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Kenny Rogers and me

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In 1983, during Year 12, these are the songs I unforgivably thought were cool:
“Twisting by the Pool” by Dire Straits
“Bop Girl” by Pat Wilson
and this, yes, this
“Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

How could this ever have happened?

Later that year, just after I turned seventeen, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton released “Islands in the Stream” (named after a Hemingway novel) and I scoffed at it. Country music! Old people! Corny! I was seventeen.

It was unlikely played on 5SSA-FM as SA-FM was then known. I can’t recall hearing it on the Morning Zoo with John Vincent and Grant Cameron as I drove my sky-blue HR Holden to Kapunda High to endure the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins (“I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon”).

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I didn’t appreciate its alternating lead vocals, superb harmonies, and thrilling key change until, I’m ashamed to share, much later in life. And Dolly, somehow both tiny and colossal, is the perfect partner to Kenny’s warm yet seasoned voice.

Often now making an appearance on the back patio at a BBQ it’s one of the great duets.

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Growing up in the 70s, Mum and Dad had some of Kenny Rogers’ vinyl including his greatest hits and the compelling Eyes That See in the Dark (of course, he could never have been Ken Rogers for he’s obviously the manager of your local hardware store). The albums are long gone but I remember him spinning on the Pye 3-in-1 (turntable, cassette and radio) and his voice. It was golden but with an edge of experience and slight menace as needed. It also hinted at a mythic America of adventure and promise. It evoked a place I wanted to go.

As with much in art and music there’s often a dramatic gap between the sunny melodies and the lyric’s dark narrative. “Coward of the County” is about sexual violence, “Reuben James” explores deep-seated racism and “Ruby” concerns a Vietnam veteran whose disability renders him unable to satisfy his wife so she ventures into town- “painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair”- to get her needs met, but my childhood ears were deaf to these distant themes.

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The Big Lebowski is my favourite film and Kenny contributes to this too. In this shaggy-dog story bringing together a congregation of random, found objects, “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)” fits the much-loved dream sequence perfectly. It’s by The First Edition and lead vocals are by Kenny. The scene begins when porn star Jackie Treehorn drugs The Dude’s White Russian.

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The Dude is the main character played by Jeff Bridges and presents like Kenny if he’d let himself go and frequented his local supermarket Ralph’s in his house pants and dressing gown. Featuring bowling, Saddam, love interest Maude in Viking costume, and some Johnson-dismembering Nihilists welding novelty-sized scissors, this psychedelic pop track is an irresistible accompaniment, and gave Kenny some late-career pop culture panache.

The lyrics open thus:
I woke up this morning with the sundown shining in
I found my mind in a brown paper bag within
I tripped on a cloud and fell-a eight miles high
I tore my mind on a jagged sky
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

Just like the Dude, and most of The Big Lebowski, these are joyously nonsensical.

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Early this century on my first big overseas trip I saw much that bedazzled me. The Berlin Wall, Big Ben, the Colosseum. But, among the strangest sights was one at the start in Penang. Wandering about Georgetown, the muggy, sister-city of Adelaide, and staring at the Chinese, Indian, Islamic and British architecture beyond the downtown markets, I saw what appeared as yet another American restaurant.

Getting closer, I squint at the signage. Kenny Rogers Roasters. Oh, must be another of that name I thought. A local icon I’ve not heard of. Fantastic. That’s why we travel. But the face seems familiar. White beard, grandfatherly. Vaguely Colonel Sanders so that is right for a chook place. Intrigued I stroll in.

It was that Kenny Rogers. With his own restaurant! In the middle of Asia! A long way from Nashville. What a glorious, unforeseen world.

Inside the walls were festooned with gold records and beaming (possibly photo shopped) pictures of Houston’s favourite country star. “The Gambler” strummed out beneath the slowly circulating ceiling fans. Still disbelieving, and considering the menu, it seemed neither Southern American nor Asian but possibly a Mississippian/ Malaysian fusion.

A decade or so later there was a Kenny Rogers Roasters (although the last American KRR diner closed in 2011, it’s still powering in Asia) across from my Singaporean condominium at the geographically-confused shopping centre Great World City. Fresh to the country, I took the boys there once for a dreadfully expensive meal of chicken and chips, and wondered how mad the unrelenting stream of Kenny’s Greatest Hits might send even the most devoted of wait staff.

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Kenny Rogers has drifted in and out of my life in both affectionate and minor ways. Glancing at his back catalogue, there’s an ungodly number of Christmas albums, but he’s made a personal mark. Yesterday with everything spiralling, a mate sent me a message which said:
Kenny Rogers dippin’ out in the middle of an apocalypse is the most “know when to fold ‘em” shit I’ve ever heard.

Well played, Kenny. Thanks.

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Ten Terrific Films- Part One

 

I was recently invited by Footy Almanacker Rick Kane to post ten of my favourite films. I enjoyed the challenge, and now offer some personal commentary on these.

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  1. Cane toads: An Unnatural History

Great line- Cane toads are comin’

Thirty years on, this documentary still ranks among the biggest grossing of those made in Australia. It’s a gonzo folktale on that beast of FNQ, the cane toad. The director Mark Lewis conjures sympathy for these amphibians with clever point of view camera angles and a weird contrast to the humans who find strange pride in their relationships with these repulsive creatures.

A triumph of editing is the scene where a local politician spruiks of a future statue to the cane toad which then cuts superbly to a grizzled farmer retorting that, “Surely, this bastard’s not in his right frame of mind.”

I love that the theme of the film is while we might find the toad an odd, peculiar animal, we humans are just as peculiar.

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  1. Psycho

Great line- Norman Bates: A boy’s best friend is his mother.

I loved teaching this remarkable cultural phenomenon.

The class would invariably groan as one at the thought of a black and white film from 1960, but within the first hour all were drawn into its hypnotic embrace.

Most had never seen a movie in which the main character is dead half-way through, and how Hitchcock effects sympathy for a thief in the form of Marion, and then for Norman, a murderer, is a lesson in filmic art of the highest order.

Visiting Universal Studios in LA, a highlight for me was the presentation exploring how the week-long shoot of the shower scene was completed, with, of course, chocolate syrup standing in for blood.

Among the many taboos broken are the first instance in a Hollywood release of a flushing toilet.

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  1. Koyaanisqatsi

Great line- Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky (Hopi Indian prophecy featured in the closing scene)

I had not long left teenage-hood when I saw this film in North Adelaide with my girlfriend’s sister. My tiny world was expanding and this documentary, with its majestic and terrifying vision of our planet, kicked off my passion for non-verbal cinema such as Microcosmos and Baraka. All make expert and haunting use of juxtaposition between the natural and constructed worlds.

A critic noted that the film is satirising how we don’t use technology, but we live it.

This visual poem compromised largely of slow motion and time lapse sequences features a mesmerising Phillip Glass score, as do the two sequels, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. I once owned these on CD, and when I lived in Wudinna in a secluded farm house, played them quite obsessively, to the barren, uninterested paddocks.

To watch Koyaanisqatsi is to view our world afresh with wonder, but also fear.

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  1. The Big Lebowski

Great line- Walter Sobchak: [shouting] Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!

Inspired by The Big Sleep, this shaggy dog story, with its meandering plot and eccentric characters is unyielding fun. I’ve realised that I love films with a voice-over narration, and Sam Elliot’s is a perfect baritone drawl.

A measure of its personal impact is how often it bobs up in my everyday life. From Maud’s ultimate reference: “A good man- and thorough” to Walter’s interior design critiques: “That rug really tied the room together” it has tremendous longevity.

Against stiff competition like King Pin it’s the best bowling movie and for mine, Townes Van Zandt’s version of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Dead Flowers” is a peerless closing credit song. A laconic, cool ending to a laconic, cool film.

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  1. The Royal Tenenbaums

Great line- He started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance.

I’m a spoken word, auditory type of chap, with little native grasp of visual beauty, but Wes Anderson’s filmography is wonderful to look at. It’s sumptuous. I love his use of palette and the painterly nature of his shot composition in The Grand Hotel Budapest, for example. There’s also an exquisite use of symmetry in his work that renders it irresistible.

The opening sequence of The Royal Tenenbaums employs the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” to jubilant effect and establishes an uplifting tone to what could otherwise be dismal material. Alec Baldwin’s narration offers both a comic and sensitive tone, and throughout, the Tenenbaum family and its hangers-on bounce off each other with such joyous ridiculousness that despite all I’m left with a huge sense of fun and heart.

It’s a great ensemble performance.

Up next, my top five!

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The Dude and Dinosaur Jr.

 

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In my pocket my phone buzzed. A message. Trev.

I’m up front watching J. Mascis…His left hand up the neck of his telecaster is like a bionic crab!

On a stormy Thursday evening the weather is Singaporean heavy and portentous. Trev, Matty and I are at The Gov, Adelaide’s best live music pub. American indie band Dinosaur Jr. is playing. We’re at the back of the room and we’re feeling the fuzzy guitar.

Like a 1990’s disaster film- doubtless featuring a frowning Tommy Lee Jones- we’re pummelled by cataclysmic forces. However, it’s not an indiscriminate assassin, it’s a benevolent god: a ’63 Fender Jazzmaster. It’s the star of the show.

Later, I squeeze my way up the front too. I’m only a few feet from the stage. With his long hair- Trev calls him the “Grey Ghost”- eyes closed and expressionless dial, he reminds me of the Dude from The Big Lebowski.

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And here’s a key. He appears utterly uninterested; he’s not even in the room with us. He’s home in Massachusetts thinking of making a cuppa tea, yet he’s generating that unique sound- soaring yet distorted, joyfully immaculate and also hovering just above swirling noise. It’s a magic carpet. It’s why we’re here.

A highlight is “Start Choppin’” from their breakthrough set Where You Been. It remains among my favourite album art. I didn’t know the band when in 1993 I first saw the CD in Big Star Records on Rundle Street, but it spoke of a weird world: all misshapen darkness and bizarre humour. It looked fun.

And here’s another key to their appeal. Mascis sings with a whining, drawling, nasal voice. A bit Neil Young, but without any commitment. He’s telling you a story, but doesn’t think you can be bothered to listen. He expects you to walk off as he’s mid-story. Maybe to make a cuppa tea. Again he reminds me of The Dude.

The Dude: Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man.

Malibu Police Chief: Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town. You don’t draw shit, Lebowski. Now we got a nice, quiet little beach community here, and I aim to keep it nice and quiet. So let me make something plain. I don’t like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don’t like your jerk-off name. I don’t like your jerk-off face. I don’t like your jerk-off behaviour, and I don’t like you, jerk-off. Do I make myself clear?

The Dude: [after a pause] I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.

Dinosaur Jr. perform melodic, simple songs that pioneered the loud/quiet dynamic that’d become the sonic signature of grunge. “Feel The Pain” and “Out There” elevate the crowd too, and the last song of the encore “Gargoyle” closes with a meandering, enthralling guitar solo that’s at once cosmic, searing and euphoric.

And there’s J. Mascis, barely aware of his battered axe, more relaxed than the Dude. He saunters off-stage. He’s mumbled about five words all night.

Walking to my car a fellow Dinosaur Jr. fan passes me. He’s in the middle of the road. He’s riding a Malvern Star bike. It’s a tick after midnight. No helmet, no lights, no hands.

Superb.

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Who gets the new ball: Seasick Steve, Derek and The Dominos, Chad Morgan, or The Big Lebowski?

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About two Southwark cans into the drive down the Port Kenny Road somebody pushed a cassette in. It might’ve been Snook or Jock. Or possibly Stink.

Chad Morgan started singing the “Banana Boat Song.” If under zombie attack, play this loud, you’ll be safe.

Years later, Chad performed in the Kimba pub. Heckled by a pair of Bundy-soaked punters he advised, “You shouldn’t drink on an empty head.”

Like my wife’s family, and Test cricketers Carl Rackemann and Nathan Hauritz, he’s from Wondai in Queensland. His signature song is “The Shiek of Scrubby Creek.” It’s vaudevillian, novelty. It evokes bush footy clubs and the unhurried Sunday BBQs of yesteryear.

The sheilas think I’m handsome

their fathers think I’m mad

their mothers think I’m a villain

but I’m just a loveable lad

Chad wrote it when he was sixteen. So for well over sixty years it’s been paying for his dinner and dentures. I’m more Vampire Weekend than weekend in Tamworth, but how fantastic is this?

At sixteen few of us do anything of creative consequence. Not many forge a career by drinking too much cider and falling into a bush.

Contrastingly, Annie Proulx was almost sixty when her literary life accelerated, courtesy of The Shipping News. Including “Brokeback Mountain” her recent Wyoming Stories trilogy is raw and remarkable.

And this brings me to Seasick Steve. In his seventies, and having served a colossal apprenticeship, he only found recognition in 2006 with Dog House Music. Among others, he uses a Cigar-Box Guitar, and The One-Stringed Diddley Bow. “The Last Song Is About A Rooster Who Ain’t Alive No Mo’…” from Cheap is great.

The intersection between fictional lyrics and autobiography intrigues me. Jagger sings of horizontal conquest with authority, and Seasick’s gravelly tales are lived in too. On “Thunderbird” he recounts

Going up north

Rootin’ potatoes

Freight down to Cali

Pick some tomaters

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Newsflash! Fresh from his Sports Day success, our youngest, Max, breaks his wrist as I’m heading to the Marina Bay circuit. Ouch. Taxi. Hospital. Anaesthetic (son, not parents). Cast. Home.

No Seasick Steve for me.

I’m going to the Singapore Grand Prix with a friend who’s from Louisville, Kentucky. Not spotting a carbon-fibre conveyance won’t worrry me. I’m only here to enjoy some music.

Are the HQ Holdens racing? What? No Nitro Funny Cars? My interest in F1 parallels Fev’s passion for the Large Hadron Collider. Agreed, it’s like going to Glastonbury just to admire the tents. Trackside, Seasick Steve, I trust, takes the idiotically named Coyote Stage. Cultural hegemony anyone?

I’d love to visit Kentucky, home of the Derby, Hunter S Thompson and the Louisville Slugger. It also hosts the original Lebowski Fest, a celebration of the cult Coen brothers film. The Big Lebowski features the finest lines since Caddyshack.

That rug really tied the room together.

Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man.

Is this your homework, Larry?

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At least climatically, the blues fits here, with its muggy airlessness suggestive of the Mississippi Delta. Ash Grunwald did an outdoor gig in Clarke Quay in April. With his whirling dreadlocks, Dobro and BB King-inspired voice, it was hot, and it worked.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos was my initial excursion. As the title track was a constant on the then catholic SA-FM, my harmonica playing, air-traffic controller friend and I bought the vinyl during my final year at school. A critique described the seminal opening riff as a maelstrom. Scandinavian words (and images) are exciting to adolescent boys.

With a searing rock section, and the exquisite piano and slide guitar coda, “Layla” is incongruous on this blues album. Meandering across ten languid minutes, “Key to the Highway” still charms me as improvisation tsars, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, have too much fun. It’s casual, soaring and laughably brilliant. A musical version of Darren Jarman, really.

Touring Adelaide’s beachside playgounds, I’d play Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs for my boys, supposing, like natural sugar, there’ll be enough pop in their acoustic diet. Only four, Alex’d ask, “Dad, can we hear those long songs?”

Where some see aural cruelty, I see schooling. The Wiggles are The Beatles for kids. Genius. But, without the blues’ swampy misery, how will they grow up happy?

One day I may even sneak some Chad Morgan on for them.

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