Saturday, September 24, 2011


Do you remember your first musical love? The other day I had my iPhone plugged into the stereo, set to play random songs out of my collection (always an interesting exercise - I honestly have no idea where half this stuff comes from), and the first warmly melancholic bars of The Church's "Disappear?"  rang out, sending me back twenty-odd years to the confused, unhappy, intensely lived summers of my youth. Steve Kilbey's lyrics seemed to summon up the exact mood:

Like a womb the night was all around
Someone somewhere must have talked some sense
I could feel it moving underground
So many things I still don't understand...

There are a few albums that epitomize those days: Suzanne Vega's first album; the last, self-destructing works of the Roger Waters-driven Pink Floyd; and The Church - anything and everything by The Church.  Those were records I must have spun literally thousands of times (my parents were remarkably stoic - I remember my father working at the dining table in industrial ear muffs, but he never said a word). I'd sit in the living room absorbed in every note, studying the lyrics like some sacred Vedic mantra.

"Disappear?" is from the The Church's strange failure of an album, Seance, which came out in 1983. The album cover shows an androgynous figure in lipstick and a white hood, holding some kind of metal flower. It's an image both stark and surreal, a perfect fit for the mood of the album. "Dark and cryptic" is the way Wikipedia describes the consensus opinion of the record. And yet if I was only allowed to hang onto ten albums to listen to for the rest of my life, I'd have to give serious consideration to including Seance among them.

Of course it's hard to separate the nostalgia of association from the merits of the music itself. The second track 'One Day', an anthem of hope clothed in a heavy downbeat, always makes me want to sing along at the top of my voice, and yet when I do, I realise that it has almost no melody - most of the song is sung on a single note. And yet it aches. Could  it just be the memory of my own ache, that bittersweet experience of being young and not knowing who you are yet, full of confusion and longing and the mystery of your future? Somehow I think not entirely, for most of the other music from that time has become unlistenable to me. Another record I thrashed to death - Pink Floyd's The Final Cut - now seems so full of anguish and self-pity that listening to it is like having my teeth drilled.

Sadly, Steve Kilbey himself came to disavow Seance as a flop. A friend of mine drunkenly questioned him about that one day after a gig, and Kilbey cut him dead with the arrogance he's well known for. You're a fan, you don't question Steve Kilbey. For all Kilbey's gifts, he's always given the impression of being one of those troubled people who is unable to escape the involuted torments of narcissism. The Church were often accused of pretentiousness, and there was always an edge of affectation that threatened to creep into their songs. To my mind the worst offender was guitarist Marty Wilson-Piper, who always seemed compelled to sing with an annoying Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Alice-Cooper accent. David Bowie did something similar and pulled it off as an act of theatre, but Wilson-Piper is no Bowie.

Affectation is of course the refuge of insecure creatives who seek to cover over their lack of real inspiration with a stylistic gimmick that is always guaranteed to fool a certain number of punters. It can also be an unfortunate habit of gifted artists like Kilbey who seek to compensate for a fundamental self-rejection by constructing for themselves a narcissistic image of their own genius. Affectation is an expression of the way they stand apart from themselves, fascinated by a performance in which they desperately hope to glimpse the image of someone other than themselves. Think Michael Jackson's creepy voice and reconstructed face, affectation as psychopathology.

There was nevertheless always a seed of real creativity underlying The Church's pretentions. Listen to the early single "Too Fast for You". It's a strange, psychedelic song with a truly different edge, even while one can discern distinct echoes of bands like The Cure. You can hear in it the original, exciting voice that would give birth to amazing songs like "Almost With You" - and that would sometimes devolve into a sort of tic, a style expressed in foppish mannerisms, lyrical obscurity and a precious and superior attitude.

It's when Kilbey drops the put-on self and just sings from an honest place that he shines, like in the lovely "Into My Hands" from the Remote Luxury EP, in which he sings joyfully, sadly and without artifice about love: "Some seek sleek and slithering charms/ Out of reach their grasping arms/ Our skin like milk, our breath of words/ Like happy, awful and absurd." And the last verse: "You know it's always out here in my head/ And stupid bloody things get said/ Then drifting on a summer pond/ I notice that my love has gone."

In my story 'Suburban Mystery' published in Meanjin a couple of years ago, I have the main character discovering The Church the way I did:

That summer I bought my first record, The Blurred Crusade by The Church. As I slipped it out of its sleeve onto the turntable for the first time, the light caught a line of handwriting—some impenetrable in-joke—inscribed in the smooth black vinyl inside the last song. That opaque, mystic scribble fascinated me: Steve Kilbey’s last elliptical utterance before the stylus spiralled into the black hole at the centre of the record. ‘Almost with You’ was my anthem. Its lush, anguished paisley-poetry made my soul bleed. When Steve Kilbey asked Can you taste their lonely arrogance? I wanted to shout: ‘Yes! Yes! I can!’ I understood nothing he said, but I could almost not bear the sorrow and longing when he sang, I’m almost with you, I can sense it wait for me. I’m almost with you. Is this the taste of victory?

I know I'll never experience that kind of enchantment by a record again, however much I may fall in love with a new artist I've discovered. Like first love, it's an experience that can't be repeated. For all his flaws, his "lonely arrogance", I owe Kilbey a huge debt of gratitude for that gift.

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