25 January 2007

Australia Day: The Big Day Off

The unexpected highlight of the Spazzys' set at yesterday's Big Day Out turned out to be a guest appearance by lounge singer Kamahl, who, despite the fact that I'd never heard of him before, turns out to be something of a national icon.

As noted here the other day, the musical aspect of the Big Day Out had threatened to be overwhelmed by the organisers' attempt to either, depending on who you listened to, ban the Australian flag from the event, or "discourage" people from bringing flags and flag-bedecked items.

The reasoning was that in the wake of last year's Cronulla riots (pitched beachside battles between Anglo Aussies and Middle Eastern Muslim gangs), the flag had been used as a tool of abuse and divisiveness, with beer-soaked yobbos parading around demanding that random festival-goers kiss or otherwise show their "respect" for the national colours. This year's festival was also moved from its traditional Australia Day date in what sounded to me like a rather cringe-making attempt to "avoid offending" aboriginal peoples, for whom "Australia Day is really Invasion Day." I thought of conducting a random survey of local aboriginal people to see how they felt about this, but the only ones I could find were either planted face down in Oxford Street surrounded by empty bottles or screaming random insults at passersby, and anyway, what one rude wag referred to as "our local native vegetation" wouldn't qualify as a random sample anyway.

In any event, the outrage on the part of politicians, the tabloid press, and the usual rabble-rousers reached near apoplectic levels before Big Day Out organisers wisely fell on their swords and announced that of course they had never never meant to ban the Australian flag, that they in fact loved Australia, and wanted nothing more than for everyone to have a lovely time listening to music and being nice to one another. And despite the Big Day Out containing the largest collection of egregiously drunk Australians that I have ever seen in one place, it was almost completely peaceful and tranquil.

This of course could have had something to do with the bands, who with some exceptions were a rather uninspiring lot compared with some past festivals, and the absence of racial disharmony could have been affected by the fact that this was only one of the whitest crowds I have ever seen (one exception would be a street fair in Reykjavik, Iceland, but you'd need to remember that a "crowd" in Iceland could easily disappear into one of the side stands of Sydney's Olympic Stadium without even being noticed.

Apart from some of the service personnel and a few black performers from America and the UK (who I suppose count as a sort of service personnel themselves), the place was wall-to-wall white faces. You might be tempted to say, "Just like the rest of Australia, then," but that wouldn't be quite accurate; Australia has a large Asian and Middle Eastern population, but few of them were in evidence at yesterday's gig.

Anyway, before I get completely sidetracked, Kamahl's appearance with the Spazzys seemed to have been orchestrated to show that all was racially and patriotically harmonious once again in Big Day Out-land, though on the surface it appeared to develop naturally and organically. Kamahl sent a message to the Spazzys that he would like to do a guest appearance during their set, to which they promptly assented ("The man is a legend!"), and then he showed up at their dressing room practically oozing old-school charm, to work out a brief routine.

The Spazzys' biggest Australian hit to date has been a cover of the 1963 Angels' tune, "My Boyfriend's Back," so when drummer Ally Spazzy started the drum intro, she interrupted herself to say something about, "What happened to your boyfriend anyway?" That was followed by Lucy asking, "Wait, did you say your boyfriend's back or your boyfriend's black?" at which point the notably dark-skinned Kamahl, himself a Sri Lankan immigrant, strode out cracking jokes before reciting a patriotic paean to Australia and its people and then bursting into song with the evergreen "I Still Call Australia Home," setting off a gentle frenzy of flag-waving, crowd-swaying, and beer-soaked singing along. With all due respect to the Spazzys, he elicited a response that dwarfed their own, or that of almost any other band.

The Spazzys played fairly early in the afternoon, which meant that we had to be there fairly early in the morning (well, I call turning up for a rock festival at 10:30 am pretty early), which meant in turn that I had to be up at 7 am in order to get out to Spazzys HQ in the Inner West where we were to be picked up our limo (okay, our hired people carrier/minivan, but it did serve the same purpose). And by the time I strolled home from the afterparty, conveniently situated on Oxford Street, only three blocks from my house, it was, almost exactly as I predicted, about 2 am.

Of course I could have stayed out a lot longer, as the afterparty was barely getting going when I left, but most of the people I knew were either gone or comatose (another kind of gone, I guess), and given my temperament, I didn't feel inclined to go around chatting up random celebrities. My point, anyway, was that between the Spazzys' performance and the late-night/early morning dénouement, there was an awful lot of time to be filled.

Some of that, of course, could be occupied by watching other bands, but you'd be surprised (or maybe not) at how little interest bands have in watching other bands. Instead, they tend to congregate backstage playing the free video games, smoking, looking sullen and/or bored, or drinking themselves insensate in their dressing rooms or the (totally free) Tiki Bar, complete with flashing neon palm tree towering overhead.

Of course the Spazzys, being rather newer to all this rockstar-type glory, were a bit more adventurous, and attempted to make a tour of all the private bars (allegedly six in all) located on the ground. From some of them you could actually see and hear (though in a muffled roar sort of way) the events on the main stage, and it was from such a vantage point that I got to see part of My Chemical Romance's set. I know they get slagged off a lot, especially by older, more "serious" punk/alternative type fans, but I didn't think they were half bad. Definitely kid stuff, but so were Green Day and a bunch of other great bands once upon a time.

The singer is rather short, I discovered, but not Lily Allen short; that girl is absolutely tiny. Not when she gets up on stage, however; she absolutely commands the room, and of the various sets I saw, hers was definitely the best. I wasn't familiar with her music, apart from one video I saw the other night, and wanted to resist all the hype surrounding her, but it turns out she deserves every bit of it. And she's 21 bloody years old, on top of that! Arrrgh. When I was 21 I was lucky if I could find my way out the front door and down to the corner without getting arrested for general mopery.

Also saw a bit of Kasabian, who someone else correctly described as "another one of those NME bands," and while they're definitely talented and hard-working, a bit of a bore. And Peaches, backed up the "Herms" (as in "hermaphrodites), was a big hit with the Spazzys, but not yours truly. She was loud, brash, aggressive and confrontational, true, but if that girl can write a tune worth humming or remembering, she didn't bother to bring it along for yesterday's outing. It was all big beats and faux-cock rock guitar riffs, over which she hectored the crowd about some cause or viewpoint. Her lyrics are thoroughly sex-drenched, but the overall effect is utterly unsexy. More like the opposite of sex, in fact; at least if I were about to embark some romantic encounter as someone slapped on a Peaches record, I suspect that would be the end of it then and there.

Let's see, did I see anyone else? Wanted to see the Killers, even though their singer's doofy moustache has been replaced by an even doofier gay beard, but that was the hour that everyone went up to the catering tent for our free dinner, and I would have liked to check out The Streets, but he choose the same inconvenient hour to ply his wares. Mostly I either trailed along after the Spazzys or hung out backstage doing people-watching on my own. All those hours to kill (or savour, depending on your viewpoint) might help explain why alcohol flowed in such abundance, but even though I've spent considerable time among Aussies, I was newly flabbergasted by their capacity for getting though vast quantities of the stuff.

Out in the main arena, the biggest crowds apart from those watching the actual performances were the near-endless queues snaking toward the various beer and whiskey dispensaries. And those were the ones where you actually had to pay (and rather dearly, too) for your tipple of choice. Imagine how much more popular the backstage bar could have been, considering that they were serving everything for free, had not access been limited to those bearing the coveted Triple A (Access All Areas) pass.

It was not my first time backstage at one of these shindigs, but most of my previous experience has been in America or the UK, where a much more highly honed class system exists, i.e., no matter what kind of pass you have, there always seems to be some further wristband or star or doohickey required to gain entrance to the really rarefied areas. Not so in democratic Australia, though, where I was never challenged, no matter where I attempted to wander.

Our passes also got us into the afterparty, which was an even more ludicrous boozefest spread out over three floors of a Darlinghurst night club which actually looked rather elegant (though I suspect the very dim lighting had something to do with this), despite the hail of cigarette butts being crushed into the carpeting and drinks spilled into the velvet sofas (I finally found what started out to be a very comfortable seat but turned out to be a very damp one instead, and spent a few minutes wondering whether the moisture saturating my backside was really just an errant vodka tonic).

Getting to the afterparty was an adventure in itself, involving an hour-long journey-cum-bickerfest as our posse attempted to determine whether we were going to the "official" one in Darlinghurst, or the "secret" one, mainly for Aussie-based bands, in far-flung Annandale, along with several stops to reconnoiter, purchase cigarettes, and argue without being distracted by the movement of a vehicle. At the height (or depth, depending on your perspective) of this chaos, someone turned to me and asked, "At times like this do you ever find yourself feeling sorry you don't drink?" Um, not exactly, I replied, while politely trying not to break into hysterical laughter.

I will say this: even in my most hardcore drinking days I don't think I could have kept up with the Spazzys and their entourage. Seriously, as wonderful and warm and talented as they are, I find myself wondering at times whether they are possibly superhuman. There is no way most normal people could put down the amounts of booze those girls do and still be conscious, let alone more or less mobile. Hell, I don't think I could smoke the amount of cigarettes they do, even when I was a smoker, without passing out. Ah well, it's how the other half lives, I guess. Thank goodness they're willing to do it, because I'm sure not.

At the afterparty, there was a bit more of a class (or lack thereof) system; the third floor required you to show an AAA laminate as opposed to a lesser AAS (whatever that stood for), and shortly after I made my way up there, I was required to hand back my ticket to the magic kingdom to the tour manager, who would need it for the Spazzys' next Big Day Out appearance in Melbourne. Suddenly, like Superman strolling into a room lined with kryptonite, I was stripped of all my powers, and couldn't even leave the third floor for the second, where the music was "heaps better," according to the tour manager, because I wouldn't have been able to get back upstairs where most of my friends were.

So we hung about there, the number of Spazzys and Co. gradually dwindling until it was only Ally Spazzy and myself chatting to some members of Lily Allen's group. I complimented them on the afternoon's show, only to be told that it was the worst of the tour, and allowed one of them to explain to me why London was shit and how smart I was for leaving it. The party looked to be going on till dawn at least (I was thinking of strolling past this morning, half expecting Ally to still be propping up the bar and surrounded by half a dozen admirers), but as we know, I'm not a young man anymore (in fact, I'm pretty sure I was the oldest person there; one of the LAG guys was marvelling over some "old guy" who had reached the astounding age of 46.

Actually, that's not completely true; I was wide awake and reasonably full of energy, and if more people I knew had stuck around and the place hadn't been full of smoke, I might still be there myself. But I'd had enough, more or less, and wanted to be awake for at least part of Australia Day, which in fact I'm enjoying today, not, as most Australians are doing, by barbecuing, getting stewed, or hanging out down by the Harbour watching the boat races and general tomfoolery, but instead holed up in a hot internet cafe preparing this report for you, my faithful readers. Not that I'm looking for sympathy or anything, but if you want to take up a small collection...

Besides, I need to pace myself. Two of the Spazzys have already flown on to Melbourne, but Ally is still in town, and I'm expecting her to haul me off to another, slightly smaller (as in about 59,900 fewer people) rock show tonight, so the merriment and dissolution is not yet done with. So no "Big Day Off," as the Herald described today's holiday, for me. In fact, I just noticed beads of sweat collecting on my keyboard. Either they're raining down from my fevered brow, or the computer itself has started sweating. Whichever is the case, I think it's time to close up shop here and get out into some of that glorious Australian sunshine.


Anonymous said...

I love the objective journalism here.

"battles between Anglo 'Aussies' and Middle Eastern 'Muslim gangs.'"

Apparently, the Anglos engaged in violent conflict with Lebanese immigrants are simply loveable "Aussies," while the Lebanese immigrants, the majority of whom are actually Christians, are scary "Muslim gangs."

Leaving aside your dubious psychological framing of the issues as being between "Aussies" and "Muslim gangs," according to census data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2004, Lebanese Australians are, by religion, 43.0 % Catholic, 0.9 % Anglican, 11.8 % Other Christian, and 40.2 % Muslim (mainly Shi'a and Sunni).


Such is the prejudice and hostility (not to mention factual ignorance) which paints your perspective of these things.

Larry Livermore said...

The Anglo Aussies attacked in gangs and packs, too. Sorry if I wasn't even-handed about it. Neither side was exactly a credit to their race. However, from where I sit, "Aussie" does not connote lovability; it's just a short way of saying "Australian," and it's general practice here to shorten everything that can be shortened. In fact, I'm surprised that Muslims haven't become known as "Muzzies," and perhaps only aren't because it comes too close to "mozzies" (mosquitoes). However, "Lebs" and "wogs" are common usage, among Middle Easterners as well as Anglos.

On the other hand, it was fairly well-documented that the Middle Eastern gangs involved were largely Muslim. In fact one of the areas of conflict during the weeks leading up to the riots was the practice of Middle Eastern men insulting and assaulting women on the beach who, in their Muslim view, weren't "properly dressed" (i.e., they were wearing swimming suits or bikinis).

As for "prejudice and hostility and factual ignorance," are you writing from Australia? Have you actually ever been to Australia? If not, please don't purport to have some superior knowledge about what went on at Cronulla. Or, for that matter, what goes on here on a fairly frequent basis: just yesterday, for example, I witnessed a racist attack on the train. A gang of Middle Eastern teenagers/twenty-somethings threatened to beat up a couple of backpackers for no reason other than that they were white and/or looked at them in the wrong way. Australia's flirtation with "multiculturalism" has made this a routine occurrence. Not the fact that immigrants, including Muslims, are routinely welcomed into Australian society - they are - but that they are encouraged to a) maintain a separate identity; and b) cultivate and nurture an attitude of resentment.

Anonymous said...

Don't try to pull a fast one, Larry.

The objectionable part of your choice of words wasn't only that you called the Anglos "Aussies" and the Middle Easterners "Muslims" (even though they're mostly Christian).

It was that you described the Anglos involved in the violent altercations as mere "Aussies," and described the Middle Easterners involved in the very same altercations as gang members.

Do you think it's objective reporting of the facts to characterize fights which occur between two distinct groups of roughs as a conflict between ordinary "Aussies" and Middle Eastern "Muslim gangs?"

After all, there's plenty of well-documented cases of Aussie-on-Lebanese prejudice and violence, too. And unless you've actually counted which side has been bad to the other more times, I don't think you're justified in using derogatory adjectives to describe one party to the conflict but not the other.

Larry Livermore said...

The Middle Easterners involved in the Cronulla riots (those who participated actively in attacking Anglos, not those innocent ones who just happened to be in the area and were attacked by white racists) were Muslims, if not by practice, certainly by heritage. They were also largely gang members. The Anglo Aussies, though in many cases racist idiots, were not gang members, unless you count "beach bum" as a gang identity. Sorry, them's the facts.

You don't need to reiterate that many Lebanese Australians are Christian. I live with one, fer chrissake, and know several others. They were not participants in the riots, and generally have none too high an opinion of Middle Eastern Muslims (not only Lebanese; immigrants have been welcomed into Australia from every Middle Eastern country) who refuse to assimilate into Australia and instead express their "otherness" by gang-banging, race hatred and violence. And no, they'd don't think much of the whites down Cronulla way, either.