Friday, 29 June 2012

A Portrait of The Artist

I don't know if anyone else is the same as me, but it sometimes feels like the less effort you spend on something - the better it turns out. I think this has to do with the fact that there is a freedom in having no expectations - especially when attempting something new. When you get approval from another party it makes you wonder what essence the thing you created has that connects with someone, and makes you try and recapture that instead of moving on. It's the proverbial 'goose that laid the golden egg' scenario.

I've never considered myself much of an artist but occasionally things I've created have connected with people. The first instance I remember was in grade two when I painted a picture of a rocket ship. It won third prize in the school art contest!... I wish I still had that painting now.

Later, in grade eight at high school, my art class was challenged with depicting a post-apocalyptic scene. I noted that nearly everyone painted a picture of a mushroom cloud. It occurred to me that to stand out from the pack I should try something different, so I painted a picture of a fried chicken. I don't know what the connection was with the subject, but it sure got the teacher's attention. I learned a valuable lesson that sometimes having a unique vision is more important than ability.

After school, I didn't really pursue art at all until in the mid 1990s when I found myself unemployed and at a bit of a loose end. Sure I could have gone out and looked for a job, but dusting off some old oil paints I found in my parents' garage seemed like more of an appealing prospect.

The first thing I attempted was a weird 'evening bedouin-desert landscape' featuring a tent and a camel by an oasis. The sheer strangeness of it seemed to appeal to my friends. I don't have a photo of it but I think my parents have stored it away somewhere. I attempted some more fantastical images but they didn't really seem to work as well, so instead I turned my attention to images closer to home.

On a holiday to Byron Bay this beach shack caught my attention. It's much more dilapidated in real life, but it sent me in a direction of trying to idealise images rather than capture some sort of photographic realness. I sometimes fancy returning to Byron Bay and dropping a photo of this painting in the owner's mailbox. I wonder if he'd recognise it?  

Just as I was hitting my stride with painting I got a job and didn't really attempt anything new for about a decade. Now that I have a daughter and spend a lot of my day just hanging around the house I've returned to the task with the same fervour as an unemployed 20-something.

I banged this picture of my dog together in about a day (that's pretty quick for me). The only art I've really followed recently has been all the graffiti around the Brunswick area. I've been impressed with how fast these kids work so I thought I'd try something equally as quick (without breaking the law).   

This is our neighbours' house across the road. The first thing I see in the morning before heading off to work. It's intended as a companion piece to the Byron Bay house. A lot of people ask me why I didn't paint a picture of my own house. The short answer is - I never see my own house because I'm usually inside it. That's our car in the foreground.

Recently it occurred to me that I've never attempted a portrait of a person. My dog doesn't seem to care one way or the other about his portrait, so I chose to do one of myself - I noticed a look of fear in my wife's eyes after I did the dog portrait - I think she thought she'd be next. She's safe - for now. One thing that I've learned from doing a self-portrait is that it's really hard, because your opinion about yourself changes from day to day and you tend to make yourself either more ugly or beautiful accordingly. I think this painting is a nice middle ground.

I don't know what my next painting will be but at the moment I'm happy to keep going as long as I have the time. I don't mind being remembered for these paintings as long as nobody unearths any of the crushingly embarrassing failures I've been involved with that have got me to this point.


The year is 2386. A lone figure in a radiation suit walks through the ruins of an area of Australia once known as South East Queensland. A nuclear attack has left the area uninhabitable following a catastrophic computer failure in North Korea which resulted in the country's entire nuclear arsenal deploying simultaneously - wiping out eighty per cent of the world's population in the year 2050... So it goes.

In Australia, only people living in The Outback survived and were left to repopulate the earth.

The figure in the radiation suit is an anthropologist sent to find out about the 'before times'. As he walks through the barren, featureless, landscape, suddenly he falls through a hole in the ground. Semi conscious - yet thankfully uninjured, the scientist surveys his surroundings and notices he is in some kind of demountable building that houses art-works by young people.

The anthropologist is astonished to find that most of the artworks are perfectly preserved and from the year 1984. Rummaging through the pile of delicate canvases, tears well in his eyes as he encounters image-upon-image of mushroom clouds enveloping an ashen sky. 'How prophetic, how wise' he thinks to himself. 'If only we had listened to the children then these dark days would never have fallen upon us'. Heart heavy and hands shaking the anthropologist continues. He comes across a depiction of a fried chicken. Brushing the ancient dust away, the young artist is revealed to be a child by the name of Trevor Ludlow. 'This guy doesn't get it at all' he whispers to himself - and throws the painting away in disgust.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Modern Lovers: Live!

It's often been said about The Velvet Underground that they didn't sell many records but everyone who bought one of those records started a band. I can understand that. Their songs were simple but had a sexy swagger. If you were a budding guitarist The Velvet Underground represented the link from learning old folk songs like 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' in your 'How to Play Guitar: Volume One' book, to actually playing modern songs with some modern relevance.

If you want to be a songwriter, though, The Velvet Underground lyrically represent a problem. Sure, if you're a transvestite heroin addict living on the lower east side of New York in the 1960s and hanging out with Andy Warhol, then a lot of Lou Reed's words would probably resonate with you.

I, alas, wasn't.

I grew up just a kid living in outer-suburban Brisbane in the 1980s. I had some songwriting aspirations and knew some rudimentary guitar, but the missing link I didn't really discover until my late teens - The Modern Lovers. They had the sexy swagger of The Velvet Underground but lyrically had something I could relate to (as well as a wicked sense of humour).

The Modern Lovers' lead singer Jonathan Richman possesses what can only be described as a guileless honesty. He grew up in suburban Boston in the USA. The songs on the self-titled Modern Lovers LP concerned subjects such as 'pretending to like modern art to impress pretty girls' - (Girlfriend), 'hippies who get high to appear deep' - (I'm Straight) and 'driving around aimlessly in your car to try and escape loneliness' - (Roadrunner - The group's most recognisable 'hit'). In short, they were songs that a suburban kid such as myself could relate to.

The first Modern Lovers album was cobbled together from demos recorded in the early 1970s (some produced by The Velvet Underground's John Cale), but it didn't receive a release until the late seventies, by which time Richman was hailed as a proto-punk hero. Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers recorded a live album in the seminal punk year of 1977, but by this time things had changed.

On 'Modern Lovers Live', Jonathan Richman is the only remaining member of the original line-up. No songs on the album are from the initial stages of the band's career and the songs are quieter with more of a rockabilly and folk feel. Much of the material could be described as children's songs and many of them feature the word 'little' in the title. 'I'm a Little Dinosaur', 'Hey There Little Insect', 'I'm a Little Airplane'. It's not what I signed up for when I first got into The Modern Lovers, but it's still one of my favourite live albums and made me appreciate one of Richman's greatest attributes as an artist - the giddy thrill he gets from the wilful defiance of audience expectations.

Some of the stage-banter on the album is hilarious. Jonathan responds to taunts from the audience about wearing 'the same shirt as last night' and mishears someone from the audience accusing them of 'standing for luxury items'. There's also a bizarre patience-testing version of Ice-Cream Man with multiple reprises. It's a fun, joyful performance... or is it?

While the audience appear overwhelmingly appreciative, you can sense an element that is there wanting to hear the original Modern Lovers material. By performing at low volume, adopting a child-like view of the world and performing multiple reprises of 'Ice Cream Man' he is both rewarding the true believers and punishing the detractors. This 'audience duality' is what really makes the album interesting.

This duality is most evident at the end of the record. Jonathan tells the audience it's going to be the final song. From the audience you can hear people yelling 'play Roadrunner!' Jonathan politely announces that the final song will be 'The Morning of Our Lives'.  The same audience members then yell a resounding 'Nooooooo!' - Jonathan ignores them and plays on regardless.

It's funny, but this presumably 'punk' element of the audience dismissed the song that sums up the punk ethos most completely. There's a line in 'The Morning of Our Lives' that goes:

"There's no need to think that other people can do things better than you can do 'em, 'cause you got the same power in you."

and then it continues with:

"Now's the time for us to have faith in what we can do."

What is that if not the punk DIY ethic?

Sex Pistols' svengali Malcolm McLaren once said in 'The Filth and The Fury' documentary that punk was meant to be about self expression, where heart and passion were more important than ability, but it got co-opted by the media where it became just a short-hand term for people with leather-jackets and mohawks. I would argue that 'Modern Lovers: Live' is more punk than most of that first wave of bands who wilfully adopted that moniker. Jonathan was certainly taking a risk and challenging people with his singular and uncompromising perspective on the world, but Jonathan is so punk that he even rejected the 'punk' tag.

I suppose the lesson I learned from this album is to appreciate people who 'have a bash' and try something new rather than pandering to some corporate model and seeking approval from washed up hacks on shows such as 'The Voice' and 'American Idol'. Jonathan would never appear on any of these shows and he certainly wouldn't win. I can imagine if he did appear on 'American Idol' it would be with a mischievous grin on his face and a giddy giggle as the judges looked on shocked and bemused.

Of course Jonathan wouldn't take any of their criticisms to heart, because they don't understand what he's trying to do. He doesn't need their approval to have faith in what he can do. Like those punks in the audience during 'Modern Lovers Live', the judges on 'American Idol' also don't understand that 'now is the morning of our lives'.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Lurking in the Shadows - My Thoughts on Prometheus

Before going to see 'Prometheus' last weekend, I did what seemed appropriate and revisited Ridley Scott's 1979 classic 'Alien'.

It still holds up!

It's a film I've revisited many times since I first saw it in the early 1980s. At first I just enjoyed the horror and suspense aspects of the film, but subsequent viewings have made me appreciate how groundbreaking it was to have a female lead, the gender-reversing shock of seeing a man 'raped' by an alien, HR Giger's masterful bio-mechanical set and creature design and the deliberate but operatic pacing of the film.

Perhaps the thing that has kept the film in the public consciousness and made it a cut above the average 'slasher' film is the fact that there are some intriguing questions set up that are left unanswered. Who was The Space Jockey piloting the ship which carried the alien cargo? What is the faceless Weyland-Yutani corporation? What is the extent of their knowledge of the Xenomorph? Is it a bio-weapon? The sequels to Alien wisely stayed away from answering most of these questions. I think this is largely because the fans wouldn't want to see these ideas tackled by anyone else but Ridley Scott (or perhaps James Cameron).

Prequels, reboots and sequels to beloved genre-films are a dime a dozen these days and I'm generally not a fan. The Star Wars prequels are the perfect example of why they don't work and I can explain why in one sentence - No amount of money or CGI wizardry can compete with a 10 year-old's imagination when it comes to envisioning 'The Clone Wars'. Alec Guinness' passing mention of it at the beginning of Star Wars was enough. Save yourself the time and money, Hollywood. At best prequels seem to disappoint and at worst they damage your opinion of the existing films (and your childhood memories)

If you don't believe me, then maybe Simon Pegg can convince you:

I went to see Prometheus with fairly low expectations, but I admittedly had been inspired by the viral videos (especially Michael Fassbender's 'David' video) and the trailers. Almost a week after seeing it, I begrudgingly like it. On the most basic level I enjoyed it and it delivered enough visceral shocks to warrant being included in the 'Alien' canon. I appreciate the fact that Scott seemed to be aware of the trappings of making prequels and avoided making the film a 'direct' prequel (although it is undeniably an Alien film). 

I think his willingness to mess with audience preconceptions has led to both the greatest successes and the greatest criticisms concerning the film. A lot of reviews complain of 'plot holes', especially when it comes to two key scenes. One involves scientists coming into contact with a clearly hostile alien species, showing no fear and joking around with the life-form. It doesn't end well. The other scene involves scientists taking off their helmets after detecting a breathable atmosphere (what about air-borne pathogens?) To be fair, these weren't plot holes, merely actions that were incongruous to the characters. I'll give Scott credit for trying at least to be darkly funny, but it was disconcerting to hear the audience laugh during a 'horror' sequence. The greatest success (at least in the scare department) was a clever take on the original chest-burster scene from Alien involving some impromptu abdominal surgery. Mwahahahaha!

Ridley Scott isn't a young man these days. His reasons for making Alien are different to the reasons he made Prometheus. It really feels like he has something to prove in Alien (especially if you watch the excellent bonus features on the Alien special edition) and he wrings every ounce of effort into creating something unique. Perhaps the amount of opposition he encountered actually helped him make a great film. Endless re-writes of the script helped hone the core of what the film was about before they even shot a frame. Budgetary constraints made them rely more on their imaginations about hidden threats rather than exposition. I'm not saying it was easy to make Prometheus, but with Scott's track record, perhaps he didn't encounter as much opposition on the 'artistic' side.

The thing that I love about Ridley Scott is that he can use an image to cut to the core of a subject. In Blade Runner the image of the unicorn represented 'memory' and the difference between what is real or implanted. The chest burster scene in Alien is an iconic 'body horror' image. I can't think of any single shot in Prometheus that sums up the film.

I think Prometheus could have done with being a bit 'leaner'. For a start there were too many characters. I know you need a fair amount of monster-fodder in these sorts of films, but there were a lot of people that seemed to sit around doing nothing for most of the time (including Charlize Theron's character). The properties of the 'black goo' that our heroes encounter seems to be rather random and confusing as well.

Ultimately, the theme of Prometheus seems to be 'faith versus science'. It's a fair enough theme to explore, but it is handled rather clunkily in Prometheus and I'm not sure that a trumped-up horror franchise such as Alien is really the correct forum to explore such lofty ideas.

The reason Alien worked so well is that it connected with primordial fears. What is lurking just beyond your flashlight as you're lying in bed? Am I giving birth to a monster? Who is ultimately running everything? Prometheus aims to be a bit more cerebral and ultimately spawn new themes such as the origins of mankind (and a new franchise), but it is unclear at this stage where they ultimately seem to be heading.

Prometheus was written by Damon Lindelof who wrote the tv show 'Lost'. I've never seen it, but I know it is famous for asking a lot of questions that ultimately are red herrings. Prometheus asks a lot of questions too and it is disturbing to think that they may just be threads leading nowhere. Maybe another scriptwriter with a more 'singular' vision would have made things flow better?

Prometheus goes a long way to explaining the subtext in the original Alien. The problem with this is, if you are going to explain subtext, then you have to replace it with something equally as compelling. To me, Prometheus is a worthy attempt. Maybe after a few decades of re-watching it the pieces will start to fall into place, but at the moment it just seems a bit of a mess. It's probably the best 'prequel' film I've seen, but that is a dubious honour. After seeing 'Attack of the Clones' I was disappointed that Darth Vader ended up being Hayden Christiansen. I was also disappointed that Peter Weyland ended up being Guy Pearce in Prometheus, but not as much - I like Guy Pearce! 


Friday, 8 June 2012


When I was a kid I enjoyed pretending I was a superstar and would often perform impromptu shows for my mum's friends. I would pretend I knew how to play my toy ukelele whilst delivering an evocative and emotional rendition of the only song I knew the lyrics to - John Denver's classic hit 'Take Me Home Country Roads'. There may have been a cowboy outfit involved in the performance - I don't really remember.

I didn't have much of a love for John Denver besides my admiration for the fact that he'd been on The Muppet Show, but I was a professional and knew my mum's friends probably liked the wholesome down-home charm of Denver. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. After the performance I would gratefully acknowledge their rapturous applause before engaging in a little small-talk to acknowledge their fandom. To maintain my air of mystery, I would slink away after a few minutes for a bit of 'me time' and to decompress from the pressures of stardom and dissect the nuances of my performance.

A bit over a decade later (1987 to be precise) I found myself in a restaurant in The Blue Mountains near Sydney with my parents and my sister. I suppose I was seventeen at this point. The couple at the table next to us were discussing the lyrics to a song which sound especially inane and mostly involved listing  cliched Australian landmarks. Even though he no longer had his trademark round glasses and didn't look like a country boy, we recognised the man instantly as John Denver. He was with his wife (fiancee?) at the time Cassandra Delaney.

We did what anyone would do in this circumstance and talked about them under our breath for a while. I prayed that my parents wouldn't speak to them because, being 17 at the time, everything my parents did either 'sucked' or was painfully embarrassing. I think I would've preferred that the celebrity at the table was Bryan Ferry rather than John Denver, but then I would've been disappointed that he would stoop so low as to eat in a restaurant with someone like me.

I've never enjoyed speaking to famous people; partly because they always seem to be self-involved and living in an a state of arrested development - cocooned from reality by a team of sycophantic minders who indulge their every whim. Mostly though, I'm just jealous of the fact that I never get a chance to act like that.

There were no minders at the restaurant this night and my parents didn't have to speak to Denver - he spoke to us! When we ordered dinner my father ordered fish. As the waiter was bringing it to our table Denver leaned over and asked my father what it was. Dad replied 'rainbow trout'. Denver looked excited and immediately called the waiter over and changed his order. In some small way we had influenced the life of a legend!

I often wonder why he spoke to us. Was he just trying to give his fans a giddy little thrill - like I had done  for my mum's friends all those years ago? Was he homesick and just wanted someone to talk to? or was he just sick of listening to us talk about him under our breath?

It is a testament to the power of celebrity that we still joke about that evening to this day and I'm sure it's something that Denver himself would have no recollection of if he were still alive. Alas, he isn't. John Denver died after crashing an experimental plane in 1997. When my family first heard about it on the news the first thing we did was discuss that night back in 1987. It's funny but I even considered the possibility that we may have contributed to his death. Maybe that rainbow trout was loaded with mercury and it took ten years to manifest itself as poisoning in Denver's bloodstream, debilitating him on that fateful flight.

On some level, I feel sorry for celebrities like John Denver. They can never just sit down to a meal like normal people and are trapped in a world of their own making. There's no way out. John Denver could never just say 'screw it' and apply for a job as an office temp - everyone would recognise him. Instead he must have looked for other distractions from his music career. Obviously there was nobody around who cared enough about him to tell him that flying experimental airplanes is dangerous and not a good idea. Maybe Denver was looking for a hobby that matched the thrill of his early performances before the machinations of the industry and endless touring turned a passion into merely 'a job'?

Fame itself is a terrible narcotic. I myself have never been able to shake the excitement felt from those early performances of 'Country Road Take Me Home' in front of my mum's friends. I still perform to this day. I no longer play that particular song but I have some of my own songs that I perform a handful of times a year in front of my ever-loyal fan base of around ten people. Maybe I'll ask one of them what they're having for dinner next time I perform in a pub to give them something to talk about for the next couple of decades. Sure, I may not as be universally recognised as John Denver, but at least I have an office job I can turn up to on Monday morning.

Perhaps it's time I started wearing the cowboy outfit again.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Public Life - A Private Hell!

Many years ago I was challenged to think of a title for my autobiography. I assumed that by the time I got around to writing such a document that I might have achieved some sort of celebrity status, so I tried to pick a title that was worthy of the highs and lows that a celebrity life entailed. I settled on the title 'A Public Life - A Private Hell!'

A friend of mine suggested that this title was too obvious and an autobiography needed to have more of an air of intrigue about it. He suggested revising the title to 'A Public Life in Private Hands'. I agreed with this assessment and made a mental note to use this title when finally the time came to reward the hungry public with tales of my exploits.

However, after reading two autobiographies in the past year, I've changed my mind and have now reverted back to the 'Private Hell' title.

The two books I read were Keith Richards' 'Life' and Michael Caine's 'From Elephant to Hollywood'. By far the better of the two is the Keith Richards' book. Like the title, the book cuts straight to the core of the subject. Even if you're not a Rolling Stones fan I suggest reading it anyway because Keith is a surprisingly witty individual and is as honest and forthright as a man who has lived for a few decades in the public spotlight can be. He comes across as self-effacing in the book and addresses his many shortcomings in a way that makes you realise he is aware of how he is perceived by the public.

Michael Caine's book 'The Elephant to Hollywood', like the title, is a bit more of a convoluted affair, which never really gets to the emotional core of the subject. Perhaps Keith's ghost-writer James Fox was able to spur Richards on to greater heights, but Michael Caine's biography seems to be written from a more defensive point of view, which would lead me to conclude that he wrote it himself.

It's not a bad book, however, and Caine should be commended for his attempt. Certainly he has led a very interesting life with some surprising twists and turns both personally and professionally, but the book reads like a list of accomplishments and famous people he has met, rather than a life closely examined.

Strangely, there are pearls of wisdom that I use from both books on an almost weekly basis. Both Caine and Richards are good working-class English lads and enjoy simple English food. Both men included recipes in their autobiographies that they have enjoyed throughout their lives.

Michael Caine describes how to make the best roast potatoes... I tried them and they are! Basically it involves par-boiling the potatoes and placing them in a baking dish with olive oil (don't skimp on cheap oil) that has been infused with garlic and rosemary. Remove the garlic and rosemary before putting the potatoes in and turn to coat. Sprinkle with celery salt and pepper and bake in a hot oven (200 degrees celsius) for an hour turning every 15 minutes. You won't be disappointed.

Richards' describes how to make simple but tasty bangers 'n' mash and goes in to great detail in regard to his love for Shepherd's Pie (you can find the recipe online).

 Here's one I made earlier:

Maybe I should take a leaf from Richards' and Caine's book  and start my autobiography with a simple recipe. Okay readers let's begin - Here is the one recipe that I have concocted in my life that I can truly call my own.

Trev's Italian Lentil Bake

700 grams of potatoes
1 cup of brown lentils (boiled until soft)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 cans roma tomatoes
1 cup of vegetable stock
1 bunch of broccoli, chopped
Italian herbs (either mixed herbs, oregano, basil or even just parsley)
splash of red wine
cheddar cheese

Boil the lentils until soft (you could just use a 400g can of lentils to save time). Drain and set aside. Slice potatoes (peel them if you want) and boil until soft. Drain and set aside.

In a saucepan saute' the onion and garlic until soft (but not brown). Add the tomatoes and crush with a wooden spoon. Add vegetable stock and herbs. Bring to the boil and then add broccoli, lentils and red wine. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce thickens (about 30 minutes). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Heat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Tip saucepan contents into a baking dish and arrange the potatoes in a single layer. Top with grated cheese. Place baking dish in the pre-heated oven until cheese is golden.


Note: I prefer recipes that take a long time and that require an excuse to purchase a bottle of wine. The beauty of this recipe is once it's in the oven you can drink the wine while waiting for your meal. I also like to multi-task and might also put on a nice record or play the guitar while waiting for dinner. Enjoy the process and don't think of it as a chore.

I hope this recipe tides readers over until 'A Public Life - A Private Hell' is written and officially released... Now that I think about it, I could probably do without the private hell part; and the public life part doesn't really appeal to me as much as it used to.

Maybe it's back to the drawing board.

Enjoy my recipe in the meantime.