The new book has a cover and a title and a release date and a playlist!

Dear the Internet,

As promised, the third book is done. DONE!

It’s called The Long and Winding Way To The Top: 50 (or so) Songs That Made Australia, it’s out November 28 through Allen & Unwin, and it’s the perfect Xmas present for literally everyone in your life for whom you can’t think of something better to buy.

And to get your appetite whet, most of the songs mentioned in the book are in this here Spotify playlist – most get a full chapter, some just get referenced in some detail and a few aren’t on Spotify, annoyingly enough – which should bring you no end of joy. Aside from the genuinely awful songs on it, and there are a few.

I’m really proud of it, and it contains at least one really solid joke about wedge tailed eagles. How many other books on Australian music can say the same?

And if it seems like a wild left-turn from the previous books, there’s a similar spirit in there. These are horribly divided and aggressive times, and I think there’s value in pausing every so often and reflecting on things we can be proud of as Australians – and nothing does that for me like Australian music.

I say this in the book, but if you want to know what Australia was like at any point in history, you could do worse than to look at the records that were being made at the time. So this is something of a cultural history of the last 60-something years, told in a typically rambling and unnecessarily footnote-heavy way*.

I’ll link to pre-orders and any upcoming launch events as things fall into place, but be assured: it’s definitely a real thing and it’ll be on shelves TERRIFYINGLY SOON.

Yours ever,

APS

*Yes, there are SO MANY FOOTNOTES. I think there are as many in this as were in the first two books combined. My next book will be NOTHING BUT FOOTNOTES.

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The stupid myth of “picking winners”

Dear the Internet,

This has been on my mind for a little bit, and then became a bit of a Facebook rant, and is now a blog post on the prestigious Internet – which I think these days is pretty much the entire writing process in a nutshell. And speaking of which…

Before finally accepting that putting words on pages in some sort of order was the main – or, to put it another way, only – skill for which anyone would ever pay me money, I tried my hand at a few other doomed career alternatives including such can’t-miss wealth creators as “indie rock bassist” and “inner-city stand up comedian”. And much as I failed at them – and failed hard, let’s be clear – they did teach me some valuable lessons about the process of doing stuff.

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

Just check out that exquisite COMMAND OF THE STAGE!, circa 2013

That method is incredibly straightforward, regardless of the medium, and boils down to this: try things and see what happens.

That’s because, much as we’d like to rely on our own unerring judgement and genius insight, discovering what works isn’t a process that one discovers by any other method than simply trying stuff out.

No band ever consciously sets out to suck, and no stand up ever aspires to be humiliated on stage. The only reliable way to test hypotheses like “this joke is hilarious!” or “this chorus totally rocks!” is to put them in front of an audience and assess the subsequent reactions.

Now, this all seems like an uncontroversial sort of an idea – but perhaps it’s not as widely understood as I’d assumed.

One of the ideas underpinning the continued funding of the CSIRO is that the body tasked with Australia’s most basic scientific research should “pick winners” – that is, concentrate on areas of research that will prove commercially lucrative – rather than dick about doing wasteful, naval gazing “basic research” like mapping genomes or trying to puzzle out dark energy.

The problem is that this idea of picking winners is complete and utter bullshit – and you don’t even need to be a vaccine chemist, crop geneticist or supernova astrophysicist to understand why.

As one particularly awful date once asked to me at the time, “why do you have jokes in your set that no-one laughs at? Why don’t you just have great jokes all the time, one after the other?”

And the answer was obvious: fake an emergency phone call and leave early. But the reason my set was part-killer-mostly-filler was partially because I was pretty lousy at stand up but mainly because there’s absolutely no way to know what jokes work until you tell ‘em.

The thing that seems like a knock-down universal truth in your own head may, in fact, be complete arse – as evidenced by the grim silence that followed quips like “Newtown is Sydney’s most misleadingly named suburb – I’ve lived there for over a year now and haven’t seen a single newt.”

Want more evidence? Ponder for a moment the songs that have been huge, worldwide hits and you’ll realise that most of the biggest sellers over time aren’t the mighty multiple-writer workshopped pop hits. A significant majority of global smashes have one thing in common: they’re generally really, really odd.

They appeared because an artist had an idea and just knocked it out, and then circumstance, timing and decent marketing did the rest. The sales job happened after the work was created, because no record company executive on the planet would ever start a meeting with “You know what would definitely sell millions of records worldwide for decades? A multi-section six minute operatic ballad with no chorus about a nihilistic murderer which vamps on figures from classical Italian commedia dell’arte and Arabic mythology!” And yet chances are you’re humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ even as you read this.

People with an idea about the market – one might call them “marketers” – are successful if they are able to see new developments or products and go “hey, this could be popular!” Starting from the premise “here’s a thing people like that they’d like again!” doesn’t get you the iPhone; that’s how you get the Zune (remember them?).

Indeed, the invention for which the CSIRO are most often praised – wifi – didn’t come about because the organisation realised there’d be a global market for wireless communication.

It was a weird byproduct of an ultimately unsuccessful experiment to detect the theorised explosions of mini-black holes, for which the organisation needed to develop a way of unscrambling the radiowaves that such explosions would hypothetically create. In so doing, they inadvertently created a method of “unsmearing” messy data transmissions which – after about a decade of development – turned into a commercial goldmine.

Starting point: explosions of black holes. End point: a worldwide patent.

Trying stuff out can be expensive and messy – you know, like life is in literally all other ways – but it’s also the only way to actually discover things. And if the government’s going to keep making noises about how Australia needs to be innovative and agile, the idea that Australia’s key public research body should sacrifice research in favour of marketing seems an odd one.

Of course, maybe these CSIRO cuts are the equivalent of trying out a joke about amphibians of the inner west and seeing the response.

If so, federal government, learn the lesson I did: if people stand there with their arms folded staring at you with blind, barely-contained hatred, perhaps you need to try something else.

Yours ever,

APS

The Magical Xmas Gift of André Rieu

Is there a term for a balding mullet? A bullet? A ballet? I bet there's a German word for it.

Is there a term for a balding mullet? A bullet? A ballet? I bet the Germans have a word for it.

Because it’s Xmas there is one artist that people are going to hear more than anyone else as they go about their day-to-day lives: André Rieu, the multi-platinum-selling superstar Dutch violinist and morning suit enthusiast whose compact discs are available in many of Australia’s most exclusive post offices.

And it’s easy to make fun of his sterile take on classical and popular music, but it’s important to recognise that he’s provided a valuable service to the global community.

See, I came to music very early. I was raised on the British Invasion artists that my parents adored – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, the Stones – with a little bit of Motown and Hendrix thrown in. I joined my school orchestra in year three, playing viola, and was thus exposed to the power and the majesty of the great classical composers.

By the time I hit double digits I was spending my pocket money almost exclusively on records, beginning an obsession with bands like the Smiths, the Cure, Models, New Order and Pet Shop Boys that has endured, with some fluctuations, to this day.

All of the most important moments of my life have been coloured by the music I was listening to at the time. Music has been my constant companion, my inspiration, my crutch and my salvation.

So André Rieu’s great lesson to us is this: music can also be cheesy and awful.

It’s so easy to forget that music can be vapid bullshit when you’re surrounded by almost a century of recorded works which are now more accessible than ever before; where you can dive into the works of Os Mutantes one moment and Gram Parsons the next, explore Bollywood superstar Asha Bhosle and then rummage through Chuck Berry’s greatest hits, devour this year’s glorious New Pornographers album and follow it with some of Yma Sumac’s inexplicable vocalisations.

With every culture on Earth creating its own astonishing music, and then cross-pollinating one another to create everything from amazing Thai beat combos to stuttering German hip-hop, one could easily spend a life exploring these endlessly fertile rivers without ever realising that music can also be stale, passionless and insipid, poisoning the soul and crushing the human spirit.

Rieu takes some of the most beautiful pieces ever created by humankind, from the liquid melodies of Handel to the sophisticated harmonic pop of ABBA, and renders them lifeless and dry, as if to say “all art is a pointless distraction from the ultimate embrace of the grave, mortals. Ever been lifted by the jubilant power of the Hallelujah Chorus, or moved by the desperation at the heart of ‘The Winner Takes It All’? Well, allow me to fix that for you.”

Like Michael Bay with cinema, EL James with literature or everyone at Rockstar Games that worked on Grand Theft Auto V, Rieu is a reminder of the power of an artist to drain all the wit, joy, skill and beauty from an art form, challenging others to ignore the limitless possibilities of the human imagination and focus instead on making as leaden and inept a work as possible.

And that, friends, is an Xmas gift that keeps on giving.

Kris Kristofferson interview

First published in Time Out, February 2014

The country and cinema legend looks back at his legacy

Let’s not mince words: Kris Kristofferson is an honest-to-god legend. The man is one of the great American country songwriters – ‘Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down’, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, ‘For the Good Times’ – and was one quarter of the outlaw country supergroup the Highwaymen, standing tall alongside Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

He’s also an accomplished actor, probably best known for starring roles in A Star Is Born and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He also has the peculiar honour of having starred in one of the most disastrous films of all time, the studio-killing 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate.

kris-kristoffersonIn 2013 he released his 21st album, Feeling Mortal: a typically wry album reflecting on his 77th year on the planet, and he’s coming to Australia for over twenty shows all over the country, including such non-traditional touring destinations as Rockhampton, Lismore and Renmark.

“I’m looking forward to the tour,” he chuckles in that immediately-familiar rasp. “I’ve been doing a film up here and I’m tired of it. I feel pretty lucky to make my living like this, but I really like the music part better than the movies.”

Most performers half Kristofferson’s age don’t do Autralian tour schedules this long, much less this extensive. “Well, I’m glad to be doing it!” he laughs. “I’ve always enjoyed playing in Australia: I’ve always felt a good connection with the audience for some reason.”

Feeling Mortal follows 2009’s equally strong Close to the Bone, and the recurring motifs of loss, mortality and experience make them seem almost of a piece.

“Well, ever since the first albums that I cut, I feel like it’s represented what I was going through at the time, and I think that’s why. I mean, I certainly feel mortal – if you don’t feel mortal when you’re 77, there’s something wrong.”

That being the case, what sort of person makes an entire album about feeling one’ s age, and then goes “…and so now for an extensive world tour where I perform night after night after night?”

“Yeah, but there are a lot worse ways to have to make a living, you know? It’s definitely the thing that comes the most natural to me.”

The sets naturally include his old classics, and Kristofferson feels absoutely fine about performing songs he wrote forty-odd years ago.

“I guess it’s kinda like your kids: once it’s yours, it’s yours,” he shrugs. “Songs like ‘…Bobby MaGee’ and ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ will always feel like my own.”

Sure, but every parent still has moments of feeling like “I love you, but I really don’t want to hang out with you right now”?

“No!” he laughs heartily. “But I tell you, my kids and I get along real good. I got eight of them and they are really easy to be around. When they’re together all I hear it laughter. It’s a blessing. And they’re all smarter than I am.”

That’s no small claim: Kristofferson was a Rhodes Scholar, before rising rapidly through the military as a pilot before music and acting caught his attention. The man has a brain on him.

“Yeah? Well, that’s kinda hard for me to believe too,” he laughs. “But I got no complaints.”

He’s pleased at the suggestion that Feeling Mortal is less a dark reflection on the proximity of the reaper and more of a wry celebration of a life well lived.

“I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s the way I feel. I really don’t think anything negative about gettin’ old. It happens to everybody,” he says, “and I’d rather get old than not.”

Which is a rare sort of attitude for someone in youth-obsessed industries like music and movies, but Kristofferson doesn’t sound like a man that gives much time to doubts.

“You know, I was never worried about whether I was like the other people or not. I’ve never felt any pressure to be as good as Johnny Cash, or Waylon or Willie – I used to just stand up there amazed to be on stage with them. And I feel that way about the films as well, and I have no idea why I didn’t have more doubt about whether I could do it. But it’s all worked out.”

Well, it appears that if it didn’t work out, there;d have been no hesitation in trying something else.

“Yeah, it’s true. Looking back, I was into football and boxing when I was at school, and that was what I could really lose myself in. And I don’t know how I could have been audacious enough to do either one: I wasn’t big and I wasn’t fast, but I still got to play and I think it was just – like the music – that my heart was in it. It’s like songwriting: I’m sure many people in the world thought I was crazy to go from being an army officer to being a studio janitor trying to be a songwriter, but I never questioned myself – and I’m glad I didn’t.”

Not even when making Heaven’s Gate?

“Well, I always thought it was a good film, but it didn’t last a week in the theatres. The critics gave it unfair reviews,” he shrugs. But look back at it now: great actors, great director. What an opportunity!”