Did you know 1 in 100 people have schizophrenia? It’s as common as autism. Find out more in this The Big Issue column I’m rather proud of.
Did you know 1 in 100 people have schizophrenia? It’s as common as autism. Find out more in this The Big Issue column I’m rather proud of.
After my Pop passed away last year, I found myself wearing his clothes. This was nothing new. Back in 1998 when I first discovered op-shopping, I realised I had an exclusive treasure trove right under my nose. During a regular weekend jaunt to Nan & Pop’s I asked politely if I could inspect their wardrobe, and with the excitement of one passing through the ‘Staff Only’ door at Salvos, initiated a gangly, late-teens version of dress ups.
Whenever a fellow secondhand droog complimented me on my retro jacket, it was with great pride that I said it was my Pop’s. Adorned in a full set of his clothes, I strolled through Melbourne one brisk winter morning like a soldier of nostalgia trying to blend in with the past. Top: safari jacket, dark green, pure wool from New Zealand. Bottom: dark green, flared suit trousers. Shirt: pale lime green Pelaco brand. Singlet: Bonds, athletic. Socks: knee-length bus driver style. Underpants: yes, underpants. They were a pair of cheap generic boxers that Nan had bought but he’d never worn. The clothes made me feel safe, purposeful, loved. He was a quiet man who never said “I love you.” But what an impoverished upbringing and the Second World War had economised in his language, he made up for with a generous smile and patient ear.
There are days when the loneliness really hits me and find myself scuttling through the sand layers of my mind to find my fondest memories of him. I’m six, it’s a breezy, summer’s day and we’re walking along the beach. This was our walk. These were our times. We’d do it regularly. Pop would plod along at a steady pace, watching me sprint ahead and poke around in the sand. I’d run back and find his large, warm hand. The beach was an endless runway of delight where my adventures could take off. The clear salt waves nipped at my senses, while the vibrations of his voice ran through me as I rode high on his shoulders. Constant shiftwork had not allowed him to have this kind of time with his own children. It must have been such a joy.
Today I wear his clothes like a hug. When I first got them they still smelt like the cool linen stillness of his cupboard. It’s a scent I wanted to bury my face into; to curl up like a cat and fall asleep in. I was transported to a time before custom and expectation, when a simple woolen jumper held me safe. Now they’ve been through the wash a few times, but the cloth still connects with my blood. I am reminded of the love for my family, and this man who would be a father figure to me. Wearing his clothes makes me feel strangely complete. Like a traveller returning to the place they were born.
The truth is I’ve been wearing the clothes of the deceased for years. Not everyone is comfortable with this. There are those who scoff and hang cruelly on the edge of secondhand shops, dabbling their toe in the dust-ridden air, daring each other to go in. What twisted expression could I evoke with tales of my grandfather’s undergarments keeping me snug at night? I wouldn’t want them to understand.
My friend in Hobart said his father had just passed away and he too had taken to wearing his underwear and socks. He didn’t offer an explanation. He didn’t need to. In this global shop-front/techno-paddock world, sometimes we need to walk like kingdoms and wear our memories like flags.
‘Why are comedians depressed?’ It’s one of those age old paradoxes like ‘why are contact jugglers so creepy?’ I’ve been one for ten years (a comedian, that is: not a creepy juggler) and I’ve frequently pondered the equation.
Does it work the other way around? Are funeral directors the life of the party? Nick Cave seems pretty chipper in interviews. Jokes aside, there is a serious side to looking on the lighter side of life, which has been brought into the spotlight by the recent suicide of beloved comic actor Robin Williams. Like many comedians, Williams dealt with dark themes. It’s little surprise that his mental workplace was an occupational health and safety nightmare.
The distance between the onstage and the backstage persona is even more confronting when it’s a successful artist such as Williams. As a sharehousehold name performing as The Bedroom Philosopher, I can attest. Given the nature of my family history, my personality and ‘put all your eggs in one basket and break a few to make an omelette’ approach to creativity, I’m genuinely surprised when I’m happy.
Stand-up comedy is where sport meets service industry – it can be as draining as it is rewarding, and for a moody person, it’s consistently destabilising. Anxious highs dip into soul-crunching lows. The mood swing is the main attraction in the devil’s fun park.
These are the reasons why comedians often appear down. They are drawn from monitoring my own mental health over the years and somewhat coded debriefs with fellow cacktitioners. (Right click – ‘add to dictionary’)
1. The nature of the job
Comedy equals tragedy plus time multiplied by anxiety squared. This anxiety may begin a week before the gig. That’s up to one hundred hours of nerve-tingling, bowel-clenching, stomach-sinking, dream-curdling, hope-dismantling worry before you even get to the venue. Then it triples. As your name is introduced by someone claiming to ‘love your work’, your body releases a civil war’s worth of survival adrenalin, your veins light up like a Christmas tree, and you stand beneath the glare of the headlights like a talking rabbit pulled out of your own sorting hat. Your soul is graded on the spot via laughter, or the lack of it. This crude survey information is stamped into you for life as you experience a terrifying emotional comedown: depleted natural chemicals quickly replaced by ‘electroheavies’ from the friendly barkeep.
2. The nature of the craft.
Comedians are miners. They must go inside the cave of human folly and swing a pick axe of anger at the iron walls until a hunk of coal comes loose. They must take the lump and flambé it in their imagination furnace, overthinking it until it becomes electricity. This is the satirical sizzle that finds its way on stage, powering the high-beam smiles of an audience. Coal mining is dirty, dangerous work. Most people sealed off their tunnels years ago, and wouldn’t enter it if paid. Comedians spend their lifetime in the darkness of emotional solitude. It gets lonely and it gets bleak.
3. Fitting the cliché
People expect comedians to be funny in real life. Surely to God they’ll be cracking gags on the tram, right? Aren’t comedians responsible for the crime rate at airports, their wits deemed too pointy to take onboard the craft? No. Instead, most comics I know are reserved and nervous, their personalities muzzled by a lifelong obligation to be abnormally hilarious. (With great power comes great responsibility). This social pressure, real or perceived, can be marvellously tiring. The expectation is downright illogical – and somewhat disrespectful of these professional speakers. If you were at a dinner party with a clairvoyant and she started reading your future – ‘you’re going to choke on a fish bone’ – you’d be creeped out. One can imagine the clairvoyant would say A) sorry folks, I’m off hours, and B) you want me to read your palm? I see you reaching for your purse, dude.
4. No fallback emotion
There is a theory that comedians have it tough because, unlike other artists who fall on shit times, they don’t have their sense of humour to rely on. A sense of humour is their main tool of trade. It’s like Kate Miller Heidke trying to sing herself to sleep after a show instead of watching Game Of Thrones. Unlike a theatre troupe, who can drink and laugh together after a bad show, a touring comedian will sit alone in the padded cell of their hotel room. They may take a drag on their humour to find the charred, singed remains of coal dust. If you’re not laughing, you’re crying.
5. You don’t have to be crazy to work here …
Comedians are mad. Anyone who would actively choose this career path, to willingly undergo the mild emotional torture of running the validation gauntlet of live performance must be deeply imbalanced in some way. Perhaps it’s not that comedy makes comics depressed, it’s that they do comedy because they are a mess already. Most comedians report being picked on at school. Their sharpened wit was a mechanism built for survival. While this sword is attractive and effective, behind the armour is often a pale, vulnerable nerd still trapped in the perpetual self-loathing and rejection of their teenage self. Relationship anyone?
6. Success doesn’t buy happiness
We all know money doesn’t buy emotional prosperity. By the same token neither does career affluence. In a truly sinister twist, for the neurotic weirdo described above, being lauded and loved only feeds the mould of low self-esteem. Deep down, most comedians will casually hate themselves and rarely feel comfortable in the yellow jacket of their stage win at the Tour De Farce. This guilty paradox is doused with a cold-fusion pressure to perform, creating a peace-sapping spiritual hamster wheel of micro-angst that would leave anyone as ashen faced and hollow eyed as Robin Williams’ recent press shots.
Comedians might make great clown doctors for sick children in hospital but, by golly, those clowns shouldn’t be operating on themselves. Most performers will try and counter the gross emotional rollercoaster by applying lashings of ale, nicotine, pot, coke and whatever else is cool. (Smack kind of died out in the 80s). You now have someone prone to depression treating their on-stage high with a stimulant washed down with a depressant. This is akin to giving yourself a hug then slapping yourself in the face (which is only okay if you’re Frank Woodley doing a bit.) If the comedian did a dodgy show (which is a 50/50 probability, at all levels), they will be left with a steaming pile of sorrow to absorb. Drugs are a snooze button for emotional processing, and when they wear off, the steaming pile is still there – only now stale. Breakfast of champions – and then it’s back down the coal mine!
Actors are narcissistic.
Writers are arrogant. Puppeteers are … different. The clichés are all there. The sad clown image has been around for years. One of the most pertinent issues to be raised by the death of Robin Williams is an understanding and awareness of mental illness. My personal mantra is ‘better out than in.’ It’s a subject matter that cannot be discussed enough. Hopefully more comedians are encouraged to Come Out of the mine and talk about their experiences. Goodness knows: if handled correctly, they are the perfect ambassadors for depression, making this ghastly topic not only palatable but even – god forbid! – joyous.
Did you know that every thirteen minutes a relationship in Australia ends? Statistics tell us that only 5% of these relationships will end cleanly. The majority will haemorrhage into heaving silence with one staring into space and the other in tears. Sentences will get said: “I don’t know what I feel any more. I just don’t think I can give to this relationship.” The carcass of trust shall hang from necks. There will be gazes from the doorway. Beautiful creatures in knee high socks and soft cotton dresses sprawled on the bed, faces buried in pillows. Nervous men out of scripts and drawing on movie memories. Walk out the door. Just walk out that door. There’s no turning back. We’re past the point of no return.
Having done a snap-survey of my friends I’ve concluded that for those of us that are single, it’s not easy. We’re all nursing a photo album of bruises in our hearts. We’re all staring longingly into the suburban sunset, waiting for the smooth arms of a perfect match to cradle us through this spiritual recession. We have so much to give and we feel like we are going to waste. We sit on public transport retina scanning from afar, while love songs poke us like senseless siblings. We glance at stockinged legs wondering if now’s the time to stand up, ride the bumps like a fate surfer and wander over with business cards in hand and a ‘hey…you seem really…nice…let me know if you want a coffee sometime…’ before thrusting our little rectangle mangle of a lifeforce into the clenched hand of the long-haired lovely, nursing shopping and a good book – innocent royalty in this fraction of a possibility.
How can we meet new people? Us loners. Us washed up lovers. How can we tune into the frequencies of those who would hold our arm as we picked out videos. Who would add a ‘kiss me’ to our things to do lists and watch the ground for us as we text-walked? What combination of words and actions could unlock the vault of chance that would lead us to a universe of warmth beneath covers and the body lock of sweetheart sweat – the autumn-fall of thoughts leading to the timeless utterance ‘I’m so glad I found you.’
How can we find those we’d be so glad we found?
We go to gigs, parties, we flick about on Facebook. Everyone looks occupied and unattainable. The beautiful people have their friends, their drinks in hand, they don’t need us and our overthought desperation. We over thought it already. Our sentences are like highschool clay, all fingerprints and lumpy joins. What could we possibly offer? We are on the outside of the painting looking in. Colours are creamy and expressions are effortless. It’s a dream in there. How could we approach? We are covered in shadows.
Within a typical day the average single person will create over 186 conflicting thoughts about love. They may tell themselves things like ‘this is a good time to be single’ within the same stanza as ‘I’m horny, everything’s fucked.’ This is normal, and is reflective of the human experience. We are wise-cracking muddles all wrapped up tight in string, like Kris Kringles waiting to be given to the right person. We are store-bought bundles of poetic observations, clever humour and kisses. Oh dear God we are good kissers. Did we mention this? Upon the well-timed mouth we’ll make you forget every insult you’ve ever been given. We’ll take you up in a hot air balloon and land you in a forest of flowers, make you biscuits of the ripest honey and read you the funniest and saddest story, in voices soft as rain.
You just have to find us.
We just have to find you.
First published Frankie 2011.
The first cut is the deepest, and Radiohead’s Creep cut me in a big way. It was one of my first experiences of a rock band. I watched the film clip, mesmerised. The picked tremolo notes rang like a macabre musical box while the chorus cut through like a chainsaw. Who were these pale, effeminate men, slinging and scrunching their way through such a pretty tune? In the stage lights Thom Yorke looked alien. His face contorted in ecstasy and angst. Johnny Greenwood hid behind a wall of noise and fringe, revving his guitar like a lawnmower.
When asked about Creep in 1993, Yorke said, “I have a real problem being a man in the ’90s. Any man with any sensitivity or conscience toward the opposite sex would have a problem. To actually assert yourself in a masculine way without looking like you’re in a hard-rock band is a very difficult thing to do.”
Until then my poster boy for masculinity had been Lenny Kravitz, strutting his way through 70’s pastiche glam. Radiohead sat brooding in the corner of the charts party, showing how vulnerable rock could be. No more Party Uncle, this was Arty Dad sitting me down with a bag of minor chords and telling me the birds and bees of sexual emotions. My world was ready for the juxtaposition of self-loathing in popular song. John Lennon had sung I’m a loser, Henry Rollins I’m a liar and Dennis Leary I’m an Asshole but they were all delivered behind a front-line of irony. Thom Yorke was compellingly exposed. An anti-hero who didn’t ask you to believe in him. His karaoke-slaying falsetto and crooked-eye weirdness gave the impression of a long suffering schoolboy – a life spent reading in shady rooms, sticky with illness, never getting enough sun.
Creep was a song for a generation of boys lusting clumsily through the schoolyard of life. Yorke said: “It is one of the things I’m always trying: To assert a sexual persona and on the other hand trying desperately to negate it.” Repressed sexuality was something that would define my school years. On one hand I was trying to be nice and Christian, and on the other I was feverish with hormones, keeping a diary of which girls had looked at me that day and taking too many baths.
Drying up in conversation, you will be the one who cannot talk
All your insides fall to pieces, you just sit there wishing you could still make love
When I first heard this lyric I nearly cried with embarrassment. Any closer to the bone and I’d have a heart attack. When asked what inspired the songs on The Bends Thom Yorke replied “Impotence.” While he was probably referring to a more general feeling of powerlessness, I clung to the word like a life raft. I’d just spent a bleak Australia Day home alone not having sex with my girlfriend. My Oasis poster wasn’t helping. I could hear Noel and Liam dissing me, back with another one of their cock-rocking bleats. The Bends was audio balm – gentle medicine for my collapsed soul. Someone felt as sad as I did.
* * *
Kid A is my favourite Radiohead album, and in my opinion the last musical masterpiece. I remember bringing it home in second year Uni – my flatmate Adam and I turned off all the lights and lay on the lounge-room floor, swimming in sound. A few days later I was home by myself listening to the vocal crescendo of ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack.’ The CD skipped, causing Thom Yorke to hold the note indefinitely. Perfectly.
I’ll see you in the next liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii…
I stared at the stereo in disbelief. It was bizarre and beautiful. A moment created just for me.
I remember Triple J’s Morning Show first playing my favourite track The National Anthem.
“It’s a long way from Creep isn’t it?” Said Francis Leach, with a sense of respect and trepidation, as if he still wasn’t sure which camp he belonged to. The disc dropped like a buzz saw, cleaving the world in two like great art. There was no sort-of liking Kid A, you were either saluting their inventiveness or mourning the lack of guitar songs. On writing the album Thom Yorke said he’d “completely had it with melody” and just wanted rhythm. He liked the idea of his voice being used an instrument rather than having a leading role.
The National Anthem is menace and finesse. Ominous and tough. Haunted and defiant. Entrancingly simple and deftly layered. It’s strut-prog drone-funk that flutters the subconscious and churns the stomach like butter.
At 0:01 we hear an electro glitch, the delay of a switch – the mother ship of malevolence warms her valves. The bass lays cables of dark fuzz, the stunningly primitive three note loop lurking down the scale. (Yorke wrote the riff when he was 16). The cymbal smashes in like white sun on ice, leading a galloping drum pattern, swinging and bowling like an eight legged kinetic road horse.
At 0:22 the cymbal is robbed on the first bar – delectable editing from Nigel Godrich. The percussion jumps a ravine before picking up on the fifth. It’s dropouts like these that add funk to the fury. At 0:54 there’s lashings of ride cymbal smacking. Beneath it synth lasers spiral and howl like remote space stations shooting digital comets into the lunar abyss. Snippets of ghostly brass warp and warble. The song paces back and forth like a horseman.
When I listen to The National Anthem on public transport, I feel tough and fucked up at the same time. It’s the soundtrack for my loner superiority. If I were a professional wrestler it would be my themesong. I’d be called The Ultimate Worrier. My signature move would be The Schitz. I’d wriggle my limbs uncontrollably, psyching out my opponent.
Synths and cymbals stop. Vocal begins.
Everyone around here (kickety-snarity-kickety-snarity)
Everyone is so (smasssshhhhhhhhhhh) near
and so alone.
Thom Yorke’s voice has a metallic echo on it – half robot / half ghost. We are treated to a Theremin trail and the wack-tableaux of a child’s la la la. It’s an eerie nod to the patronising monotony of city living. The lobotomy of misspent intelligence. The kid in the back seat of the car, young and free, poking his tongue out as your blood boils.
Everyone / Everyone is so near / Everyone is ? fear / It’s all a lie / It’s all a lie.
There is no song more audacious. From it’s very title it runs a dark claw beneath the stiff upper lip of modern day Britannia. It’s the Kraut-rock opera for a traffic jam, a pummelling hymn for those encased in the metal coffin of capitalism. The spiritually constipated. The Ok Commuters. It’s an unromanticised, unapologetic, undiluted musical army barnstorming the restrained recesses of popular music and turning over tables like Jesus in a temple. Charlatans! Hypocrites! It cries. Your pomposity and saccharinity has stagnated. Where’s the show don’t tell?
At 2:38 horns become weapons. Radiohead show us what blood and guts sounds like. The microscopic screech of a life half-lived. Amplified. Contorted. Mutated beyond human shape. Alarm wails for the professionally world-weary. Rails buckle under artificial heat. Trains of thought rattle and tip. Dreams lay crushed in stagnant ambulances. Unapproachable wounds. The blunt reality of our unpublishable selves.
Nick Drake sang I am the parasite of this town, while Trent Reznor wrote You could have it all / my empire of dirt. REM’s Everybody Hurts film clip features human traffic stepping out of their cars and moving on. The closing three minutes of The National Anthem is a furnace of sonic distress. A brassy black hole where sentiments melt down to their base elements and erupt with backlogged, unresolved emotion.
It’s all a lie.
It’s all a lie.
At 3:46 there is respite. The song stops to breathe, like a crazed man tired from self-rumpus. Voice and trumpet are one. Blood flows. Traffic moves. At 4:03 a string is tightened. Nerves pull taut. At 4:08, a death scene. A lone trumpet speeds out of control. A poisoned wind-nymph spiralling through death throes. It’s musically graphic. The sound paints a thousand pictures.
The horns are wonderfully ugly, like the creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, there is a labour of love in their ghoulish design. They bleat like sheep, wail like children, harrumph like Roald Dahl characters, zigzag like autistic etch-a-sketch, compete like sperm, jostle like chimps and clog up the void like orchestral off-cuts. As with an audio Jackson Pollock, strips of colour have been thrown on the canvas with such precision of vision that the final mix, as messy as sin, convinces the audience it is as much and as little as it needs to be.
By 5:00 the song’s been going for dog days. No more ABAB. This is alphabet soup. I want to cry. Sympathy for the demons. The subconscious hits and conscious misses. A booklet of bruises. At 5:15 the song runs out of steam. In the studio Johnny Greenwood orders the players to choose a random note, waving his stick like a wizard. “Just blow. Just blow, just blow, just blow.” There are two such ghastly blasts. The sword is driven into the dragon. Swirls. A chilling vocal sample. Man caught in limbo. Falling awake.
Delay is sped up and sped down – the Godrich signature.
Finally, there is end.
The National Anthem is compelling, disturbing, offensive and exciting. An anthem that hammers the dimensions. Each play, a moment in history. A personal revolution.
* * *
To off-set their overblown presence, Radiohead are often met with a teenage aloofness. “I kind of stopped bothering with them.” They dwell in their own chamber – off the mainstream radar but alternatively popular beyond scale. I like to think of them as The Beatles of my time. Too often they are the round peg for my holy soul.
First published Mess+Noise 2011.
Illustrations by Leigh Rigozzi.
Welcome to the new blog. (A blog is not a website, I’m learning – you can’t just write a post and have it send to the page you’d like. It’s like driving a manual.) I’m taking my writing more seriously this year – watch out. My new book will appear in June! I’ll endeavour to add to this each week and not be sabotaged by American spell-checks. (“I put a spell on you…”)