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5 Jun

O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you.
She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore-finger of an alderman,
Drawn with a team of little atomies
Athwart men’s noses as they lie asleep;
Her wagon-spokes made of long spinners’ legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
The traces of the smallest spider’s web,
The collars of the moonshine’s wat’ry beams,
Her whip of cricket’s bone; the lash of film;
Her waggoner a small grey-coated gnat,
Not half so big as a round little worm
Pricked from the lazy finger of a maid:
Her chariot is an empty hazelnut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

And in this state she gallops night by night
Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;

O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
Then dreams, he of another benefice:
Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
And sleeps again. This is that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes:
This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
That presses them and learns them first to bear,
Making them women of good carriage:
This is she—

William Shakespeare
Romeo and Juliet
Act One; scene four.



25 Nov

“The Night”, 1918-19
Max Beckmann (1884-1950)

It was a long time before anyone heard a thing in the place. One of those life’s pauses incalculable in retrospect that take seconds to pass. When the silence was finally broken it was the sound of a chair scraping. Who’s no-one cared to contemplate.

“Well that’s different,” Gij said finally. Nervous giggle. “You think he’s alright? Maybe someone should go after him.

“Leave him alone” said Heidi. “You know he’s never lost a game in here?” she addressed the stranger adding a sarcastic ‘Barry’.

“No.”, said the stranger, “I know he owes me two-hundred and fifty bucks.”

“Well there’s the door,” Heidi pointed.

The stranger leaned back in his seat as if to rise.

“I wouldn’t go out there mate”, said Gij, “Claude’s hard, you’ll regret it.”

“I wasn’t going to,” said the stranger.

The door opened and Claude walked in, quiet. The stranger looked up at him as he walked over and stood above him. There was a beat or two when nothing was said and then Claude inhaled taking out his wallet, withdrawing two hundred-dollar notes and a fifty. “Good game,” he said, handing over the notes, no feeling, . “Nice trick with the clock, have to watch that.” The stranger took the notes and didn’t say anything.

“Another drink mate?” said Zach. “Let’s have a round of shots on me.”

“Shots? Nah.” Claude said. “I reckon it’s homeways for me now. Might stay in for a while.” He bent down, pulled his backpack over his shoulder, turned and walked to the door, leaving without making a sound.

“Let’s have a round of shots.” Zach reiterated without much enthusiasm still reaching for the bottle. He set five short glasses on the bar and filled them to the lip with with Sherman T Cooper. They crowded ’round them, looking at each other over as if for permission. Together they knocked them back. Zach poured again.

“Gotta say that was different”, he said.

“Yeah.” Gij’s chorus, “That was wicked! I never thought I’d see anyone beat Claude.”

“His pride will be wound,” said the guy in the beret, his first words all night. His voice was squeaky. “I ham Milič.” He held his hand out to the stranger who took it indifferently. “Do you know the work of Arshille Gorky. I ham off his School.” He reached in and withdrew a shabby, dirt-stained envelope from his coat and started putting A5 cards on the table. They were hand-painted abstract shapes in blue and red. “Is original work,” said Milič, “I sell. Five dollar.”

The stranger sipped some more bourbon and took one of the cards, flipped it over, inspecting it as if for engine trouble. “Yeah alright”, he said. He handed over five bucks and the guy in the beret ordered another beer hastily swallowing his second free bourbon. The stranger downed his bourbon. “Interesting night.”

“You know Claude really has never lost a game,” Heidi said. “He’s a serious guy. He used to be on the docks, yeah?” He could bury you.

“That a fact?” asked the stranger.

“Yeah, that’s a fact.”

“You a friend of his?”

“I see him in here most nights.”

“You fuck him?”

“You could become really unpopular here pretty fast.. ‘Barry'”

“Yeah. Figures,” the stranger said as if that was his story so far. “You have a pen?” he asked Gij.

“Yeah” she gave him one.

“You didn’t answer the question,” said the stranger, writing. “You fuck him?”

“I’ll fuck you in a minute,” Heidi snapped, holding up her glass. “With the broken end of this!”

“Ooo wee; hard birch ain’t cha?”

“Try it fuckface. I didn’t like you one bit when you walked in here and I like you a whole lot less now. Go and look for fresh necks to bite somewhere else, ‘ey? Everyone here’s bled out already”

“Easy sister,” said Zach softly.

“Fuck off Zach! The dude’s a showpony, Class-A – Arsehole!”

“You fuckin’ him as well?” said the stranger.

“Oi!” Zach’s turn to get irate, “This is my bar pal. Drink up and just fuck off, okay. We don’t want it to get ugly do we.”

“Got ugly a long time before I arrived didn’t it,” said the stranger.

“What’s your problem arsehole,” Heidi’s composure long gone. “You come in here and I’m not interested so you’ve gotta be a total prick, you’ve got problems.”

“You? Be serious for a minute.”

“Right.” Zach cuts in, “Drink it and out. You’ve got 60 seconds.”

“Plenty of time,” the stranger emptied his glass and stood up. He walked over to the bar and slipped the beret guy’s card into Gij’s hand, went back to his seat and picked up his coat. Zach looked at Gij nervously, she was glued to whatever the stranger had written on the back of the card. The stranger put his coat on and tossed some coins on the bar by way of a tip. He slipped a twenty dollar note to the guy with the beret. “Like your stuff, comes in handy. I’ll have another four.” The guy with the beret took out his grubby envelope and started to place the stuff on the bar. “Any four, ” said the stranger. “The first four – there.” He picked four up and walked to the door slipping out past a crowd of kids coming in.

Suddenly the place was an explosion of noise. “Zach!” cried the leader of the new crew.


“Zach, Zach, Zach,” the chorus of funsters went. We want beer Zach.

“Beer? Sure. Gij?” said Zach, putting on his best fake party grin. “Gij?” Gij didn’t look up from the card. And she was reaching for her bag, her coat. “Gij we got customers,” Zach was taking beret guy’s money and handing him a beer. The funsters were all at the bar, rowdy, oblivious to whatever pain was being felt in the room. “Gij?”

Gij looked at Zach finally, briefly. She shrugged and tilted her head. Her eyes full of pity and resignation. “I gotta go.”

“The place just filled up! You’re working.” Zach’s tone said he didn’t really care about the customers. He struggled to keep the desperate edge off the tone in his voice.

“Yeah?” Gij said sadly, “Yeah. I’ve been thinking it’s time I… y’know. Moved on.” She headed for the door.

“You leave and you do move on,” said Zach.

“Yeah well….” Gij was out the door already waving wait for me down the street.

It was quiet then. The funsters had turned sombre. Heidi just gazed at the record collection her eyes misted over with something long ignored but never quite gone. Zach just stared at his boots. The guy in the beret sucked at his beer twitchy, checking out the kids for possible art-loving marks. Zach snapped out of it, shrugged. The shrug was more like a sob. He walked over to the turntable and flipped down a record from the shelf, out the plastic sleeve, on the rubber wheel: the tune opened – the appregio riff of “Gimme Shelter”. Ominous Then he counted the kids at the bar – six.

He set up ten shot glasses and brought down the cheaper whiskey bottle. Ten glasses, one each and two for him. Charlie Watt’s drums started in, Bill Wyman’s bass. The music drowned all feeling in the room save that of the need to move to a beat. The Blue Ruin, two o’ clock in the morning. Just another night in their weathered lives. Some places they probably tell the story about the guy they never saw again, but not here.


18 Nov



“What do I call ya?” Claude said, setting up the board.

The stranger smiled as if about to tell his favourite joke. He said, “Call me the Kid.”

“The Kid? Bullshit! What’s your name?”

The stranger nodded in Heidi’s direction. “She says she doesn’t wanna know it. Just trying to be considerate.”

“Uh-uh. Not ‘The Kid’ yeah?”, Claude shook his head, serious. “Can’t stand dickhead names like that. Years of ’em. Had a gutful of ’em. Years.”

“C’arn Claude,” Heidi cut in. “You’re every night in a bar serviced by Gidget Moondoggie.” The Stranger suppressed a laugh.

“Gij gets away with it. She’s young and stupid and drop dead. And we call her Gij. This bloke here? Nuh.”

“Sorry if you don’t like the name mate.” said the Stranger. “I just don’t have much imagination.”

“Hah!” Heidi went back to her drink.

Drinks were ordered, and the game began with the stranger winning the toss. He picked black. The drinks arrived while the players set up their defense formations. Diagonal pawns each.

“Right,” Claude said. “You’re name’s Barry”,

“Barry it is,” the affable reply.

Fifteen minutes later the battle swinging and blood drawn. Alongside the board stood two black bishops, a rook, sundry pawns and a knight. All black. Three white pawns, and two white members of the major arcana stood on the other side. ‘Barry’ had two empty whiskey glasses keeping them company. A third glass, full, sat next to the bunch.

“Have you lost yet?” said Heidi.

“No.” said ‘Barry’.

“Well let me know when it happens.”

There was a long pause as the new fish contemplated the spread on the board. It resembled an ambush. Claude moved his bishop. One step away from checkmate. It seemed over. ‘Barry’ looked up at Claude and said, “I think we should play the rest of the game by the clock, say 15 seconds?”

Claude didn’t respond, he just looked at the guy as if he was bound for self-destruction and there was nothing no-one could do about it, what a waste etcetera.

“You do have a clock yeah?”

“Yeah. I don’t use it in here,” Claude said. “My friend’d use up all his time by the second move.”

“Well? Is there a problem?”

Claude reach down and unzipped the side pocket of the backpack sitting by his feet. He took out the small double-clock and wound it for 15 seconds. He put it down. “Your move,” he said. He clicked the clock, ticking. The stranger looked at the board… 1,2,3,4,5 6 seconds; he moved some innocuous pawn nowhere. Click. Claude moves his Queen, Knight 5 check. Click. ‘Barry’ draws a forgotten rook out of some cluster of disaster on the 5th row and collects Claude’s queen!

Click, silence.

Claude’s game tocks out – 1 second,2. Three, four, five.. He moved his rook. ‘Barry’s’ knight took his bishop. Another pause 8,9,10. Claude brought out his other rook awkwardly positioning it for a strike it wouldn’t have time to make. ‘Barry’ did the same. Claude moved the knight close in, check. Four seconds left for the stranger; Claude, six. But he was stumped. The seconds bled out – three, two. He moved his king, it was all he could do. One second left for Claude. ‘Barry moved his rook to a position where it would be taken by either of two pawns. But it was check. Claude had one move left, and only two choices. ‘Barry’ still had time. There was some kind of feeling in the place, then, like in a big house where wars are declared; like the first visit to a loved one who’s terminal.

Claude sat like a rock, eyes on his king. The clocked buzzed. Time out. And for a moment everything was still as morning. And the next thing anyone knew the chess clock was exploding to fragments on the wall behind the stranger and Claude had woken up the city you never knew a man could roar ’til you heard it. And then Claude stood up like off to a job he hates and marched thru the door, closing it gently behind him.

Concludes next week.


11 Nov


Heidi threw her head back to laugh and you could see her beautiful milk-white throat. Gij couldn’t tell whether there was mockery in the mirth. “Did you ever change your name Heidi?” she asked.

“Nooooo!” Heidi shook her head emphatically as if it were a preposterous assertion and drained the rest of her Long Island Iced Tea wrattling the ice cubed water to request another. The night was parched, decalescent. Heidi felt the booze but her voice was always sharp. “Why would I change my name to ‘Heidi’?” Gij bore Heidi the timid respect of the fundamentally groundless for one who has perfected the art of keeping poker faces.

“I like Heidi, I think it’s a cool name.”

A cleaning truck passed by, throbbing hot light flickers thru the raindrops onto the blue walls. It was hammering now. On this night, she drank gin. The rain’s machine-gun thump became suddenly loud as the door opened. The man was a stranger, you could tell. He’d never been in the bar before but he’d been in others. It was his way by family and friends. Temporary and intense relations on a strictly first-name basis. In many bars, many people told stories about the guy they never saw again.

“Here’s a man who lives a life of danger, everywhere he goes, he stays – a stranger. Howdy stranger, mind if I smoke?”, Heidi mumbled this and then lit the fat Gitane waiting in the right-hand corner of her mouth without waiting for a response. The stranger sat next to her. Heidi raised her eyes to heaven and it was Zach alone who caught it, he smiled, tried to catch Heidi’s eyes but they were looking at the blue wall like a woman who just received bad news in test results. Zach’s smile sank slowly back into the mask he wore as Gij sauntered up to the stranger to take his order, giving him her dangerous kitten stare steadily. Zach’s face sank at the corners, his eyes washed with rejection.

“Hi.” Gij started wiping the bar, “what would you like?”

The stranger had a pale face and dark eyes of course, they always do. His hair was a chestnut brown made darker, slick from the rain. His lips were just this side of masculine and the eyes were were both innocent and evil. He spoke, soft and low but something in it threatened. It had some kind of accent, could’ve been from anywhere. Hasn’t decided yet, it said.

Gij wiped his edge of the bar, taking care not put the wet rag anywhere near Heidi. She bent forward slowing down across the stranger’s torso to the other. This practically obliged her targets to look down the front of her shirt. She liked to catch their eyes in the act and sometimes she’d smile, sometimes she’d drag the guy over broken glass. But when she looked up tonight the stranger was looking at Heidi.

“May I have a light?”

Heidi didn’t look at him she just reached over the bowl of Blue Ruin matchbooks and tossed one in front of him. Her Zippo lay on her cigarettes.

“Wet, isn’t it?” said the stranger to no-one in particular. He waved a finger at Gij who’d wiped her sulking way back in Zach’s direction. He caught her eye and ordered beer without speaking, lit a cigarette and sat smoking. The beer came and he passed over a large note using courtesy as a weapon. His ‘thank-you’ put others at his disposal and came them at bay. He turned around to the silent chess game behind.


Zach put another record on, Masgani’s Callaveria rustica. He poured himself a drink and sat watching the turntable. Gij started to clean the glasses. Nothing else moved except the white knight from the board, the drops of water on the window. The stranger’s eyes were fixed on the pieces. Claude had cleared the white pieces from the board. Only a few remained like scattered Spartans.

The guy with the beret hunkered down over the board examining the pieces as if about to draw them. He breathed in slow and held the air, adjusting his headgear, his head coming to rest as he contemplated the inevitable defeat like a puzzle that could be solved with adequate concentration. The stranger walked his beer over to the chess table and sat down uninvited.

“You should lay the king to rest, it’s over”

“He never gives up,” said Claude, his face budged into what might’ve been a grin if it had been allowed to live. The guy in the beret said nothing.

“Fancy a game after?”

If Claude heard you wouldn’t know. Heidi let a chuckle escape, it was too late to grab it and put it back in its place. The stranger turned to her.

“He’s good?”

“Yeah, no-one ever wins”

“I don’t mind losing.”

“Yeah I can tell.”

The stranger laughed, “I don’t think life is a game to be won or lost. I think it’s a series of experiences. I try and have interesting experiences.”

“What are you doing here then?”

“Hard aren’t you,” the stranger snapped back as if well-rehearsed, “the type that’s always hard on the outside”.

“And on the inside, even harder.” She lifted the toothpicked olives from her cocktail glass and drew them off with her teeth.

The guy in the beret moved his bishop across the board, check. Claude swept it off with an unseen knight. He still had his knights. The guy in the beret inhaled again and went back to meditation. The stranger moved back to his place at the bar and finished the beer, putting it down and searching for eye contact with Gij who was busy lifting Zach out of his sulk.

“Why are you here, then?” the stranger said. “So boring.”

“I didn’t say it was boring. It’s just not interesting but I like it here. I like its unreality.”


“Yeah, we’re not real people, we’re just characters in some hack screenwriter’s notes. The decor is mythological. And we’re all merely cliches.”

“I’m a cliche?”

“The original cliche, a strange man walks into a bar,” she stubbed out her cigarette. “Whatever you do don’t tell us your name. It’ll ruin it.”

“Maybe I should, I wouldn’t be a cliche then.”

“Oh yes you would,” she lit another. “The worst kind of cliche, the lonely guy who hasn’t anything better to do with his time or money then get drunk.”

“Harder on the inside ey?”


The stranger took out his wallet and drew out five $50 notes. He stood and walked over to the chess game. The guy in the beret still hadn’t moved. With precise decision he laid out the bills one by one. “These say I beat you next game.”



4 Nov



The guy who owned the place, Zack: the girlfriend half his age. She liked his stories of St Kilda back in the days when Roland S Howard and Mick Harvey were in a band; cocaine with James Freud (wanker). She liked his sense of humour. But she was growing weary of his fast greying skin, his weary spirit, his breathing in the mornings. The heavy weight of a life throttled by pleasure. Business Wednesday to Monday was good. Too good. Wall to wall wankers. Art crowd, hospitality people Wednesdays, Thursdays. Weekends crawled with yuppies from public relations snake-pits, magazines that ate the souls of their readers. Mondays the worst: undergraduates from the education precinct. Tuesday nights he liked. It was Tuesday tonight.

The girlfriend’s name was Gidget Moondoggie. No shit! She was born Tanya Parsoe but she changed it October before last. Her 18th birthday present to herself she tells the story. She liked to undulate her ivory statue arse at Zack when they were at it and use her name to coo with. Fuck me moon doggy. The pure pornography of feigned innocence. Zack was old enough to’ve had his sexual development warped by religion not pornography. She was the swan song of his wilderness and the petty humiliations and vacant romantic nonsense were a reasonable price to pay.

Gij, everyone called her Gij. She knew they would. At work Gij always wore the uniform: black jeans, black T-shirt, canvas shoes: black, white or red. When she wasn’t working she held court. The Blue Ruin princess. Her courtiers were all impeccable retro-designer drones. Her clique of sexy chicks assorted stylistically as to avoid direct competition and foster team spirit. Like the Spice Girls if Courtney Love was in them. No-one competed with her highness.

She was the reason her crew counted on table service when everyone else had to go to the bar. She was the reason that Gentle Tom the massive Maori door bastard would kick a six-figure coke-addled money-bleeding lush in the arse hard enough to send him to Sydney if it pleased her to shower the guy with insults deadly enough to make the blood drown his brains in anger. It pleased her more when he returned the favour with interest and got the boot for dessert.

Tonight there was no need to please the Infidel. Bill Withers piped from the tubes just below the staccato raindrops on the window. Dancing light against the glass cut across by the indigo silhouette painted on the outside. A pair of figures, male and female: he – a stretched out dude with a 50s quiff, crepes n’ drapes; she – all curves and tattoos. High heels and frills that shot out across her thighs forming an arrow that pointed to it. Heidi swayed slightly to the bass guitar’s little dance with the bongos. She got to swinging a little. This was one kind of song she really liked. A suicide song impossible to stay still for. She got to swinging a bit more. “Zach,” she says in that rare feminine deep tobacco-coated voice. “Turn this up.”

So Zach turns it up. Zach lets Gij get away with mass slaughter but he listens to Heidi. Zach and Heidi… well no-one talks about it. No-one knows about it. Zach’s oldest friends come in sometime by jet from other cities on the network. If they know her you can’t tell. Whatever happened was over a long time before Zach opened The Blue Ruin. Sometimes Heidi released some cryptic fragment of transient background imagery: That was Zach’s Carl Perkins psychabilly phase. Suede boots, paisley ties really wide. Zach never said anything about Heidi. Gij was afraid of Heidi. For one thing Heidi was the only person apart from Zach around that knew her real name was Tanya. Heidi was the one who set her straight.

“Gidget,” Heidi always called her Gidget, “The way to change your name is to change it. It doesn’t matter what your license says. It’s what you say it is that counts. Don’t give people a choice unless you want them to have one.” Gij never told anyone after that. Once her sister came in for a night and insisted on calling her Tanya stepping up the volume each time she did. They haven’t spoken since.

Heidi thought the name was stupid but had to give her marks for bombastic audacity if not taste. “It’s a name you don’t forget,” she says. “But the further north you get past 22 the more stupid it gonna sound. Just sayin’.”

“Oh. I worked that out ages ago.”


“Yeah, I’m going to change my name to something else for my 21st. I have a short-list.”



3 Nov


The place was called The Blue Ruin. The owner was a fan. He had a tube amplifier left over from a party he’d woken up after sometime back in his very own lost decade. There was a turntable, he was strict about vinyl. His girlfriend tended bar shooting fire-eyes across the counter at anyone who looked halfway living just to make the guy squirm. It surprised everyone that she did the job.

Down front: Claude from the docks played chess with a guy from Latvia who had a beret and a limp, made his whiskey money selling postcard-sized abstract art table to table. He’d tell anyone who’d listen ’bout the time he met Marc Chagall at the Bleecker St apartment of Lucian Carr’s ex-girlfriend. Claude left school when he was twelve and graduated from Maximum Security fifteen years later. They hadn’t caught him since. He learned chess from a Russian inside. He always won.

The counter ran down the length of the main room and turned a sharp corner colliding with the indigo wall covered in old black and white clippings from late ’70s fanzines, old David Bailey monographs. The stool at the corner had some faux gilt-edged rococo gold bullshit ’round the cushion. This was Heidi’s seat. She was here every night.

Heidi’s been here since the place opened twelve years before. Looked to be somewhere on the unpaved downhill road between 39 and 60. Two sharp creases cut diagonally from the powdered crevices around her nose to her jaw. Her skin looked like the sun-blasted skin of a long dead coyote in Arizona but she filled out her black silk dress like Veronica Lake. She smoked Gitanes, she drank Bushalls black label; every night she requested Diamanda Galas. If she ever had an opinion that wasn’t about the style of her life no-one knew it.

It was one of those nights that Hollywood hacks create on sets to illustrate scenes like this one. The sun had recovered as if from a king blow to the cranium and was fighting the wind for the top dog position. Screaming rain played atonal counter-point to the stereo like some rapid-fire snare drum after Tony the Mooch arrived with the bennies. Wind and rain were good for The Blue Ruin’s business, driving in random custom from the street. Many a regular started out that way. It was the perfect place for bad weather. But tonight there was just Heidi and Claude and the guy with the beret.

To be continued…


29 Oct

Listen to the intro:

So relaxed these days. I saw him. Once. I stayed out all night in the Queen St Mall with the bass player to get our tickets first. It was at the end of the six-week winter you get in Brizvegas. Different rules applied. There were people from school there. People I normally didn’t talk to much. Tonight we were all outed. Closet Bowie fans at Phil Collins High.

I was in love then. Across the concrete floor under the corrugated shed-like structure that sheltered the tuck shop. If she ever realized, I doubt it. She had brown eyes and red hair. Her name was Monica. Monica was a Bowie fan. I knew that much. But she wasn’t there that night. Her best friend was, much easier to talk to. Her name was Jennifer.

Jennifer, Jenny was in my vegetable maths class. The scholastic structure of Queensland, which was designed to ensure that one’s postcode was one’s destiny, required us to study six subjects in high school’s final years. But for some reason only five counted. Veggie maths, Social Maths was all about teaching boneheads to be numerate enough to pay the rent. For us Veggie Maths was time to do what we wanted. That’s why we took it.

The teacher knew this too. That’s why she taught it. Likewise, she did what she wanted to do. This was to go outside, smoke and gossip with the other Veggie Maths teacher. Inside what people wanted to do was crap on as well. I drew, mostly. But there were quite a few people going to the concert in the class. Not necessarily fans, but interested. And so the chatter turned to Bowie; the concert, his music, whether the new stuff sucked (yes). And so on to other stuff. This was the last year of school. A few months from graduation and I made some friends I’d soon never see again.

At the concert of course, the Veggie Maths Bowie Fan Club didn’t interact at all. The Breakfast Club rule of thumb upheld. Don’t embarrass your betters in public if you want private association to continue. Bass player was okay that night. We were almost friends. Afterwards in Veggie Maths the fan club reconvened. One dude was disappointed there were too many songs from Never Let Me Down. Jenny thought he was cold. But that’s what he does, I replied, he’s the Thin White Duke: Flashing no colour; tall in his room overlooking the ocean.

Keith Richards thinks Bowie’s all about the image, not about the music. Contrived. Well Richards hasn’t liked anything since 1966 except perhaps Amy Winehouse. But he has a point. Bowie came of age in the 60s. He started recording very young and went for years, all thru the fabulous London of that decade without really getting his sound. Without a hit. A lot of his tastes were unfashionable. He liked the British dance hall tradition. He liked jazz. He still thought suits were cool.

It was only after Altamont, after the euphoria broke on the shore, after things got dark again that he found his place. The 70s underground was a kick against the hippie ethos required all thru the 1960s. This backlash against optimism, against the hypocrisy of the hippie era started in New York in the elitist circles you might find at Max’s Kansas City and in London. During his brief hippie/folk phase he wrote the following counter-point to that era’s relentless optimism:

Where money stood
We planted seeds of rebirth
And stabbed the backs of fathers
Sons of dirt

Infiltrated business cesspools
Hating through Our sleeves
Yea, and We slit the Catholic throat
Stoned the poor on slogans such as

Wish You Could Hear
Love Is All We Need
Kick Out The Jams
Kick Out Your Mother
Cut Up Your Friend
Screw Up Your Brother or He’ll Get You In the End

And We Know the Flag of Love is from Above
And We Can Force You to Be Free
And We Can Force You to Believe

“Cygnet Committee”
David Bowie: Space Oddity, 1969

You start out thinking all you need is love and that the victory of flower power is inevitable but then the tanks and the guns and the grey men on TV come back and demonstrate otherwise. The hairy faces turn angry, the naked girls find themselves violated, the knives come out; beautiful people are as ugly as everyone else after all. If the Beatles were the minstrels of the age of Aquarius and the Rolling Stones heralded revolution Bowie provided the soundtrack to disillusion. Foretelling the punk-rock strategy “The Cygnet Committee” insults its own useless generation but concludes: “I want to believe there’s a light shining thru somehow”

Bowie’s angst-ridden soaring melodies, surreal cut-up lyrics and strange clashes of sound and theatre ruled the ‘serious’ pop music of the 1980s the way the Stones and the Beatles had dominated the 70s. As with the way of all decadence it didn’t last. Rolling Stone magazine’s spurious top one hundred albums list from the late 80s features several Bowie albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust coming in at #4, a few years back a similar list saw that album greatly demoted and the rest disappeared altogether. Fickle innit?

Me too. I went off Bowie after that. I enjoyed the concert more than most of ’em who knew only his stuff from Let’s Dance on. They weren’t all that fussed when he played “Time” or “White Light, White Heat”. They had no idea who the Velvet Underground were. They’d never heard of Iggy Pop. Didn’t know the history. I did which made the over-produced, underfelt schlock on Tonight and Never Let Me Down all the more disappointing. Something petered away and died after that. It was the terminus, the first of many in life. The death of the idol.

Eventually you return to the music you thought you dug in the days of brown coats and Nietzsche and it’s only then that you sort out the true loves from the mere infatuations. There’s a lot of stuff I listened to in those days that embarrasses me now. All that over-arty, synth-ridden, fake misery that swamped an era and’s been recycled lately along with John Hughes films and Ray Bans Wayfarers. But records like ‘Heroes’ and Scary Monsters and Super-Creeps I’ve returned to like old friends. I know every note and every word. I can hear things I didn’t before, embossed by experience like new lines on a long-familiar face seen for the first time since forever.