Mid-20s Malaise

Struggling against the inevitable since 1986!

Supervixen

Shirley Manson is walking towards me.

Shirley Manson is walking towards me. My brain can barely process this fact. This woman, the striking singer in alt-rock outfit Garbage, adorned my school books, my bedroom walls, my fridge doors since I was 12 years old. I packed all my posters up when I finished university, but Manson and her bandmates – Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and super-producer Butch Vig, the man behind Nevermind – still have a special place in my heart and record collection.

So when Manson extends her hand and says “Hi, I’m Shirley”, I have to take a deep breath to prevent myself screaming “I KNOW, I LOVE YOU” at her.

After nearly 20 years in a consistently successful group, she could well be a bit of a diva. However, in interviews, she always seems thrilled and privileged to be in her position. After a seven year hiatus, the band released their fifth album, Not Your Kind of People, last year, and the band’s reasonable fears that their audience had forgotten them proved unfounded. In person, Manson is a delight. Sure, it’s her job to be personable in this pre-show meet-and-greet, but she goes beyond being polite and perfunctory. She tells us about the tour (this was their last night in Australia), the band’s upcoming plans, and so on. I wish I’d mentally prepared for it a little more like an interview – now I’m thinking, Guh, I’d love to know what her favourite Garbage b-side is – but I hadn’t wanted to make her feel like she was being grilled by a journalist. (We were ostensibly there as professional guests of the venue – this wasn’t a fan meet-and-greet.)

After five or so minutes of chatting, she signed our records and posed for a few cheeky photos (“You can ask me for more than a photo, baby” she joked, AND I DIED).

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

With the Queen of the Fucking Universe.

Not that it matters so much, but she’s also beautiful in person: taller than I expected (even accounting for her heels), great skin, a warm smile. She joked that a lady over 40 always wants the flash on, but she looks much younger than her 46 years. She did the rounds and we went to meet the boys. Duke was much chattier than he usually is, Butch was a mild-mannered but enthusiastic conversationalist, and Steve was very sweet but very shy – he was slowly moving away from us through the entire conversation until he was almost against the wall. Butch was looking for a Sharpie to sign our records with, and I mentioned that Shirley had walked off with mine. She heard from across the room and yelled “HEY!”, stuck her tongue out and pegged it at me, giving a big belly laugh as I flinched. Horsing around with Shirley Manson? How is this even happening?

Conventional wisdom says you should never meet your idols – one way or another, they’ll disappoint you. I’m thrilled I met mine – they couldn’t have been more pleasant. This was actually my third of four encounters with the band over the course of their tour, but it was certainly the most memorable. (An aside on the tour: the band nailed it. Shirley’s energy is incredible and her voice sounds better than ever.) I thought it would be hard to top the previous Wednesday’s experience: it was my birthday, and Garbage were playing in Melbourne, so of course I took myself down there as a birthday treat. By sheer chance, my friend Aaron was sitting next to Butch on the flight from Sydney to Melbourne, and Butch invited him (and, by extension, me) to the band’s soundcheck before the show. We waited outside the venue in the rain before being ushered inside where – holy shit – Garbage were standing on stage. Shirley chatted to us before playing a short set, even taking a few requests: she laughed when I requested Fix Me Now, a track that hasn’t been played live in over a decade, and jokingly told my friend Daniel to fuck off when he requested b-side Deadwood, but when Aaron requested Cup of Coffee, she said “Ooh yeah, I’d forgotten about that one”. They played the song for us in soundcheck, and again in their Melbourne and Sydney shows. After this incredible, intimate performance by my favourite band, they came down to say hello.

When it was my turn for a photo, I was too dumbstruck to speak, but forced my mouth to move. After apologising for gushing, I told them how much I loved their music, that I’d first heard them on my twelfth birthday and, what with that day being my twenty-seventh birthday, how special it was to meet them. (Yes, I was aware when saying all this that I had become a teenage girl.) Lo and fucking behold, Garbage then sang Happy Birthday to me.

I’ve got to say, I don’t envy the life of a touring rock star. You’ve always got to be prepared: Aaron ran into the band at Sydney airport, while I ran into Butch in Melbourne. Butch was super pleasant when I interrupted his coffee, and Shirley looked incredibly in her picture with Aaron, despite the early morning flight. But it shows, they’ve always got to be ready to run into an enthusiastic fan. The next week, when the band arrived at the after-party, they were swamped. Shirley spent half an hour posing for photos, and was pleasant and smiling the whole time. I was actually the second-last person to have a photo with her (couldn’t resist one more), and she still had the energy to exchange a few words and a smile. However, the entire time, she’d been slowly gravitating towards a roped-off area reserved for the band, and she never reached it. I guess she just decided to go up to bed and order room service before the 33 hour flight back to the States the next day. (They were flying home via Seoul – now that they’re not on a major label, it seems they’re more price-conscious.)

Also of note at the after party: they had deep-fried cheese. It was glorious.

As you may know, I’ve worked as a freelance music journalist for seven years, interviewing several of my musical idols, and even enjoying a casual friendship with some of them. Funnily enough, I just found a draft I wrote after I hung out with one of my favourite Sydney bands, Faker, after a preview of their then-upcoming album. I was a bit starstruck, but I now play Words With Friends with the guitarist, who’s a lovely chap, and sometimes run into the singer at the pub. I’m telling you this not to boast about my glamourous, celebrity-strewn lifestyle, but to demonstrate that I think I’m pretty impervious to the allure of celebrity.

That is demonstrably untrue when it comes to Garbage.

The reason I’m a music writer probably has a lot to do with Garbage. I’d “gotten into” music a few years before I heard them, – Alanis Morissette, No Doubt and, umm, The Corrs – but their music opened my ears to what one could do with a recording studio. I still remember hearing Supervixen for the first time, at a listening booth in HMV. The song opens with four seconds of discordant guitars and clattering drums, before dropping away to complete silence. No residual cymbal clash or feedback: silence. It was unnerving. I thought the playback was faulty until it happened again. Silence as a sound effect: it made a big impression on how my young mind understood music. To this day, I love a lot of music that some critics disparagingly call “over-produced”, who use the studio to really fuck around with sound.

The music aside, Shirley was (and is) a personal hero of mine. In the 90s, she was brash, even filthy in interviews. She said things that often shocked me (it may surprise you to know I was a little prudish when I was younger). She’s less alarming now, but I think that’s more about becoming older and wiser than for any fear of offending. Then and now, she’s owned her femininity and her sexuality; called bullshit on sexism, racism and homophobia; and been honest about her flaws . Growing up, I related to what she said about feeling ugly and weird throughout her youth. The fact that this strong and beautiful woman had doubts about herself made me realise that we all do; there’s no sudden level of beauty or success that will turn us into faultless and fearless individuals.

I related to her lyrics, too. That’s not special – just try and find me a teenager who doesn’t have personally meaningful lyrics scrawled across their pencil case – but that didn’t make them any less profound to me. Whether it was an emotionally-healthy crush (“I would die for you…I’ve been dying just to feel you by my side”, from #1 Crush), generalised angst (“Somebody get me out of here, I’m tearing at myself”, from Medication) or my impending loss of faith (“If God’s my witness, God must be blind”, from As Heaven Is Wide), there was a Garbage lyric for my adolescent self to cling to in any troubling situation.

Even now, when I run into school friends, they ask if I still listen to Garbage. They defined my youth in particular and, I’m surprised to realise, my continuing adulthood. I was so thankful to Shirley and the boys for being so generous with their time and energy when I met them. I’m not interested in meeting celebrities to tick one more famous person off the list, but after these four people made such an impact on my life, I appreciated the opportunity to put my hand in theirs and thank them.

So Garbage: thank you. You changed my life and I’m happier because of it.

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Filed under: music, Uncategorized, , ,

Review: Bat For Lashes

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, but it’s not for want of trying (I have drafts full of delicious recipes and trashy pop videos lying in wait). I’m not a very self-motivated individual, but when somebody is depending on me to meet a deadline, I have no problems. So I am very lucky that my friend, former colleague and current music editor of Time Out Sydney asked me to review Bat For Lashes’ performance at the Sydney Opera House. (I was already going, but my best friend and boyfriend enjoyed coming along with the two media tickets, and I can now call them fans of her stunning, operatic pop.)

You can read it here.

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Grace Jones

The other week, I won tickets to go and see Grace Jones. Woo hoo! I’d been thinking of going, but the $150 tickets were a bit of a turn-off.

I’d seen her a few years previously, performing at the Sydney Festival First Night. (For non-Sydney readers, the First Night is the opening night of the Sydney Festival, the city’s biggest arts and theatre event. A lot of the artists perform for free in the city’s thoroughfares and parks – Martin Place, Hyde Park, the Governor’s Domain – and it turns into a big street party!) She was wonderful and, as a friend pointed out, danced just like me – all limbs and wild enthusiasm. Her core costume consisted of high heels, fishnet stockings, a black corset and a black g-string! To that, she added sculptural hats, billowing capes and other costumes to dramatise each song, and went up and down and around on a hydraulic stage.

The hydraulics were missed at the Enmore Theatre last Tuesday, and she completely changed outfits several times. This meant longer changes, but more dramatic costumes. Below is one of my favourites. She sang one song (Sunrise Sunset) while wearing it and sitting on a stool, a spotlight on just her face. Then she got up and swayed in it while she sang La Vie En Rose. Towards the end, she began spinning, revealing the fact that the dress was just strapped to her front: her back and buttocks were bare, and she looked amazing for 62!

Other costumes included: a tribal-print bodysuit with a butt-length white headdress; a black-and-red PVC catsuit with a dozen whips attached to it; a beaded skirt in the colours of the Jamaican flag (which also showed off her butt as she flicked it around); a black-and-gold skull mask; diamante-studded disco pants and a matching hat that acted like a disco ball when hit by a laser.

It was a really creative production. Not all of the experiments worked, but I liked the way she played around with the conventions of a stage show. For example, she had a video screen, but for one song, she danced behind it like a wayang kulit (Indonesian shadow puppet). The theatricality was often broken, though, when she’d continue chatting to us as she was off-stage, changing. And goodness me, she was all kinds of crazy, and full of who-knows-what substances. Lonh, meandering stories, told in her deep accented voice and punctuated with belly laughs. It felt a bit like a drunk aunt having a conspiratorial chat at Christmastime.

Anyway, great show. Below is the video clip for Williams’ Blood, one of my favourite tracks from her latest album, Hurricane. It’s made up of footage from the tour, which gives you a bit of an idea of the craziness.

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Ugh

So, you may or may not know that I love Kate Bush. Love. I’ve learned the choreography from her video clips, trawled record stores for old vinyl singles. (This was in the olden days, before Limewire and iTunes made finding b-sides easy.)I’ve written essays on her, read books on her.

However, I understand why some people don’t. One friend described her work as “exhausting”, and it’s pretty apt: with her art school aesthetic, her busy sonic production, her earnest lyrics, she can come off like an irritatingly precocious teenager. But I think she’s brilliant. I read an article today which described Kraftwerk as having “basically invented the future”. That’s quite an apt description, but I think Kate Bush really saw where things were going. While Kraftwerk and the New Romantics who followed were busy fiddling with synthesisers and drum machines, Bush was merging computer-generated music with organic sounds. She stretched traditional instruments like piano and even her voice to their extremes, foreseeing the way pop music would evolve after the plasticity of the 1980s faded away.

Anyway, nowhere was her vision of the future more apparent than on Deeper Understanding a track from her 1989 album The Sensual World. In that song, the protagonist “turned to [her] computer, like a friend”, predicting the rise of the MySpace generation. Now, Deeper Understanding is the first single from the forthcoming Director’s Cut, an album on which Bush recontextualises songs from The Sensual World and its follow-up The Red Shoes, while keeping elements of the original recording. I approached this project with caution: Bush has never been one for looking back, and these two albums are probably the weakest in her ouvre. That said, they’re also the most in need of an overhaul.

So here’s the new Deeper Understanding.

If you listened to it, you will be aware that it is terrible.

In 1985, Bush rerecorded her hit 1978 single, Wuthering Heights, because its production sounded dated, and yet here, she inexplicably keeps that elastic 1980s bassline. She’s also kept the dial-tone of a modem, a long-dead sound in the mix, and added bursts of static, a remnant of analogue technologies. Catch up, woman; it’s the twenty-first century!

Bush used to do incredible things with her voice (on one of my favourite tracks, Leave It Open, Bush recorded a phrase, played it backwards, learned to sing it backwards, recorded that and played it backwards, resulting in a very wobbly effect); now, it sounds like she just selected the “underwater” effect on ProTools. She stripped out the otherwordly vocals of the Trio Bulgarka, a Bulgarian folk group she admittedly overused on these albums, and replaced them with a fucking harmonica solo. Her voice sounds haggard, too: of course, her voice has aged (it was beautifully mellow on 2005’s Aerial), but this performance gives none of the charisma we’ve come to expect from her. It sounds like she recorded the song sitting in bed.

So my hopes are low, but any Kate Bush album is better than none at all…right?

N.B. If you haven’t encountered this woman, here she is at her most magical. Ignore the dodgy video clip, and hear the warmth Bush brings to this ballad constructed around nothing but a simple drum pattern and synth line.

Filed under: music