music

The (Less) Lost Legionnaire: Music, Family and Home

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Yesterday I came home.

Dispirited after a day at work, I’d put away my bike and plodded down the path to the front door of the house, where I was met by my seven-year-old daughter, who gripped me in a long hard hug.

‘Dad,’ she said. ‘Do you want to play duets?’

Hear ye, hear ye: music is one of the three best things. The symphony orchestra, for a start, is hard to top. Then there’s the piano, that band in a box, and my musical tube of choice, the trumpet, an ancient instrument first sounded by seven angels.

I’d wanted to be a musician ever since my tune-infested teens, when I dreamed of making sounds like those I struck in the symphonies of Sibelius and the songs of Led Zeppelin.

It was then, too, that I started to feel like a lost legionnaire – a solitary soul wandering the earth in search of home, a conscript separated from his comrades in the last great battle, a disastrous defeat. I’d felt alone and adrift ever since.

Well, less so now.

Yesterday, like Julius Caesar, who in 49 BC was neither lost nor a legionnaire, I crossed the rubicon, to the same sounding of trumpets that heralded the uncrowned king’s fateful deed.

The die was cast on the doorstep of my house, as I stood in the arms of my daughter.

’Sure,’ I said. ‘Let’s play duets.’

Soon we were tripping through our favourite tunes. Later my son joined us on trombone and we played music of my own making: a little trio called ‘The Lost Legionnaire’.

Hear ye, hear ye: never has this legionnaire been less lost.

In music the home key is the aural space to which sound gravitates. In life – in my life – the key to home is music. Music and the other two best things: my daughter and son.

Sound Remains (Communing With the Dead)

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Last night, in a tiny community hall in Hobart, a séance was held.

I was there, along with a few dozen others.

As we sat in a semi-circle, candles were lit. The lights were extinguished and, swathed in black, the medium swept in.

She took her place in silence. Eyes closed, she raised her arms and – voila! – contact was made.

For the next forty minutes I sat spellbound as the spirit of a man long-dead spoke to me from the past.

That man was Johann Sebastian Bach, musician and much-loved composer.

The medium, too, was musical. A fine violinist, she played Bach’s Second Partita from memory. It was an eerie, expressive performance.

In his day, Bach knew several languages, none of them mine. Last night, he spoke using the universal tongue: music. He bared his soul in sound and, wondrously, we heard every word.


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The Worrying Wind (And Music’s Sweet Air)

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It’s four in the morning and I should be asleep. But it’s windy outside so I’m not.

Lying here in my fretful bed, I’m reminded of the music of Walter Piston, whose sixth symphony has a questing restlessness reminiscent of the wind.

Despite his name, Piston’s music is anything but mechanical, which belies the fact he also wrote handbooks.

Orchestral music is the least ‘literary’ of the arts; even now I find it hard to put words to its sounds. And yet it was a work based on a play that first sucked me in: ‘The Tempest’ by Sibelius.

Shakespeare’s play has since become one of my favourites and it reminds me now – in my hour of need! – of music’s full power, of its ability to allay the fury of the elements with its ‘sweet air’ (I.II).

I think I’ll put on some Piston.

Only Words Remain: The Day My Music Died

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As the song-sheet of history shows, singers are silenced in curious ways. Some, like Jeff Buckley, fall from boats, while others fall down sets of stairs, Fritz Wunderlich-style. Then there are those who, like me, simply fall sick.

Mind you, it wasn’t the pox that bottled me up: it was something my medico said.

The visit started normally enough, with the doctor peering into my mouth and declaring I had a cold. But then the bombshell dropped. Giving my tender tonsils one last lingering look, she uttered two weighty words. ‘Unusual architecture,’ she said.

Come again?

‘It’s crowded in there,’ she added, by way of explanation, and with that our explosive encounter was over. I was left feeling lousy but enlightened: something suddenly made sense. I knew now why I sucked as a singer.

I’d been reminded of my vocal unloveliness while listening to a home recording a few days before. Revolted, as always, by my unrefined nasal whine, I pictured myself as a poor man’s Bob Dylan, all spit and no polish. The image was awful.

What had I been thinking when I’d first let my cords loose almost thirty years ago? That practice makes perfect, of course. That I could train my voice to sound so much better.

Wrong.

By inadvertently alerting me to my not-so-super inner structure, the doctor had cured me of my musical illusions. Clearly, the inside of my bonce wasn’t built for beauty. Nascent sounds need headspace: room to grow in richness and roundness; time to mature into a loftier kind of chamber music, a harmony of the sphere.

Anatomy, I decided, is destiny, so I sang no more.

. . . . .

Mine was a musical journey of discovery and self-delusion, a thirty-year odyssey encompassing shifting styles, identities and instruments, none of which I ever mastered or made my own. I played around but was never any good.

It started back in high school when, bored with maths, a mate and I conjured up the Stumpjump Ploughers, a sham country band whose singles – ‘River Full of Beer’ and ‘The Barnyard Blues’ – took our senior year by storm.

Emboldened by success, I moved on to the mouth trumpet. Jamming with cool cats in classrooms, I tried – and failed – to jazz up the campus.

Real trumpet soon followed, and I was quick to perfect a faulty technique. My signature sound – a kind of wavering bray – was captured on Foolhardy Adventures, an album produced by a real musician, my brother, which featured the playing of an unreal musician, my sister.

Musicianship, it seems, does not travel in threes.

Not-so-grand piano came next, and for a time I saw myself as Horowitz reborn. Alas, I was simply horriblowitz, despite my bumbling best efforts. Once, while ‘working’ at a boarding school, I made a desperate Liszt-like pact with the devil, whose short-lived support inspired me to write a wicked piano part for one of my brother’s best songs.

For a full five minutes I felt truly divine.

The guitar brought me back to earth; on its fretful board my fumbling fingers were never at home. And yet even I could string together a few basic chords, a fact that encouraged me to become a singer-songwriter of sorts.

I devised my debut offering, Climbing Falling Trees, in the early 1990s. It opened with ‘You’ll Get Hurt’, the first song I ever wrote and the only one to feature this head-turning refrain:

The time to look
Is the time to look the other way

Rounding out the almost-album was ‘Taking Care’, a song that serves up some of my tastiest lines.

There’s air enough for smoke rings and a last breath
He holds his nose and tries to live a slow death
Butter to hide the knife
Bread to burn his toast
Surely it’s here somewhere
Honey cut the other loaf

Impressed by my early efforts, I shelved plans for my symphonic masterwork, War Machine. Instead I practised playing my two songs right through, something I could rarely do.

History shows that my first album failed to get off the ground: those trees just kept on falling. And although I tried not to let the fiasco affect me, I was tongue-tied for a time. My voice returned in ’98, when I wrote a four-legged number known as ‘Hard Easy Chair’.

Just room in these boxes, a little despair
There’s a box in this room, but no hard easy chair

E7 to C7, if you don’t mind.

As the new millennium broke, I got bitten again by the song-writing bug. I’d moved to a small island and was feeling bigger and bolder. As if to prove the point, I dabbled in punk, forming Osterberg’s Angels one day before disbanding it the next.

Punk ain’t dead
It’s just got nothin’ to wear
Locked in the bathroom
Spikin’ its hair

Seeking something more serious, I then dreamed up an indie outfit called Ready Reckoner, whose first full-length offering I christened Nothin’ Adds Up.

Nothin’ adds up the way it should
But that don’t mean that nothin’ ain’t good

This almost-album featured three cracking tracks: ‘Solitary Confinement’, ‘Clocks Without Hands’ and ‘Just a Potato’. Another corker, ‘Truer Than the Truth’, cut to the core:

There is no mystery
Without false clues
The lies you tell about yourself
Are truer than the truth

And, yes, that was an FM7 chord in there.

Like all good lemons, I had a side project or three on the back-burner.

I used to think faith
Would set me free
That if I believed in God
He’d believe in Me

Bombadier blossomed briefly in 2015. ‘Interstellar Cinderella’, a song from the band’s one and only almost-album, Electrocutie, was fit for glory.

Interstellar Cinderella
Home at midnight
Out all day
Spreading herself
Across the Milky Way

Doubts, however, had begun to creep in.

We’re all stars in the making
With hearts made for breaking
The harder we try
The harder we’re faking

Finally, the deadweight of my delusions became too much to bear, and I caught a cold. I called in the doctor, who, as we’ve seen, dealt the deathblow to my musical dreams.

Happily, I only ever gave two performances, one at the outset, the other at the end.

In 1989, the Stumpjump Ploughers appeared in a busking competition. I played the lagerphone and we won best comic act. My last public showing took place in a church. Afterwards I was praised for the way I masked my mistakes.

Shadows, life disappearing
Substance swept away
Echoes, double dying
Silence here to stay

Although this wasn’t the song I sang as my last – I attempted another number instead – I wish now that it had been, if only because it seems so prescient.

For, as a real singer-songwriter, Peter Allen, sang,

All that’s left of the singer’s
All that’s left of the song

Of the sounds I made only words remain.

Teenage Me: Living for the Line Well-Sung

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There comes a time in a man’s life when he has to face facts: he’s a teenager and always will be. He ain’t never growin’ up, so he’d better get used to it.

For me, that time is now.

I’ve been back in the workforce for over a year now, you see. Long enough to be reminded that all the well-adjusted adults out there ain’t nothing of the kind. They’re selfish pricks, really, just like me.

So why bother trying to become Mr Maturity? Better to admit that all I’m interested in is ecstasy. And adulation. In music, I mean.

Because, for me, life lives not in a job well done but in a line well-sung. A line like the one from ‘Jeremy’, as belted out by Eddie Vedder: ‘Try to erase me from the black boar-oar-oard’.

Know what I mean?

Anyway, the time has come for me to return to my roots, stunted though they may be. That means more guitars, more songs, more singing, more stupidity.

As I’ve put it in a dodgy song-to-be:

The teenage twin I never had
Has come back,
And twice as bad.

Or, in the words of my new favourite singer, the late Gavin Clark of Clayhill:

How do I feel?
I embrace my destiny.
How do I feel?
I feel like me.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, you pricks!

Letting Yourself Go: How My Voice Went and Came Back

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Two years changed my life. The first was 1984, the year I lost my voice. I was twelve at the time, and on the cusp of adolescence. Things were going well. My family had moved to a small country town, where for the first time in my life I had enough freedom to flourish. My father was often away, so as his eldest son I grew in stature. I was popular at school and captain of my cricket team, and I even had a girlfriend of sorts.

Ironically, I also became one of the ‘voices’ of my school that year, being chosen to speak on some kind of recording – I can’t remember what. Boy, I wish I had that tape. Why? Because my fall soon followed, and I didn’t talk again for thirty years. Not freely, that is, not as ‘me’.

It was my own fault, I suppose. Instead of creating an imaginary world, as we usually did, a friend and I set about ‘reshaping’ a real one: a sewage works on the edge of town. Into the open tanks went sprinklers and rocks, on more than one occasion. Thus did we become vandals; thus were we caught and disgraced. Thus was I stripped of my new-found liberty and life, and of the town I loved. Thus did I drag myself back to that devil’s playground and try to drown myself in the muck. Thus did I fall silent, smothered by shit and shame.

Years later, I fictionalised my downfall in a story called ‘Adam and His Other’. It starts like this:

We begin and end with an image. A boy crouched on the edge of a tall concrete tank, staring at a face in the filthy water. His face. Overhead, the sky, faded and flat; close by, skirting the high chain-metal fence, a dusty track fringed by scrub. And silence, too, for nothing moves, not even the figure in the water. Yes, the boy above is no Narcissus; the face he beholds is not a reflection, but solid and real. Look closer. Study the looks on the faces. Are they not identical, like their features? There, around the eyes, shock and dismay; there, in the eyes, sadness and a shadow of hope. Now look down. Yes, the boy has his hands in the muck; yes, his hands are on the shoulders of the other. Effortlessly, the boy holds him under; effortlessly, one boy holds the other boy up.

2014. The second year that changed my life. Or will. Because a few months ago my voice came back, bursting up from below with astonishing clarity and force, like the unitary yowl of a newborn and its labouring host. How did it happen? Not through trying, oddly enough, but by letting go.

Since high school, I’ve been obsessed by two things: writing and singing. Both have been about recovery – I know that now. About recalling my voice and with it ‘me’. Thus I began book after book and took lesson after lesson; always, though, my voice – real or written – came out ugly and weak. The harder I tried, the worse it became, until something inside me gave up and gave. Only then did I let myself go.

Twelve years my recovery took. It started when I allowed myself be led to a quieter place, to live and work amongst people who like to listen. As I let myself speak, I found that my written voice grew louder. I produced articles, posters and displays at work, and I wrote children’s stories for magazines at home. I started to study again and, despite having failed before, I finally wrote my way through. Reflection, research and a receptive readership – all three things encouraged me to speak up. I graduated in April, a straight-A student.

This year, too, I ‘came out’ as a writer; I laid bare my literary persona by starting this blog, and I conceived a small writing business-to-be, my first. Slowly but steadily, I climbed out of the muck.

At the same time, my real voice grew stronger; by letting myself go, I grew into a man as well as a maker. The past eight years have seen me become a husband and father, and respect and responsibility have given me voice. Sure, arguing with my wife and yelling at the kids have loosened the cords, but only singing to and around my children has brought me release. The emotions my offspring invoke – all that agony and ecstasy – have filled me so full that I’ve come rushing to the surface, borne back to life on a sudden upsurge of song. Miraculously, my voice has regained its upper register, and with it me my higher self.

Of the songs that have served me well, ‘The Starting Line’ by Keane is special. I find the first two lines of its soaring chorus particularly ‘uplifting’:

Drag your heart up to the starting line
Forget the ghosts that make you old before your time

So, you see – 2014 has been a big year for me. By putting the ghosts behind me, I’ve made it back to the starting line. Now, of course, I’ve ‘got to get underway’, but that’s another story. What about you? What kind of year have you had? Go on – get in touch. Let yourself go.