 15, this was true.) “Still,” the shrink would say, “it couldn’t hurt to stop pouring more depressants on top of it.”

I was never very good at taking advice, especially when I suspected it might be good for me, so it would be several more years before I finally did stop drinking. It was only then that I began to realise that pretty much everything I’d done in adolescent and adult life had been at least partially under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Not that I was drunk or high the entire time, nothing like that, in fact, but I was also never away from them long enough to experience life on its own terms, to make decisions and have feelings unaffected by one more chemicals coursing through my system.

Long story short: the past few years have been the first time in my life that has been largely free from depression. Sure, I’ve had a few bad days now and then, but I used to have bad years. Decades, even. My life at present is far less exciting and glamorous than it was back in the 90s, but far more satisfying and enjoyable. Can I put this all down to stopping drinking and drugging? I have no idea, but that’s the major variable. Would I be so presumptuous as to suggest than anyone else suffering from depression may also have a substance abuse problem? Of course not, and not least because there are people with severe depression who never touch drugs or alcohol at all.

So I'm not trying to make any large generalisations or mass diagnoses; I can only talk about my own experience, and in my case it made a huge difference. Perhaps people with physical or psychological tendencies toward depression react differently or more intensely to alcohol and drugs. Perhaps the opportunities for escapism furnished by alcohol and drugs encouraged me to avoid making the necessary changes in my life that would have improved my mood and outlook much sooner. I honestly don't know, and maybe I never will know how or why it worked. What I do know is that for the first time in my life I consistently enjoy being alive and look forward to being alive for a long time to come. To many of you, that will sound like nothing at all out of the ordinary. Count your blessings. To those of you who know exactly what I'm talking about, I can only suggest: take a careful look at what you're putting into your system before going all mental about what It's putting out.

16 January 2006

Leaf Blowing In The People's Republic

In the other day’s fulminations about leaf blowers I forgot to mention how the City of Berkeley dealt with the issue a few years back.

Berkeley, as you will know, is a tale of two cities (and no, you won’t be the first to observe that this sounds like a PC way of saying the place is schizophrenic). On one hand, it’s a kind and gentle town, full of environmentally conscious, caring and sharing people who want nothing more than to live in quiet, considerate harmony with their diverse and multicultural neighbours. On the other, it’s a passionate, rumbustious outpost of freedom and rebellion, committed to the never-ending struggle for justice for all downtrodden and oppressed people of the world.

Not surprisingly, these values occasionally come into conflict. As, for example, when a Berkeley city councilperson proposed banning the pernicious leaf blower on the grounds that the sensitive ears of Berkeley folk shouldn’t have to be subjected to such noxious noises, any more than their sensitive noses should be subjected to such noxious fumes, or their sensitive eyes have to witness the wanton squandering of petroleum in pursuit of suburban-style vanity.

All well and good, you’d think: a law that would surely pass unanimously. Well, not so fast. A rival faction arose, contending that the proposed leaf blower ban was racist, on the grounds that the gardeners employed by many of Berkeley’s champagne and/or sinsemilla socialists were largely illegal immigrants – heavens, what was I saying; I meant, of course, undocumented workers – of the Mexican or Central American persuasion.

Had it been able to find a way around the US Constitution, I’m sure the Council would have solved the problem by making the use of leaf blowers contingent on one’s race, immigration status, and income level. But that not being possible even for the ever-inventive minds of Berkeley’s guiding lights, I believe they fell back on the time-honoured method of passing the law while simultaneously agreeing that it should not be enforced. And as far as I know, it never has been, so presumably both sides are satisfied and continue to live and blow leaves in diverse and multicultural harmony, because that, after all, is the Berkeley way.

13 January 2006

Blowing Leaves And Other Oil-Powered Abominations

I can't remember how long gas-powered leaf blowers have annoyed me beyond reason - probably ever since they were invented. For that matter, I've got an even longer-standing grudge against gasoline-powered lawn mowers, and not just because by the time I reached my teens, I was one of the only boys left on my block who still had to cut the grass with with an old-fashioned push mower.

No, I was far more aggravated by neighbours who thought a suitable observance of the weekend meant firing up the old power mower at about 6 am on a Saturday or Sunday morning, an hour at which I would just be beginning to sleep off the previous night's excesses. And even now that I'm a relatively early riser, I'm still of the opinion that anyone who runs loud gardening equipment before midday deserves to be fed into their lawn mower as if it were a salami slicer.

I don't think it's particularly Luddite-like of me to insist that anyone not caring for an estate of more than an acre or three is perfectly capable of using an old-fashioned hand mower (if indeed they still make the things; not having been possessed of anything resembling a lawn for some decades now, I wouldn't have any idea). Considering that about 90% of the Anglo-American-Australian male population is obese or bordering thereon, I'm in favour of banning most labour-saving devices until they whip themselves into shape.

But lawn mowers are as nothing compared to the fits of rage produced in me by the increasingly ubiquitous leaf blower. Not only is the noise maddening - and the rising and falling sound is actually worse than the steadily obnoxious tone of the power mower - but that accursed things have little if any point, as far as I can see.

I came across one leathery old cow (to be fair and honest, she was probably no older than me, but she was definitely leathery and bovine) shattering the morning calm all across Rushcutters Bay. Were it not for this one oblivious simpleton, all that would have been heard would be the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore and the creaking of the masts of the boats anchored there in the harbour (okay, and the forced laughter and amphetamine-based dance music from the fourth-storey apartment of the drug-fucked queens, but that didn't carrry more than a couple hundred metres).

But I could hear this lady (and I use the term advisedly) and her leaf blower all across the park and all up and down the streets for several blocks around. To get where I was going, I had to walk past her, and it was all I could do to keep myself from strangling her (I'm engaging in a bit of bravado here; her biceps rivalled my thighs in circumference, and she looked as though she'd spent a few years out in the bush whipping kangaroos and other outback=dwellers into shape before migrating to the vicinity of Darling Point). What was so maddening wasn't just the noise, but the fact that there seemed to be no apparent point to what she was doing.

She was ostensibly clearing the leaves off the forecourt of her apartment building, but in actuality, she was blowing them all toward the street, then trying to blow them into piles in the street, whereupon at least half of them would wind up back on the forecourt, whereupon she'd start over again on the forecourt, etc., etc. This had been going on for at least half an hour already by the time I passed her (I'd been doing my kung fu stuff on the other side of the park and wondering what on earth the racket was) and it continued after I walked up the hill and blessedly out of earshot, and I still couldn't grasp what exactly she was hoping to accomplish. Even if she finally succeeded in arranging the leaves in neat little piles (something that could have been achieved in five or ten minutes with a perfectly silent push broom), did she suppose that the leaf fairy was then going to come along and magically transport them to the great compost heap in the sky? Or that the first breeze off the harbour wasn't going to send the leaves right back to where they had started out before she spent the better part of an hour sending her neighbours insane?

Not that I want to blame all the ills of the world on this particular lady; by the time I finished my walk, I had passed half a dozen more avid leaf blowers, none of whom seemed to be accomplishing much more than she was, i.e., blowing leaves back and forth and irritating people for blocks around. There was one exception: a gentleman who was using his blower to dislodge the leaves from under his car, something that couldn't be done so easily with a broom, but then, if they're under a car, who cares, right? Of course you're listening to someone who never saw the point of sweeping or raking up leaves at all; I mean, they're just going to turn back into humus (that's a fancy word for dirt, you heathens) anyway. Why not give them some time and just let them do their thing. Not to sound like a hippie, but it's only natural, right?

The whole thing has convinced me all over again that petrol/gasoline/energy/whatever is still far too cheap: if people can continue to waste it on the scale they do, then the price needs to go a lot higher. Instead of subsidising cheap fossil fuel consumption by fighting wars or providing the auto industry with a ready-built road network on which to run its smogmobiles, people need to pay the real cost of energy consumption. It's only then that they will begin to make rational decisions about transport and city planning issues.

Speaking of which, the dinosaurs of the New South Wales Labor Party, who've been running the state's infrastructure into the ground for lo these many years, have denounced plans to rebuild tram lines in some of Sydney's busiest transport corridors (like many cities, Sydney engaged in a massive act of environmental vandalism by tearing up its extensive tram lines back in the 1950s to make room for more cars). Now that the centre city is becoming choked with traffic and the diesel fume-spewing buses are forced to crawl along at little more than walking speed, some sensible people are pointing out that trams would speed up travel times and reduce pollution, but the Labor Party dingbats, none of whom has probably set foot on public transport except possibly for a campaign photo-op, claim it would be a terrible idea. Why? "It would interfere with traffic," says one clown. In other words, it might limit the apparently divinely ordained right of every Australian yobbo and yuppie to drive his personal global warming machine up and down George Street going nowhere very fast indeed. Or actually very slowly. If petrol goes up to $10 a litre, I'll be standing on the sidelines cheering, except that then we'll probably be taxed to compensate all the poor auto drivers for their utes (that's Strine for SUVs) becoming worthless. Never mind, roll on the end of the petroleum era. It'll probably come just in time for me to hauled to my grave in a good old-fashioned horse-drawn hearse.

12 January 2006

Shark Jumping, Part 2

Big Sean, he of Wat Tyler and the parody skinhead oi band, Hard Skin, whose parodying skills are apparently so effective that they are now selling a phenomenal number of records to skinheads willing to believe that they are a serious oi band, used to say to me, "No one watches Neighbours except children and unemployed people."

He's not far from the truth there, although for someone who typically has several weeks of British soaps backed up on his VCR waiting for his careful perusal, it might be a bit arrogant. Besides, at least until the late 90s, there was one other category of person who might still watch Neighbours, i.e., the British university student, legendary for his/her willingness to do just about anything rather than attend class or do coursework.

I should note that most North Americans will have no idea what I'm talking about; for their benefit, Neighbours is Australia's longest-running soap opera (21 years and counting), and possibly it's best-known export to the United Kingdom with the possible exception of Foster's Beer. For a few years, it was the most popular show in the UK, and though its glory years (Kylie Minogue is just one of its many gifts to the world of pop stardom) are long past, it's still broadcast twice daily on the BBC. And I, having the mind of a child and having been technically unemployed for some time now, must admit as one of my guiltiest secrets the fact that I still watch it.

Knowing that I was coming to the ancestral home of Neighbours even lent a certain cachet to my first trip to Australia, and though the novelty has since worn off (this is my third trip, after all), I was still pleased to know that I'd be seeing the launch of the 21st season a couple months ahead of my fellow sad Neighbours-watchers back home. But now that the season has been underway for four days, I must report that some serious shark-jumping has been going on in Ramsay Street (for those not familiar with the expression, it refers to when Fonzie jumped a shark while water skiing on Happy Days, and was taken to mean that the programme had completely run out of steam and/or ideas).

Well, on Neighbours this year, the ever-tolerant, ever-pious, Salvation Army-volunteering Harold Bishop has suddenly metamporphosed into a vengeful psycho killer (he hasn't killed anyone yet, but not for want of trying). Always a bit of a God-botherer, it looks as though the tables have been turned and Harold is the one being bothered, as he's getting messages to the effect of "an eye for a eye" direct from the Big Man Upstairs.

Harold, of course, has played is part in some preposterous goings-on before, like the time he was washed away at sea and presumed dead for many years until his long-suffering wife Madge spotted him playing in a Salvation Army band and afflicted with that all-purpose soap opera device, amnesia (the only ailment more common in soapland seems to be the coma). But I'm afraid this time it's all gone a bit too far, and if they keep this up, I may even stop watching. Or not. I just realised that if it weren't bedtime, you'd probably be subjected to another couple pages of Neighbours synopses and analyses, so count your blessings.

Shark Jumping, Part 1

Apropos of the other day's oft-heard quote, to wit, "You're more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by a shark," I remembered after the fact that based on my experience of getting caught in a Sydney thunderstorm last year, getting struck by lightning seems a good bit easier in these parts, too.

I was out in Moore Park at the time, and I could hear the distant rumbles of thunder and see the clouds bubbling up on the horizon. In a sensible country, that would have indicated that I had a half hour or so to make my way to shelter, but in no more than five minutes, the full fury of the storm was upon me. I took shelter under one of the park's many stately trees, and was just remarking to myself what an excellent job its broad leaves were doing keeping the rain off me when I remembered that standing under a tree was one thing you weren't supposed to do in a lightning storm.

This point was emphasised by a dramatic bolt of lightning that shattered the top of the tree a few hundred feet to the south of me. Well, then, I thought, should I set out across the field in the direction of home? But wait, you weren't supposed to stand out in a flat field in a lightning storm either, because then you'd be the tallest object around and a certain target. Well, there was a dilemma. I decided to compromise by following the line of trees toward the edge of the park, on the grounds that if I were going to be electrocuted, at least I'd be dry when it happened.

Another thing that happens in a rational country is that a thunderstorm approaches from one direction and heads off in another, so once the worst of the lightining has passed by you, you're generally all right. Not here: no sooner had I set off in the opposite direction from where the lightning had just been, it would pop up in front of me. Reversing my direction achieved the same effect, as did walking sideways or backwards. It was if some demonic entity were sitting up there on a cloud having a good old laugh at my expense.

But I survived, and that was, after all, a year ago. Why bring it up again? Well, last night we had another blinder of a thunderstorm. I was safely inside long before it hit, and the nearest the lightning came was half a mile or more away. But I'd heard stories, no doubt apocraphyl, about lightning bolts coming right in people's windows and chasing them across the room, so I sat as far away from the window as possible and left the ilghts out just in case. No sense in making myself an easy target.

It took ages today for the sun to come out, but when it finally did, I was swimming out at Nielsen Park, near Watson's Bay, and I think I'll make it my regular base from now on, because they've got some proper shark nets there, rising some two metres about the surface. Most of Sydney's popular beaches are netted, but in the latest hubbub about shark attacks, it's come out that most shark nets don't reach all the way to the surface, thus leaving large gaps, and that 40% of the sharks they snag are caught on the inside of the nets. Charming. I felt much more secure at Nielsen Park, swimming just inside the nets and thinking smugly about the sharks out there who couldn't get at me, until I felt something brush my leg. Then I thought, hang on, while most shark nets don't come up to the surface, maybe the deal with these shark nets was they they were all above the surface and didn't go down very far under the water. It would be typical of the way the council tries to save money around here.

Anyway, whatever brushed my leg didn't eat me (I think it might have been a leaf) and I'm safe back in Sydney again, but I note with displeasure that some of the nature-loving fanatics have been sounding off in the local press to the effect that it's no big deal if people get eaten now and again by those lovely sharks ("We're meat," says one North Queensland observer, "and sharks eat meat. What's the big deal?"), and they love to repeat that "only" 1.1 people per year are killed by sharks. Of course this rather neatly downplays the many more people only only lose an arm or a leg or a chunk of their stomach, but I wonder if some of the shark-lovers aren't remarkably similar to the primitive peoples who thought it perfectly rational to chuck an occasional virgin into the volcano on the grounds that the volcano would then be content to leave the rest of the tribe alone.

10 January 2006

Creepy Crawlies and Creatures Of The Deep

Trepidatious Northerners (like, say, myself) arriving in Australia for the first time often express a bit of hesitancy about all the deadly creatures swimming, flying, crawling and otherwise infesting this fine land. There are the something like 17 varieties of poisonous spiders, one of which is rumoured to climb up out of toilets and bite you on the behind, there are the hideous cane toads, which will spit poison in your mouth or eyes if it gets close enough (one hopped into the middle of an outdoor dinner party I attended in North Queensland), there are man-eating crocodiles, sharks, and my current favourite, the nearly invisible stinging jellyfish, which only this weekend killed a 7 year old girl who was splashing around in the ocean up north.

This was the same weekend, by the way, in which a 21 year old woman was "taken," as they delicately put it on the news here, by no less than three bull sharks (by "taken" they mean ripped limb from limb and partially eaten, but that has a certain lack of appeal to the tourist trade). The crocodiles have been quiet lately, but there was a tropical cyclone, thankfully on the northwest coast, some 2500 miles away, and half a dozen drownings up and down this coast, but overall, things here in Sydney are just peachy at the moment, apart from a little too much humidity.

But mention any of this to a typical Aussie, and you're almost guaranteed to get a response like, "Sharks? Nothing to worry about, mate. You've got more chance of being struck by lightning." Ditto for crocodiles, jellyfish, spiders, cane toads and, oh, forgot all about the many poisonous snakes and lizards. And they may be right in the sense that one's chances of getting eaten by a shark are fairly small (though seemingly growing, along with the shark population), but when you add all the various perils together, well, it suddenly does seem a bit more dangerous than your average country. But Aussies, almost to a man (and possibly woman, too), seem convinced that this is all a lot of jibber-jabber, and that this is the safest and loveliest and luckiest country in the world.

And most of the time, it feels like that's exactly the case. But I think I'll stick to swimming inside the shark nets just to be sure.

Living Behind Bars

That was the title of one of my favourite Lookouts songs. I wrote it around 1988, inspired by the trip down to the Ashtray in West Oakland, the Ashtray being a famous punk house (immortalised in the song of that name by Screeching Weasel) where Jesse from Operation Ivy and Jake and Lenny from Filth lived in legendary squalor. All the houses in the neighbourhood had bars on their windows and doors, all, that is, except the Ashtray itself, possibly because it had nothing worth stealing.

The song was a catchy affair, enlivened by a guest appearance on lead guitar by Tim Armstrong, then of Op Ivy, later of Rancid, but lyrically, it was a typical bit of liberal hand-wringing to the effect of "Isn't it awful that people have to live like this, all locked up behind bars to protect them against the depredations of society?"

At the time, and for many years before and after, I subscribed to the conventional wisdom that people became criminals as a reaction to poverty and oppression, that given enough opportunities and education, almost everyone would naturally change and be nice. It was only in recent years that I began to wonder if I had it backwards: could it be instead that people lived in poverty and oppression because of endemic crime?

It's not as far-fetched as it might sound. Think of a typical high-crime neighbourhood: what businessman in his right mind is going to want to open a store or a factory there? Ergo, unemployment. What kind of education are kids going to get if they can't feel safe from being assaulted on their way to and from school, or even in the school itself? Ergo, generation after generation of kids ill-equipped to do much of anything but resort to crime themselves?

Ultimately, it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, of course; no one can say with any certainty which came first, the crime or the poverty. But it's hard to deny that there are places, not just neighbourhoods, but sometimes whole cities or even regions (Somalia, parts of West Africa, Papua New Guinea are among those which come to mind) where criminality seems to have become an ingrained part of the culture, and which suffer continually from material poverty from which there seems to be little respite.

It's worth thinking about, anyway, and what got me on this subject in the first place? Well, in inner Sydney, virtually every house and apartment has barrred windows and doors, a tradition which seems to go back to the earliest surviving Victorian houses (Sydney Victorians are very different from what would be considered a Victorian house in London or San Francisco; they more closely resemble something you might see in New Orleans). Now when those houses were being built, in the mid to late 19th century, it might have made sense to fortify them; Australia was, after all, a land originally settled by convicts, and old habits might be thought to die hard.

But 150 years on, the barring tradition continues, and I haven't yet figured out whether there are that many more burglars here (there is a high rate of hard drug addiction, encouraged at least enabled by the typical 70s-style libertinism, so maybe yes) or if it's simply a deeply imbedded cultural memory of convict times that's keeping people paranoid. I suspect it's a bit of both.

Some Things I Don't Like

Actually, only a couple for now, and the first is that I don't like how I came off in the previous post, talking about aborigines as if they were a faceless group of people rather than a vast and disparate collection of individuals. That's not to say that one can't (or shouldn't) talk about the problems and challenges facing a group of people, but I was thinking about this yesterday and today, and realised that while people might often expound on "the aborigine problem" (even if they're polite enough not to put it in exactly those words), you seldom hear anyone talking about "the white problem," despite the fact that there are certainly issues and problems that occur most frequently among white people. Talking about other races as though they were some strange species that needs to be managed or cultivated perhaps being one of them.

The other thing I don't like is writing long posts. Some famous writer whose name escapes me is supposed to have said, "Today I have written you a long letter because I didn't have time to write you a short one." The point is, it does take more time and more work to write something short and succinct (and still say something) than it does to blather on at great length. And yet I do far too much of the latter.

Part of my excuse is that while I'm here in Sydney, I have to rely on internet cafes where I'm paying by the hour (or minute, it seems more like), so I'm always feeling impelled to get everything said quickly and less inclined to do the careful editing I might do at home. But then I can look back and see that many of my posts from home have been awfully long, too. I guess I'm guilty of being too fond of the sound of my own voice, or the onscreen equivalent thereof. And with that, I'll shut up. For now.

08 January 2006

The Lucky Country (For Some, Anyway)

Up early this morning and out to Bondi Beach, where, for a change, the sun was shining brightly. Too brightly, in fact, for me to take much advantage of the beach; if you're not acclimated to the Australian sun and/or slathered in buckets of Factor 30 or 45 sunscreen, it's not wise to spend much time in open sunlight between about 10 am and 2 pm, not unless you're willing to risk second degree burns, malignant melanoma, or, if nothing else, having your skin take on the texture of an old boot, something you can observe in many middle-aged and elderly Australians who were put out to bake by their parents back in the days when sunlight was thought to be a panacea for raising happy and healthy children.

I couldn't even go in the water - well, I could have, but frankly, I was scared by the size of the waves. They weren't too much higher than my head, but call me a coward if you will; that's a bit too high for me. The surfers were out in force, though I was disappointed to see that it's not quite like the movies: almost all of them fall off their boards within ten or twenty seconds of getting up on their boards, and I didn't see a single one complete a triumphant ride right up to the beach, there to be fawned over by buxom bikini babes. Mostly they just paddled around out there, waiting for a wave that looked feasible, jumped up on their feet and tried desperately to stay upright before being unceremoniously dumped in one direction while their surfboards went flying in the other (if they were fortunate, that is; if they weren't so lucky, the flying surfboard would come down and conk them in the head).

Up toward North Bondi, I saw five policemen, which is five more than I've ever seen at the beach before, and I felt assured that any Bondi crime wave must be well in hand until I realised that they were all astutely studying the "Rough Water Swim Races" pitting the "Waratahs" against the "Rabbitohs," which seemed to consist of several musclebound and/or overweight men from each side running into the sea, swimming directly into the 6-8 foot breakers for about 100 metres until they circled a buoy, then back to shore, all while an announcer gave a half-acerbic, half rah-rah commentary over speakers up and down the beach.

Disinclined to risk my life or my skin by either swimming or lolling on the sand, I decided to walk down the coastal path to Bronte Beach, about 3.7 kilometres south. Just before I got there, I saw a rare sight: a family of aborigines emerging from the surf. Although there are several hundred thousand aboriginal people in Australia, the beach is not a place where you'll usually encounter them, at least not in the big cities of the south. The one previous time I'd encountered aborigines at the beach was in Fremantle on the West Coast, and there I'd remarked on how all the white people were out there parbroiling themselves in the midday sun while the aborigines, who presumably had kind of skin that suited them for sunlight, were all huddled in the shade of a large tree, drinking beer.

You don't see that many aborigines in Sydney, either, though there is one neighbourhood, Redfern, where they're concentrated. There used to be a collection of very sad drunken ones who sprawled out on the pavement at Taylor Square on Oxford Street, sleeping off the booze they'd already consumed or begging money for more. "There's an example of our native vegetation," I heard someone crack as he passed by. But this year they seem to have moved on, or have been moved on, and only a handful of them are left, mostly off on a side street where people step gingerly around and over them.

If there's one truly tragic story in what is often called "The Lucky Country," it has to be that of the aborigine. Like their counterparts in North America, many of them died off from new diseases carried by the white colonisers, and many more died as a result of being driven from their traditional huntering and gathering grounds. Their culture and way of life was irreparably shattered, and as recently as the early 20th century, prominent white Australians thought it a perfectly reasonable thing to say that it would probably be best if the aboriginal race died out completely to make way for the new, improved European culture.

Then there was a turning point, probably around the 1960s, when Australia suddenly had an attack of conscience, and very nearly went to the opposite extreme, trying - often futilely and cluelessly - to make up for all the damage. Unfortunately, most of the efforts were of a typically hippie-ish, New Age variety, predicated on the idea that given sufficient amounts of money and autonomy, the aborigines would rebuild their traditional culture. But just as with North America's indigenous poeple, it was way too late for that: in a society which has no written language or history, the dying off and scattering of the elders had the same effect as bombing and burning all the libraries or unplugging the internet would on Europe.

So instead the new generosity of spirit has largely produced tragic, welfare-dependent communities where drug and alcohol abuse and violence are endemic. An ABC documentary this week told of a Northern settlement where even the handful of young people who managed to make it to the local community college were tested as having the reading comprhension skills of fourth graders. Most kids never got beyond primary school before succumbing to a fatal cycle of petrol-sniffing, leading to brain damage and paralysis. They interviewed one 22 year-old, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, puffing on a joint and listening to Bob Marley sing about freedom. It made me want to kick a hippie or two.

Speaking of hippies, Germaine Greer, like many of her generation, is as guilty as anyone of romanticising indigenous people into her own pot-addled version of the Noble Savage (adding insult to injury, she does this from 10,000 miles away, having scarpered off to England, where she's actually regarded as an intellectual by the more credulous Poms). She wrote, or at least started to write, a book called Whitefella Jump Up, in which she advocates that Australians let aborigines show them how to run the country properly.

This might have contained a modicum of sense 200 years ago, when the white settlers first arrived, but the idea of 20 million Australians huddled around the billabong sharing a bouillabaisse of grubs and geckos makes about as much sense today as Pol Pot ordering everyone out of the cities and back to the countryside at the close of the Cambodian revolution. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and aboriginal culture is not coming back to rule Australia again, not, that is, unless a surplus of 19 million or so people can be done away with first. The real question is, how do you integrate the several hundred thousand aborigines currently hamstrung somewhere between modern civilisation and traditional ways? Whatever has been tried so far certainly isn't working.

05 January 2006

Speaking Of The Cricket

My friend Robert doesn't have a very high opinion of cricket. Which might explain why, when I told him about the scary gang of thugs I'd seen slouching and menacing their way up my street and subsequently up Victoria Street, his immediate interpretation - after he'd asked me what race they were - was that they must have come from the rained-off cricket match up the road.

The reason he asked me what race they were was because race is a matter that's been much on Sydney's mind since last month's riots at Cronulla Beach. The way the international media reported it was that a mob of loutish, neo-Nazi yobs had attacked people of "Middle Eastern appearance" and violently driven them off the beach. And that was largely true, even if the "neo-Nazi" epithet was overegging the pudding - most of the Cronulla crowd have probably never come closer to a genuine Nazi than watching Hogan's Heroes reruns. But what the media outside Australia - and some of the media inside Australia as well - didn't convey was that there was another side to the story, or rather another side to the conflict. The "people of Middle Eastern appearance," a euphemism used to describe what Australians of all ethnicities routinely describe as "wogs," (apparently meant to describe anyone who is darker and/or less well-behaved than you'd like to think you are), were in this case gang members who've been cutting a fairly wide swathe through Sydney for a while. They're generally described as "Lebanese" gangs, but while Sydney has a large and long-established Lebanese population (my friend Robert is half Lebanese himself), I think the term is used fairly loosely, and ends up describing gangs of not just Middle Easterners, but anyone who's a bit off-white.

Anyway, few would deny that Sydney has a gang problem, and a growing crime problem. Just today the bus drivers announced that they were going to refuse to drive in certain neighbourhoods after dark unless the police did something about the frequent attacks and assaults they were enduring. And at the same time, the state police chief said that he was worried about the safety of his officers after a couple of them had been attacked by a lunatic with a pitchfork. Doesn't exactly fill you with confidence, does it? I mean, these are not English police we are talking about. Australian police, just like American ones, have guns. Why we are supposed to be afraid for their safety, rather than the bad guys being afraid for theirs, is not explained, but if you saw a few Aussie officers (and unless you're hanging around some street fair or gay pride parade, you probably won't), you might see why: they're not exactly intimidating. In fact, they're very NICE, very young and clean and sparkly, as likely to be young women as young men, and about as menacing as a high school choir on their first trip to the big city.

Which is why, when I saw the gang making its way up Victoria Street, insulting and threatening women and gays, wandering into various shops and bars to terrorise the occupants, and generally making what is normally a very boulevardish ambience feel more like The Warriors or A Clockwork Orange, I didn't expect to see any law enforcement intervention, or presence, for that matter, and of course that was the case. As I got on a bus to leave the area, I made the mistake of staring a bit too long at the gang, and one of them, noticing, pointed at me and made a creditable imitation of a monkey eating a banana, though I don't think that was his precise intention. The monkey man was heavy set, possibly a Pacific Islander, and the gang - and let's hope this heartens advocates of integration and cultural diversity - seemed to be made up of a couple Samoans or other Pacific Islanders, two or three Middle Easterners, one Japanese or Chinese guy, and a couple white, possibly Eastern European guys. Racists, and/or the territorial Cronulla Beach yobs, would probably have lumped them all together as "Lebs" or "wogs," but here's the point: the violence at the beach didn't start just because the locals didn't want dark-skinned people on "their" beach (though that was probably a factor. There had been problems for some time already, with the Middle Eastern gangs harassing women, both sexually and by telling them that they were "indecently" dressed, and the flash point came when a gang beat up two lifeguards (lifeguards have iconic status here, slong the same lines as rugby or cricket players).

Part of the problem as I see it (and I know, there's nothing like a stranger coming into your country and telling you how to run it) is that while Australia has made huge progress economically and politically, socially and culturally it's in some ways still stuck back in the 70s. The national government is in the hands of the Liberal Party (which, this being upside-down land, equates to the Conservative Party in most northern lands), but the state government is controlled by the Labor Party (inexplicably spelled American-style while the word "labour" is spelled English-style), who are largely a bunch of pot-smoking dunderheads (if they don't smoke pot, they might as well, because they couldn't get any stupider or more incompetent) who can't seem to run a transport system, a police force, or even manage to provide Sydney, a city which gets twice as much rain annually as San Francisco or London, with an ample water supply.

But, like the police, they're very NICE people, or at least endlessly concerned with conveying that image, to the point of not wanting to upset anyone, not even gangsters who attack bus drivers, because, after all, "we're a multicultural society," and attacking bus drivers surely plays an important role in certain cultures even if it doesn't necessarily make sense to all of us. Last year when I was here there were several days of riots out in Macquarie Fields, a welfare suburb in the west of Sydney, sort of the Aussie equivalent of white trash and trailer park land. Some kids crashed into a tree and were killed while leading the police (okay, they occasionally do turn up) on a high speed chase in a stolen car. The "community" was outraged, dubbing the police "murderers" and claiming they had "no right" to hound those "innocent kids" to their death. I was quite flabbergasted to hear one local after another claim on TV that, "They weren't doing anything wrong, they were just having a bit of fun and/or trying to get somewhere in life," (if getting "somewhere in life" equates to "away from the police," I suppose they have a point).

I can't remember how it turned out, but I know at the time there was serious consideration given to ordering the police not to pursue cars that tried to escape at high speed, which of course would have meant that soon only a real mug would ever stop for the police. But after all, what are you gonna do, it's their culture, isn't it? Who are we to judge?

Greetings From Soggy, Grey Australia

"It is not enough that we succeed," Gore Vidal is supposed to have famously opined, "Others must also fail." Similarly, there's a part of us that is not content merely to be happy ourselves; we must know that somewhere others are miserable.

Or at least that's the only explanation I can come up with for my not being satisfied with lying on a sunny beach in Sydney while most people I know are struggling through a cold, snowy, Northern Hemisphere winter. Well, actually, I am rather satisfied; the only problem comes when I see they're having a warm (as in rising more than a few degrees above freezing) up in New York or London. Then I get almost indignant, as if to say, "What's the point of making the effort and spending the money to come down here if those people back home are lounging around in only two or three layers of clothing instead of shivering inside their fur-lined mukluks and mushing teams of huskies through the permafrost streets?"

Very churlish of me, I admit, and those of you unable to forgive such attitudes will be pleased to know that for two days now Sydney has been blanketed under a sodden mass of cloud that occasionally unleashes, well, not quite proper rain, but enough moisture to make walking unpleasant and the playing of cricket (the international Test match between Australia and South Africa is presently unfolding, or, not, as the case happens, at the Sydney Cricket Ground) impossible.

And it's chilly, too, a mere 22 degrees Celsius (72F), which is not exactly igloo weather, but not quite the best of beach weather, either. Nevertheless, we went to the beach yesterday anyway, not, as it turned out, to swim. This was a proper ocean beach, not a wussy Harbour beach, and the waves were bigger than I was. What's more, there was a chilly wind blowing from the general direction of Antarctica. The water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature, and all the little children happily jumped right in, but I also remembered that when we were here on this same beach last year, not five minutes after I revealed my concern about shark attacks and was loudly pooh-poohed for it, a siren sounded a shark alert, everyone came running out of the water, and the lifeguards went charging out in their little rubber boats to chsse the sharks away. Why the sharks didn't simply bite holes in the boats was never explained to me.

Ah well, it was a beautiful day at the beach anyway, and at least I didn't get sunburned. We had lunch (yes, a barbecue, though I haven't yet heard anyone refer to it as a barbie) on the deck overlooking the ocean, and I photographed some rainbow-coloured parrots or somesuch that were just kind of lounging around on the railing, though I can't post the pictures here until I work out some technical difficulties. And we had a good chat about Australian politics, which unless you move in certain circles, is rare, since most Australians seem to know - or care - even less about Australian politics than I do. However, this was one of those certain circles, and I heard loads of excellent gossip and inside information, none of which, unfortunately, I'm free to post here. Good thing that about 99% of you couldn't care less anyway.

A Ghost From The Past

I've been single for so long that most people who know me can't imagine me any other way. But at my age, I've got more of a past than most people are capable of imagining, and the fact is that in the distant past there have been times when I was part of a couple, however tempestuously or tumultously so.

One of the most intense - and tempestuous and tumultuous - relationships I was ever involved in was with a guy called Tony. "A guy called Tony" makes him sound a bit like an auto mechanic or someone who runs a hot dog stand, but that wouldn't be an accurate picture at all. I always used to describe him as a skinnier, more animated version of Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant - he once went through a period where he refused to comb or brush his hair for the better part of two years, and it congealed into a similar form of white boy dreadlocks that whirled about as he danced- but thinking back on the first time I saw him, I realized that who he really reminded me of was the god Mercury, as pictured on the old American dime, which many of you are probably too young ever to have seen. Maybe it was the way he moved through the crowd - like quicksilver, I remember telling someone - or maybe it was his facility for communication, which is the nicest possible way I can think of to say that he rarely if ever shut up.

He had a dazzling smile that easily lit up the most dismal of rooms, and its lustre was barely dimmed for me when he revealed that he had spent most of his high school years - when he was lonely, overweight, and self-hating - in front of the bathroom mirror practicing how to smile and how to look interested. By the time I met him at age 19, he was the skinniest, most outgoing, most popular guy in our little small town crowd, and, at least in my mind, far and away the best looking.

Our relationship was never the most successful. I wasn't really his type and only convinced him to go out with me by sheer force of will and persistence, and I was such an insecure yet arrogant mass of confusion and megalomania that I often wonder how anyone could have put up with me for five minutes, let alone an entire year. But we had our good times, and a few harrowing adventures, too, like the time the scary drug dealer broke into the room we had just vacated and left a note pinned to a wall with a knife reading, "Larry and Tony, I'll get you if it's the last thing I ever do." But that's another story, and, so far at least, he hasn't.

We got together in April of 1972 in Ann Arbor and broke up almost exactly a year later in San Francisco, and in some ways, I suppose, I never got over it. It was my first great heartbreak, and, like your first love, it's the one that really counts for the rest of your life. But after a year or two of awkwardness occasionally interrupted by overt hostility, we became friends again, and were even non-romantic roommates for a couple years. Then I got involved with Anne and moved away to the country, and through the early 80s would only see him once or twice a year when Anne and I would come down to the city and smoke some pot with him (I forgot that part about Tony: he was so hyperactive that half a dozen sinsemilla joints, enough to render a normal person comatose if not dead, would only serve to slow him down to normal speed, and I exaggerate only slightly, if at all).

After Anne and I broke up, I stayed up in the mountains by myself for a couple years, and when I finally came back to the city, I ran into Tony on Castro Street. He was heavier now, not at all fat, but solid. And he had one of those clone moustaches that had become all the rage in the 70s, but were becoming a little passe by the late 80s. I no longer found him attractive at all, but I was no less excited to see him. But he seemed positively distant, almost cold. I tried to tell him about what I was up to, my new band, the magazine I was publishing, my revived interest in punk rock, but he acted as if I were some annoying little child, and seemed like he couldn't wait to get away from me. That happened twice more in the following year, but even when I asked him, "Tony, is something wrong? Are you mad at me?" he just said, "No," and rushed off.

Somebody who knew him told me he'd heard a rumour that Tony was taking care of someone who had AIDS, and that the resulting stress might explain why he'd been so brusqe. And that made sense: two of the times I'd run into him, Tony had been with an older-looking man who he hadn't bothered to introduce, but who hadn't appeared at all well. But I never got a chance to ask Tony if that were the case, because I never saw him again.

I tried to find him, but he seemed to have disappeared. Periodically over the years I'd check directory information, and when the internet came along, I'd do searches, but nothing ever came up. That seemed especially strange, because when I'd last seen him Tony was just finishing his Ph.D. at Berkeley - despite having dropped out of the University of Michigan at my behest so we could run off to California and be gay hippies - and was starting a career in education. Being that almost everyone these days ends up with a few Google notations, I couldn't understand how someone so bright - he had an IQ of 165, his mother frequently reminded me - and with so much energy hadn't made more of a mark for himself.

Then, just before Christmas this year, evidently in a bit of a sombre mood, I was doing a computer search of Alameda County death records - why? I honestly can't remember, but it must have been important at the time - and there he was: beautiful, bright young Tony, had been dead for a full 13 years. Dying at the time he did, and at the age he was, one almost has to presume it was AIDS, but there was no indication given on the death record, and I suppose it could just as well have been a car crash or any number of other things. What seemed important to me now was not how, but why he had died when he had, and how someone who had once been so huge a part of my life had left so slight a hole in it that 13 years could go by without my even knowing.

I thought too about his mother: a stolid, stern, but very loving woman who had raised him as a single parent, somehow managing, between welfare and minimum wage jobs, to get him halfway though the University of Michigan (before I came along to bollox things up), and, with no other children or relatives, had devoted most of her life to her golden boy. She'd followed him out to San Francisco, doted on his progress, and I wondered what life had become for her with him gone.

And I wondered, too, how someone with so much promise, so much energy and enthusiasm for life, could just disappear, all that work and all that living and all those dreams just dumped unceremoniously into a hole in the ground. And I especially wondered, as I suppose everyone does from time to time: why him and not me? What have I done - or what might I do someday - that makes my life more worthy of preserving than that of Tony, or any of the hundreds, thousands, millions of people who've passed on while I've been bumbling my way through what often seems like the most mundane of existences?

Well, it's not the sort of question that's likely to be answered, at least not in this lifetime, and it's likely to produce little more than a sore head and a shamed conscience if pursued too persistently. Besides, my particular spiritual outlook tells me there's no point in questioning, that the only appropriate response is one of acceptance, of gratitude, and of determination, for however long I might happen to walk the earth, to make my life shine all the more brightly in homage to all of those who can shine no more.