Way Out West is a column where Melbourne-based writer and cultural critic Sam West thinks (a lot) about music-related stuff, and life in general. The name of the column comes from an old trance song Sam likes. Read more Way Out West here.
I wake up at ten past four in the morning. I do this every weekday. The alarm shrieks once and I tap it dead. Then I lie there for a few seconds hating every decision I’ve ever made before ripping away the doona and feeling the cold air on my toes. I get dressed and fumble around in search of my beanie. I make coffee. I confuse the cat. Then I’m on my bike, riding to the Port Melbourne post depot on the other side of the city.
The Monday after the Courtney Barnett show I have a cold northerly at my back that’s pushing me up the Brunswick St hill. There’s no traffic rattling or crawling up the street, no one to fling a door into my path and send me swerving into a tram. So I pump harder on the pedals, past the empty bars, cafes, health food shops, record stores and headless mannequins. The city’s dead. Even the late-night pizza places have switched off their greasy heatlamps.
The green lights are kind at the top of Collins and I’m really going now, racing past the rough sleepers slumped under piles of sleeping bags in the glow of 7-Eleven. Down the Paris End: Ermenegildo Zegna, Giorgio Armani, Prada, Rolex, Hermes, Fendi, Harrold’s, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Dior. It’s a blur of well-spaced fonts, precious metals, and pure fabrics.
I take a sharp left on Swanston and speed past Flinders Street Station, over the bridge. By the time I wind along the Yarra, parallel to Crown, it feels like I’ve tricked my body with kinetic energy and caffeine.
Then the music starts.
At some stage, Crown convinced the council to let them link up speakers along this part of the river. Each morning they blast relentlessly upbeat music. At this hour, the only people who hear it look like compulsive gamblers. They sit on benches smoking ciggies and staring out at the dark, shimmering water. It’s kind of like how some train stations in the outer suburbs play classical music to try drive away drug addicts. At Crown, they’re luring revellers in with pop, hoping to convert passersby into gambling addicts. The songs are loudest when I ride past the The Gas Brigade, eight big blocks that look like the monoliths from 2001: Space Odyssey, only better, because they sometimes shoot balls of fire way up into the sky. The fire show never happens when I’m on my way to work. They save the spectacle for the times with high foot traffic. Down-on-their-luck gamblers only get the pop hits. Last Friday morning, as I rode past, they were playing a newish one by Katy Perry. The morning before that it was “On the Floor” by J-Lo & Pitbull. Right now it’s Kylie Minogue’s “Red Blooded Woman”. Which tells me it’s Monday. I know this because Crown set their pop playlist on an endless loop.
Sociologist Simon Frith says pop music has three social functions: it helps answer questions about our identity (i.e. music scenes can help define who we are and who we’re not); it gives us a way to manage the relationship between our public and private lives (i.e. it helps give young people the language to court each other); and it controls time, not just in the sense that big hits can shape popular memory, but also because music changes our perception of time. The music plays, our bodies move and time itself moves differently with it. Crown are clearly reaching for this time control function. They want the people wandering along this part of the river to lose themselves in the moment, to forget how long they’ve been there. So they’ve enlisted the help of bangers. It’s not quite the same as removing clocks from the pokies rooms, but it’s not completely different either.
I keep riding and Kylie’s helium-pop magic warps with echoes as I pass under a bridge. Then I’m out from under the bridge and the city opens up again. It’s all blue neons and sleeping skyscrapers glittering against dark water. With Kylie’s voice in my ears and endorphins in my veins, I even feel this tiny rare pang of national pride. This city is beautiful, Kylie is a global superstar (from Ramsay Street no less!) and I’m about to go to work for Australia Post. It’s a part-time service industry job where you get holiday pay, sick leave and superannuation. The customers like you because you see them every day and bring them packages. There’s also this vague sense of nobility about being a being there. It’s a 200 year-old organisation that connects the nation’s correspondence (and online shopping) rain, hail or shine. And my whole life I’ve been given the impression that anything that’s really old is also inherently good.
Aus Post are understandably keen to capitalise on this idea. On day one of training they give you a booklet with a brief overview of the company’s history. Australia is arid and huge, and posties have always gotten the job done. That’s partly because, as the booklet points out, they company’s been committed to diversity for a long time. After working there for almost three months, I can tell you this isn’t just corporate rhetoric. They like to think they’re a “microcosm of the nation”. And that’s got to be true to some extent. I usually start the day sorting the GPO Boxes next a woman named Mai Ling (“Get it? Mai ling,” she told me once, cackling.) Then I’m dividing up stacks of envelopes into metal frames. At the frames I’m flanked by an Indian-Australian, a Greek-Australian, and an American who’s about to sit her citizenship test. My team leader is a gay conservative and my manager is an old leftie/ex-roadie who told me he recently spent a few weeks off the grid in the Daintree. There are old people, young people, disabled people and trans people. We all work together in a big, harshly lit warehouse (probably well before you’re awake) to get the nation’s envelopes and packages to where they need to be. Queen Elizabeth II watches over the whole operation. There’s a poster of her plastered above my delivery manager’s desk. She’s wearing a classic lime-green outfit with a matching hat.
There’s this one story in the training booklet that’s stuck with me since orientation. It’s about the overland mail service between the Port Phillip District (Melbourne) and Sydney that started back in 1838. The booklet says in those early days, mailman John Conway Bourke would ride on horseback through the “rugged wilderness” from Melbourne to Yass in New South Wales. From there he’d exchange mail with a coach that had travelled down from Sydney. Apparently Bourke earned an honoured place in Australian postal history when he stripped to cross the flooded Murray River and, upon reaching the other side, was forced to climb a tree (with his mailbag) to escape a pack of “wild dogs”. When he was eventually found, he yelled: “Don’t fire! My name is Bourke. I am Her Majesty’s mail!”
I think part of the reason this story appeals to me is because I love Australian punk music. In 2008 a critic named John Encarnacao wrote an essay that asked what, if anything, defines Australian punk. He talked about class warfare, the role of minimal, abrasive sonics and punk in general as a “constantly self-renewing articulation of rock’n’roll’s original rebellious impulse”. He reckons it’s one thing to follow punk as a style. But it’s the artists who can tap into an outsider ethos who are the true punks. He thinks this is a particularly Australian impulse because we’re a society descended from convicts and migrants with no legitimate claim to the land. A nation of inherent outsiders. Encarnacao connects the legacy of The Saints, X, The Birthday Party and The Drones to this “notion of the outsider”. For him, this music connects back to an older Australian literary tradition, one where certain larrikins and no-hopers and oddballs opt out of family life, city life and the world of work. The characters in these books can’t handle these institutions (and the institutions can’t handle them). Instead these men (they’re almost always men) end up living uncomfortably close to other kinds of marginalised Australians: the mad, the criminals, the dispossessed.
To my mind, John Conway Bourke is a bit of a punk. He’s a worker but his version of work is to be a loner who spends too much time on his horse. If he has a family then he probably doesn’t connect with them in a deep way because he’s prepared to risk death by swimming through torrents of floodwater. This is pre-Gold Rush times so the guy was probably an ex-convict. Sure, when found he declares he’s “Her Majesty’s mail” (a very un-punk claim) but that’s because people were pointing guns at him and he was naked in a tree. He was improvising. Doing what it takes. The crucial thing for the purposes of the orientation booklet is he gets the job done. No excuses. Which means he’s the perfect myth for getting larrikins and oddballs out of bed. We can cope with the exhaustion and the anti-social hours of postie life by pretending a tiny thread of ourselves is entwined in some kind of Great Australian Outsider Legacy. We exist far enough outside the nine-to-five to trick ourselves into thinking we’ve set ourselves apart (but not far enough to be denied a regular paycheck and decent super). Or maybe that’s just me.
In the years just after “punk broke” I was spending alternate weekends living in St Kilda with my dad and brother. Sometimes we’d go on family walks along the esplanade and make up stories about how the cranes poking up from Port Melbourne docks were actually lounge chairs for giants.
"St Kilda residents, who probably produce some of the healthiest, raw organic poops in the city, can’t submerge themselves in the million-dollar views they’ve paid for. Which might be a sign that we’ll all end up splashing about in the same crap eventually."
The metal chairs are just cranes these days. I’m riding towards them right now, along the bike path that runs parallel to the 96 light rail, linking the Crown Casino to St Kilda and Port Melbourne. These cranes connect my city to the world of global exports and imports, an economy that’s designed to be unfair. This is a thing that some people believe requires a punk attitude to set straight. But back when punk broke my brother and I didn’t care about any of that. We’d gaze out at the cranes from the St Kilda breakwater and try and hit posts with rocks. I remember being warned about needles in the sand in back then. These days after a summer storm you have to look up the bacteria levels in the bay to check if it’s safe to swim, because the rain washes coffee lids, ciggie butts and various kinds of shit and piss into the bay. The irony is that St Kilda residents––who probably produce some of the healthiest, raw organic poops in the city––can’t submerge themselves in the million-dollar views they’ve paid for. Which might be a sign that we’ll all end up splashing about in the same crap eventually (punk or no punk). But probably not.
Sometimes on those family walks we’d end up wandering with dad past Cleve Gardens near Fitzroy Street. The toilet block there was painted red, yellow and black—Koori colours. There’d always be a group of ten or so First Nations people gathered there laughing and yarning. They called themselves Parkies. One day the Parkies were just gone and so was the toilet block—the Kennett Government knocked it down just in time for first Melbourne Grand Prix. This was around the same time he cut the ribbon to the Crown Casino.
A few years later, Cleve Gardens won official recognition as a Koori meeting place. It’s now listed on the Aboriginal Historic Places Register. The Port Phillip Council fixed a plaque there bearing symbols of the owners of the land, the Bunurong and Wurundjeri peoples. This plaque still rests under an old fig tree and is dedicated to the “chief of the Parkies” Robbie Hunter. Alma Roach, a self-described ‘old Parkie’ reportedly wept at the unveiling of Robbie’s plaque as the place was “reborn”. She told a journalist at the time: “this was my meeting ground for a long time… I will come here until the day I die. It’s sort of like a sacred ground to us.”
The fig tree, intentionally or not, feels significant. Adam and Eve grabbed at fig leaves to protect their modesty—God kicked them out of their garden and they just had to make do with their new reality. It’s hard to know if the council re-landscaped Cleve Gardens so Robbie Hunter’s plaque would rest under a symbol of colonial morality on purpose. But imagine they did. Imagine some Bible-savvy decision-maker on the council like 20 years ago was like “let’s fix this plaque right here” to teach those Parkies a lesson, Book of Genesis style. If you’ve grown up in Melbourne, it’s not that hard to imagine.
All I know is that that Cleve Garden’s has now been divided and subdivided almost out of existence. It’s just a triangular patch of gravel with some spikey tufts of foliage and an inconspicuous plaque shaded by a fig tree that’s wedged between two pedestrian crossings. It’s mostly used as a discreet corner for clubbers, backpackers and Weekend Warriors to vomit out bad party drugs on a Saturday night.
I know about this first hand. I’ve slumped under that fig tree myself, with my stomach churning and my head between my legs back when I used to go clubbing on Fitzroy Street. I’ve smelt the stale piss and Dominoes upchuck festering around Robbie Hunter’s memory. I remember getting unimpressed looks from the old rockers smoking outside Prince of Wales. To them, I was a pastel-clad trendy who couldn’t handle myself. These guys probably remembered when St Kilda was the epicentre for punk. Back when X and The Birthday Party were kicking holes in walls.
"The conversation has moved on from skinny white dudes with guitars. These days a doom-drone band like Divide and Dissolve can make the news by pissing on national monuments. "
But that’s John Encarnacao’s definition of Australian punk. The conversation has moved on from The Birthday Party and X, the skinny white dudes with guitars. These days a doom-drone band like Divide and Dissolve can make the news by pissing on national monuments. That’s punk. These days a folk-rocker named Courtney Barnett has been anointed as the new Kurt Cobain. That’s punk too. Or, at least, it’s ‘alt-rock’.
In 1979, Dick Hebdige predicted what would happen to grunge about two decades before it happened. He was writing about subcultures from London. Punk was happening all around him, tapping into the impotent rage of young people experiencing chronic unemployment and economic depression, and Dick saw groups of young people take safety pins meant for a baby's diaper (from the 'happy nuclear family' punks were rejecting) and “symbolically repossessing” them by sticking them through their ears. But the more he researched, the more he found that the protest was resolved on the “profoundly superficial” level of visual signposting.
Kurt Cobain was great at signposting his disdain. He once wore a “corporate magazines still suck” t-shirt to a Rolling Stone shoot. It helped sell a lot of magazines. It helped empower a generation with sneering skepticism. Which can only take you so far. Maybe now it’s obvious that it’s often the people with the least at stake who are the most skeptical of the power of signs. John Encarnacao seems to think there’s a difference between those who can perform punk style ‘just so’, and those can “musically embody the notion of the outsider”. But what’s the difference between ‘musical embodiment’ and style? What’s the difference between symbolic resistance and actual resistance?
I once asked Evelyn Ida Morris those questions. I wanted their opinion because in 2014 they’d helped create LISTEN, a group dedicated to diversifying Melbourne’s white-cis-male-dominated line-ups. LISTEN helped build a groundswell of feminist-minded acts. This new wave of punk energy had been galvanised, in part, by one of Evelyn’s Facebook posts, which criticised Noise in My Head, a book about Australian underground music featuring mostly white men. Evelyn called bullshit. Their follow-up piece in the The Lifted Brow said “subculture is supposed to provide an alternative to the stereotypes and conservative standards of mainstream society”. I thought that if LISTEN got traction through Facebook, that made it complicit in a capitalist system that co-opts resistance, commodifies it and sells it back to the kids. But Evelyn essentially told me to zoom out. They said “I think if that data gets co-opted then it's almost like feminism becomes a more global narrative, which is kind of a good thing.”
They went on to make a case for fluidity in the music scene. “It's almost like if you try to keep things the same for too long that's when they can become a commodity,” they explained. “If you start to create a formula for your music, for example, if there's a sound that’s shared by a lot of people that becomes a repeated formula. Then that will be commoditised because it's identifiable. So I think things need to remain fluid and be about intangible ideas as opposed to patterns or systems”.
Courtney Barnett, like Cobain, like Morris, tends to let people know that she’s uncomfortable with certain patterns and systems. On “Kim’s Caravan”, she sings “Don’t ask me what I really mean/ I am just a reflection/ of what you really wanna see/ so take what you want from me.” The song was recorded with some help from Drones’ guitarist Dan Luscombe. In the calm before the noise squall at the end, Courtney describes wandering alone along a beach on Port Phillip Island. She’s eating hot chips, noticing a dead seal and thinking about climate change. In the second verse Courtney sings about how the Great Barrier Reef “ain’t so great anymore”. Which is true. It was around 2014 when the bleaching events started making national headlines: the reef started floating in our phones like a diseased lung in a digital fish tank.
This line of thinking makes me want to take the day off work and listen to loud music. If it was warmer I’d go to the beach. And I’d lie my towel down comfortably (because there’s hardly any risk of needles in the sand). Maybe I’d get drunk and look at the cranes. I’d be smug about the fact I’m larrikin who’s spending the day refusing to deliver “Her Majesty’s mail.”
Back when I worked in Collingwood, a package from Courtney Barnett came in the mail and landed on my desk. Inside the box there were about ten copies of her second EP How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose. Each was signed <3 Courtney xx. My computer sucked in the CD and ripped the songs. I didn’t really give the EP too much more thought for a while. Dick Diver had released Calendar Days a few months earlier, so if I wanted to hear some mid-tempo jangle about sharehouse dysfunction, anxiety and alienation (packaged with wobbly hand-drawn cover art) I already had the perfect record for it. So I dumped most of her EPs into the office ‘promo pile’ and forgot about them. I’m glad I kept at least one. The black sharpie ink is pressed into the double-gate CD packaging: <3 Courtney xx. It’s handwriting of someone who’s now considered one of my generation’s greatest songwriters.
When I worked in Collingwood, our publisher would hustle jobs from property developers. Massive ones. The kinds that alter city skylines. Which, sure, work is work. But eventually it started to bother me, because you can often make more money from speculative buying and selling than renting a property out (as long you’re rich enough to play the game). So, in Melbourne, you end up in a situation where homeless communities are camping outside half-empty apartment blocks. (That’s partly why homelessness in Melbourne has risen by 71 per since 2014.)
"If you're a lower-income content maker writing for a city guide, you're gentrifying yourself out of your own neighbourhood while supporting the local scenes you love."
At the same time, my bosses would approach developers with our city guide readership stats as proof that they knew what made Melbourne so liveable. The developers would commission them to make a fun mini-guides to the Cultural Precincts being built under the developments: we’d recommend any bars, restaurants, record stores or coffee shops in the area. In a way, if you were a lower-income content maker (which is everyone, unless you’re a wealthy hobbyist or just dressing poor) writing for a city guide, you were gentrifying yourself out of your own neighbourhood while supporting the local scenes you loved. It’s ironic, but for a generation raised on irony, it’s business as usual.
The other day I listened to Calendar Days for the first time in a long time. I was sitting at the dining table with my housemate and her friend. Her friend had an eighteen month-old baby. We were all cooing because this baby was sucking on a piece of lemon. It was the first time she’d tasted something sour and she loved it. I played Calendar Days because it’s jangly and mellow, and the sun was out. There’s song at the end of Side A called “Two Year Lease,” where Steph Hughes sings about a letterbox that’s got a picture of “a cat playing cello” on it. The way she sings it you can almost see her at the windowsill with her chin resting on her forearms, breathing in the smell of an uncut front lawn, overhearing a conversation about her and the two-year lease. It’s like she doesn’t want to eavesdrop but she’s too stunned with anguish to move. At my dining room table, the baby squirmed and giggled. And I remembered how I have two jobs, and a lease, and I love where I live. But if they raise the rent I’m probably going to have to find a new home.
Dick Diver never went punk. They’re too lazy-sounding for that, and their brand of apathy started to seem less and less vital after Tony Abbott took power. Courtney, on the other hand, just got bigger and bigger. She clearly realised she was excellent at rocking out. Plus she wasn’t a band from an insular scene, she was a personality who could charm Ellen Degeneres one night and shake concert halls the next. Still, I’ve always prefered her slow-build folky numbers. The biggest sway-along moment at her Melbourne show at Festival Hall was during “Depreston.” Just like “Two Year Lease”, it’s a song about the estrangement you can feel when you’ve been priced out of a neighbourhood where you’ve built an identity. The crowd joined in as she sang “if you have a spare half million/ you can knock it down and start rebuilding.” Someone in front of me even held up a lighter while they swayed. I watched the flame and thought it was a bit of an ironic throwback, because it’s not cool to smoke anymore. And you certainly can’t smoke inside a venue. I thought, I bet that guy is a clever Melbourne music fan just like me. And I bet, just like me, he found the song ironic because developers just bought Festival Hall. They’re about to “knock it down and start rebuilding”.
It’s not like music fans will mourn the loss of Festy Hall too much. The sound was a bit shit and the space was awkward. If you got bad seats you’d be craning your neck around a corner to see. But it’s strange to think the place where I saw the Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Kings of Leon, Tame Impala, Them Crooked Vultures—only for John Paul Jones—The Strokes, and Flaming Lips is going to be demolished. Gone the way of the alt-rock monoculture.
And good riddance. The only people who miss the alt-rock monoculture tend to be people with opinions staler than a Tool hoodie and bong shed. If these bands tour again they’ll have to sell out Margaret Court Arena (which they won’t) or they’ll be playing on smaller festival stages. Meanwhile, the poorly-lit corner of West Melbourne where Festival Hall once stood will house gleaming stacks of apartments. Once the apartments are up, you can bet people will open cafes and bars and restaurants and record stores and fashion stores with headless mannequins in the windows. The bars will serve a range of local and international craft beers.
Once I arrive at work, I tie up my bike, swipe my ID card and and head to the GPO box sorting frames. Mai Ling is already manning the pigeon holes (she’s been sorting mail all through the night). I say hi and plug in a podcast. This week, it’s about whether or not Ashlee Simpson was overrated. Last Friday, it was an NPR program featuring Courtney Barnett. I was throwing envelopes into pigeon holes labeled ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’, and ANZ, and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. And I listened as people wrote into NPR telling Courtney how her music makes them feel. Listeners from over the world feel less alone when they hear her play. After the final email is read out to Courtney, a deep, folksy American voice took over and said: “The Lagunitas Brewing Company founder Tony McGee says that learning to brew craft beer took inspired amateurism: ‘ It’s like punk music. They just picked things up and they said if ‘I can make these things make noise, I can do it in rhythm and people will dance and we’ll fill up rooms with people who are as angry as we are…’ and so it was with craft brewing.’ To discover how music plays a part in more than just great beer at Lagunitas, visit lagunitas.com.”
I didn’t visit lagunitas.com, and I can’t listen to Courtney much anymore. She’s just, as she says, a reflection of what we want to see. But she’s not just that. She’s also an individual with her own subjectivity. Her personal dissonance helps people feel less alone (and it sells craft beer). Once Festival Hall is demolished, lots of people in the new apartments will be happy they have easy access to craft beer. They won’t have trouble finding it because someone will create a fun mini-guide to new the cultural precinct that’s being established. And if they ask me to help, I won’t say no. I’ll finish my postie shift and ride right on over along the Docklands bike path to West Melbourne, ready as over to make some fresh content. Because I need the money. Because there’s no saying when my rent will increase, or by how much.
Once the beer ad ended, I took out my headphones and went on my break. I sat with a Styrofoam cup full of Nescafe and opened a new tab on my phone to confirm my attendance at a punk show. The band I wanted to see is called Unsanitary Napkin. Their Facebook event says:
“Unsanitary Napkin are a furious anarcho-punk from Aotearoa New Zealand vomiting political rage like a sped-up Rudimentary Peni with the joyful energy of Devo and the anti-patriarchal vitriol of Emma Goldman. They are touring a brand new 7” called “Orgasmic Capitalism”. And are supported by UBIK and Exhaust World. Ten dollars/PWYC. All proceeds from this show will go to RISE: Refugee, Survivors and Ex-detainees. RISE is the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees. Visit riserefugee.org for more info. This event takes place on Wurundjeri land that was never ceded."
I clicked attending (safe in the knowledge it that my feed would see it and that those who, like me, mediate their lives through screens might never be able to distinguish the difference between symbolic resistance and actual resistance but know that there’s no point dwelling on it for too long because too much pondering doesn’t change shit.) Then, I put my phone back in my pocket and went back to sorting Her Majesty’s Mail. God save the Queen.
Sam West is a cultural critic and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.