Sunday, November 19, 2017

Get Poor Slow

My novel Get Poor Slow is out now from Picador. From the reviews:

"Gripping ... he writes the prose of a neurotic angel." 

"The first novel to make me laugh out loud since Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim ... I can't recommend this book highly enough." 

"In a lifetime of reading and reviewing I've never met a scenario quite this close to the bone … a raging satire on the modern book industry – a mad nightmare of talentless literary ambition liberally laced with money, sex and murder.” 

"Free is a funny, funny writer … a pacy, ribald, intelligent crime comedy for any reader." 

"One star out of five." 

In stores now.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

AC/DC and Me

Originally published in the book Rock Country (Hardie Grant 2014); republished in The Best Music Writing Under the Australian Sun (2015)

I was an aficionado of cock rock long before I ever heard it called that, and indeed well before I possessed a discernible cock of my own. At the age of nine I was an authority on KISS. At the Faulconbridge Primary School talent show in 1979, three mates and I performed a dramatic mimed rendition of “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” We wore all the relevant face makeup, painstakingly applied by my friends’ sisters. Where appropriate, we wore capes. We wielded nylon-string guitars borrowed from teachers who used them, by day, to accompany group renditions of “Frère Jacques”. My friend Matty W., portraying Peter Criss, played fake drum rolls on the school’s minimalist kit. I was Gene Simmons: the demon. Whether I did the tongue stuff I don’t remember. Actually I do remember, but I’d prefer not to dwell on it. 

A year later, at the talent show of 1980, we put away childish things. Unmasked, dressed in decidedly more casual threads, we appeared as AC/DC. In July of that year the band had released the monumental Back in Black album. They had a new lead singer: the enigmatic Brian Johnson. “You Shook Me All Night Long” was the album’s lead single, and that was the tune that crackled over the school’s PA while we fake-strummed our Spanish axes. Did we care that AC/DC had five members rather than four? Yes, but not enough to bother recruiting a fifth kid. Did we know what it meant to shake a woman all night long? Not in very much detail. Johnson made it sound gruelling but worthwhile. 

Sadly, I didn’t get to dress up as Johnson myself. That plum role had been swiftly commandeered by my alpha bandmate Robin E. – who was, to be fair, the ringleader of the whole project. His costume wasn’t elaborate. All he had to do was rip the sleeves off his shirt and put on a cloth cap. Who knew what Johnson’s face looked like underneath it? Somebody else – I can’t remember who, but it still wasn’t me – got to be Angus. Since Angus dressed up as a schoolboy anyway, that wasn’t much of a stretch. Third in the pecking order, I got to be Malcolm. I didn’t know much about rhythm guitar, but I was in awe of Malcolm’s long hair and overall dress sense. Above all I envied his Levi’s. My own jeans hailed from a far humbler house of denim – the kind that didn’t care to advertise its name or logo on the back pocket. They were made of a royal blue, plywood-like fabric that bafflingly refused to soften or fade. I looked like Woody Guthrie preparing to board a 1930s freight train. Certainly I made a flawed Malcolm. How I yearned to be Johnson. Yes, I wanted to be out there at the front in the cloth cap, fake-singing those imperishable lyrics: “Takin’ more than her share / Had me fightin’ for air / She told me to come but I was already there.” 

Mind you, the ingenious double meaning of those lines was lost on the ten-year-old fan. Johnson merely seemed to be indicating that he was a fast runner. Which was odd: he didn’t look like one. But if Johnson’s efforts to raise awareness about male sexual dysfunction were beyond us, we were savvy enough to get the main thing right. Back in Black was, as we phrased it in those days, unreal. Thirty-odd years later, it still stands as the second biggest-selling album of all time: comfortably ahead of Dark Side of the Moon, and second only to Thriller. It was a seminal record in every sense of the word. Before Back in Black, AC-DC was still a fundamentally Australian band, even though its three most prominent members had spent their infant years in Scotland. After Back in Black, Australia was too small to contain them: they belonged to the world. 

And it all happened so fast. At the beginning of 1980, the band’s lead singer was still Bon Scott – Bon the lavishly tattooed larrikin, master of the wicked leer and the hard-rock bagpipe solo. Scott was averse to shirts, and he dressed quite visibly to the left: in the crotch of his ferociously tight jeans something large and sinister was ominously coiled, like a chorizo in a vacuum pack. With Scott as frontman the group had cut six albums between 1975 and 1979 – in those days, bands didn’t muck around. Their most recent effort, Highway to Hell, had finally broken them in America. In early February the group convened in London to start work on a new album. The Young brothers had stockpiled some promising new riffs. Bon had jotted some lyrics in his notebooks. Just how many lyrics remains controversial: the notebooks subsequently went astray. 

And then, on February 19, 1980, Scott was found dead in a friend’s car. He was only 33. Here was another mystery for the pre-teen fan to ponder: how was it possible to choke to death on your own vomit? Superstitious youngsters, of whom I was one, worried about the way Bon’s death had so swiftly followed the success of Highway to Hell. “I’m on my way to the promised land …” Did God watch Countdown? Had he despatched Bon to the lake of fire to teach him a lesson? There are fully-grown adults on the internet who believe, to this day, that that’s exactly what happened.    

After Scott’s death, the surviving members of the group considered giving up. But with encouragement from Scott’s mother, they decided to ride on. In March they started auditioning new singers. One of them was a nuggety bloke from Newcastle – the English Newcastle – with a brillo-pad hairdo and a voice like a dentist’s drill. His name was Brian Johnson, and he and the band clicked, instantly and resoundingly. On April 1, only six weeks after Scott’s death, Johnson was officially named AC/DC’s new lead singer. In May the band flew to a studio in the Bahamas to record Back in Black. The album was released in July. And in November there we were in the primary school hall, jamming along to its first single. Whatever it was that eventually made 50 million other people buy the album – we heard it straight away, and we were only ten. 

What did we hear? First of all we heard the riffs. The two finest riff-merchants Australia has ever produced are brothers, and they’re in the same band. The Youngs are up there with Jimmy Page – they’re up there with Keith Richards himself – as manufacturers of instantly memorable guitar grooves. Back in Black was stuffed with so many bankable riffs that the ludicrously catchy “Shake a Leg” – which I firmly believed to be the coolest tune on the whole record – never even made it out as a single. The unrelenting boogie of that song made you want to shake considerably more than just a leg; the riff is so raunchy, so blatantly carnal, that it would make even a Trappist monk give serious thought to fucking the nearest consenting human. If it had appeared on nearly any other album in the world, “Shake a Leg” would have been a sure-fire 45. On Back in Black, there were too many other tracks to choose from.   

One of them was “Hell’s Bells,” the first song on side A, with its slow, dirty, ominous overture. Thirty years later, that intro still gets played over the PA before big footy matches. It promises that something primal and violent is about to happen – something definitively male. And the scary build of those lockstepping guitars is accompanied, famously, by the tolling of a large bell. It rings thirteen times, which seems to signify something. But what? Was its knell a tribute to the departed Bon? Well, this is how Malcolm once explained the genesis of the bell idea: “I was just taking a piss and I just thought, ‘Hang on, why don’t we get a big fucking bell?’”

Flip to the start of the B-side and you had the title track, with its crunching three-chord intro. Duh, du-du-duh, du-du-duh. E major, then D, then A, all played in the open position. The fifth, the fourth, the first: chord progressions don’t get more meat-and-potatoes than that. Any chump of a beginning guitarist can play those chords. But it took the Young brothers to combine them in exactly that way: to buffer them with a couple of crucial silences, then stitch them together at either end with those funky little turnaround licks. The result is an eternally fresh riff that speaks directly to the gonads. Try listening to that tune without thrusting your perineum at something, even if it’s only the nearest wall.    

And then, over and above the riffs, we heard Johnson’s voice. Sometimes we could even hear what it was saying. In the case of the title track it wasn’t hard. Consider the song’s chorus. “’Cos I’m back. Yes, I’m back. Well, I’m back. Yes, I’m back. Well, I’m back, back. I’m back in black. Yes, I’m back in black.” Again we’re dealing with the most rudimentary of ingredients. But when Johnson sings those lyrics in context, over the controlled hurricane of those guitars, you get one of the most rousing choruses in hard rock. That was the alchemy of AC/DC: they had the knack of turning meat and potatoes into gold. The chorus of “Back in Black” sounds exactly the way you feel when you’re in your prime and ready to show the world who’s boss. It was the mood of the whole album. The band had suffered a near-terminal blow. In rock’s short history, what other major band had ever recovered from the death of its lead singer? It was hard to think of one, but AC/DC were about to give it a red-hot go. They were back, and they meant business. 

AC/DC and I went our separate ways, eventually. A year after Back in Black they released For Those About to Rock. Either it was a disappointing album or my tastes were evolving – or maybe both. For another year or two I expanded my collection backwards, adding albums from the Scott era. But the evidence suggests that my AC/DC phase was over by 1983: when Flick of the Switch came out in that year, I didn’t buy it. I remember feeling a sentimental pang in 1990, when they had a hit with “Thunderstruck.” I could tell – abstractly, academically – that it was their most bitching song since the Back in Black era. But I just wasn’t into it any more. I couldn’t feel it. It was like looking into the face of a person you no longer loved. At around the same time, I heard that the American Army, psyops division, had played AC/DC songs at apocalyptic volume in order to smoke Manuel Noriega out of his Panamanian bolt hole. I sympathised with the strongman. I’d have surrendered too. Maybe I was getting old before my time, but by the age of twenty I found it distinctly hard to believe that I’d ever derived pleasure from listening to Johnson’s singing voice – to those “stuck-pig vocals,” as the critic Kurt Loder once called them.

That’s the kind of AC/DC lover I am, then – a lover who’s largely moved on. These days I no longer look like much of a headbanger. But chop me in half like an old redwood, look to the inner rings of the trunk, and you’ll still find the ten-year-old who believed that AC/DC held the key to pretty much all of life’s mysteries. At that age, you badly need clues about what the adult world has in store for you. Listening to AC/DC was like putting your ear to the tracks and hearing the rumble of the oncoming train. Their world was so grown-up: alcohol, cigarettes, ear-rings, tattoos, prison (wouldn’t that be cool?). 

And sex – above all, that. I don’t think we really knew what it was yet, but we somehow understood that AC/DC’s music was almost exclusively about it: the sleazy and insistent jolting of those guitars, the prodding throb of that proletarian rhythm section, Scott’s insinuating leer, Johnson’s grimaces and grunts and whinnies – and the gaunt and shirtless Angus, sweating and labouring over the neck of his cherry-red axe. All these things resonated with us at a level even lower than the gut. They spoke to parts of us that were on the brink of acquiring some high voltage – some TNT – of their own. Girls didn’t seem to like AC/DC nearly as much as boys did, and I believe I can now see why. 

The days when kids needed record albums to solve the world’s mysteries are long gone now, of course. In the information age there are no unanswered questions left, least of all about sex: click a mouse button and you can watch videos that would have made Bon Scott wince. Back then … well, we’re talking about a vanished era, clearly. It wasn’t just that there was no internet. There wasn’t much else, either. On TV there were four channels: the edgiest show I’d ever seen was Welcome Back, Kotter. There were no VCRs, let alone video shops. When you went to the cinema, you went under parental supervision. If you wanted to hear candid adult talk what you mainly had was records, and the records that spoke most brazenly were the records of AC/DC.

Mind you, AC/DC didn’t make things easy for you by including printed lyrics with their albums. Sometimes the first mystery you had to solve was what in Christ’s name the singer was even saying. This was a particular problem in Johnson’s case, unless you happened to speak fluent banshee. But the way I remember it, we assumed that a certain portion of any given lyric was simply not meant to be intelligible. Understanding fifty per cent of what Johnson said seemed a reasonable goal. Endlessly speculating about the other half gave us something to talk about. We sat in front of the speakers, leaned in close, and dropped and redropped the needle on the disputed areas of each track. We had the time.

Music was a far more social thing back then: social in the sense that it involved coming face to face with other people. If you wanted to hear a record you didn’t have, you went to a friend’s house and listened to it there. Either that or you bought it, which was a social act too: you had to go down the street and exchange cash for an object. Theoretically it was possible to make and trade tapes, but to get a clean copy you needed a cassette deck that jacked straight into your amplifier – and who, in the late seventies, had one of them? Nobody I knew. In desperate circumstances you could shove a portable recorder up against one of your speakers, but the resulting tape made the band sound as if it was performing at the bottom of a well. Plus you could hear other things in the background: distant lawnmowers, the slamming of screen doors, barking dogs. Even at the age of ten, we were picky enough audiophiles to frown on recordings of that sort. 

My own copy of Back in Black still has the original price sticker on it. It cost $8.99. When you earned fifty cents a week in pocket money, that was a serious purchase. You made recon visits to the record shop first, as if buying a car. But when you finally forked over your hard-earned pair of Caroline Chisholms, you got something excitingly tactile in return. The vinyl record album was a glorious object. The artwork on the cardboard sleeve was big enough to pore over and admire. (Who gets a kick from looking at the front of a CD?) If you were lucky, the sleeve folded open to reveal more art on the inside. The pictures were a vital part of the album’s aura. Records had character, damn it – they made you feel you’d invested in something solid. CDs, to say nothing of MP3s, really are measly things by comparison. 

Back in Black, of course, had no cover art or gatefold. In tribute to Bon, the front of the album was entirely black, except for some white edging around the band’s name. But if you ran your fingers over the cardboard you could feel the title in embossed capitals, black on black. (Executives from the band’s record label lobbied against the all-black cover, feeling that it would mess with the album’s sales. Good call, guys.) Slipping the disc itself from its staticky U-shaped sleeve, you had to decide which side to play first. I always preferred Back in Black’s B-side: I still know it far better than the A. When you blew on the needle to get the ball of dust off it, the speakers emitted an airy rumble that sounded like the firing of a hot-air balloon. The record still hissed and popped anyway: if there was a fail-safe way of eliminating dust crackle, I never discovered it.  

Building my AC/DC library backwards from Back in Black, I skipped Highway to Hell because a friend already had it. I got the Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap album – not just because it had “Jailbreak” on it, but because I couldn’t resist the cartoon artwork on the sleeve, with its bogan iconography: Phil Rudd wielding a pool cue; Malcolm in a blue singlet holding up a can of Foster’s; Bon with his missing tooth and his Popeye-ish forearm, on which the album’s name was prominently tattooed; Angus squinting out from behind his cigarette while lazily delivering an old-style Aussie up-yours sign, featuring two fingers instead of one. That original Australian version of the album is now scandalously hard to find on CD. What you get instead is a bastardized “international” edition – no cartoons on the cover, and an arbitrarily butchered track list from which “Jailbreak” has been wantonly hacked. The two-fingered flip-off isn’t the only treasure of Australian culture that’s been trampled out of existence by the forces of globalization.   

There was a song on Dirty Deeds called “Big Balls,” in which Scott cunningly exploited some of the ambiguities inherent in the word “ball.” “Some balls are held for charity / And some for fancy dress / But when they’re held for pleasure / They’re the balls that I like best.” In those days, that qualified as cutting-edge filth. You couldn’t hear bollock gags on TV, at least not before my bedtime. Scott’s lyrics functioned as a kind of pornography – a mild kind, but in those days mild pornography was the best sort of pornography you could hope for. We lived in an age of stark and bitter austerity, pornwise. Pictures of even semi-nude women were devilishly hard to come by. A friend of mine’s father had a pile of old Playboys in his garage. Kids came from adjacent neighbourhoods to file reverently past the stash. It was as if he had he had the Book of Kells in there, or Mao’s corpse.  

But the record player, when AC/DC was on it, was a reliable source of smut. That stretch of deep-pile carpet in front of the stereo was the internet of my childhood. It was unpoliced, anarchic; your parents had no idea what was going on there. Poised reverently before the speakers, keeping dead still so as not to bump the needle, I received a disturbingly large chunk of my sex education from Bon Scott and Brian Johnson. We looked to both men as high authorities on the art of wooing and winning the ladies. They really did sing about sex a lot. And really, could you blame them? Listen to those thrusting guitar riffs: let’s face it, most of them were about fucking from the word go. So what else were Bon and Brian meant to sing about over the top of them? African debt relief?

Needless to say, you had to wait till your parents were out before you could risk spinning a song like “Big Balls” at optimum volume. Kids on TV like Greg Brady had turntables in their own bedrooms, the spoilt American shits. (They also had maids, and fireplaces made of stone.) But in my circle the bedroom hi-fi system was an unimaginable luxury. You had to make do with your parents’ hardware, which was invariably located in the main room of the house. Your opportunities to crank up the filth were sorely limited.   

By no accident, I was listening to an AC/DC record when a friend of mine broke the news to me about the mechanics of human reproduction. The scene is scorched into my memory. It occurred late in the Scott era, which means I’d managed to reach the age of eight or nine without hearing about the rudiments of copulation. In those days such innocence was still possible. We were sitting in my friend’s lounge room, which had thick seventies shag carpet the colour of English mustard. Under the smoked Perspex lid of the turntable, one of the early albums lazily revolved. The volume was on low, in case one of his parents walked in. My friend was two years older than I was, and already something of a man of the world. He invited me to explain the meaning of Bon’s phrase “I’ll be your back door man.” I proposed that Bon, in an effort to avoid detection by some lady’s husband, was offering to slip into her place of residence via an entrance hidden from the street. I still think that’s a fair interpretation, by the way. But my friend countered with a baser reading. I was horrified. I raised a certain technical objection. But that only served to make it clear, embarrassingly clear, that I had no real idea what a front-door man was either. Well, my friend was happy to clear that one up too. 

On another occasion, in the same room, the same friend tackled a task with a higher degree of difficulty. He tried to explicate Bon’s notorious lyrics to “The Jack.” This was a tricky job, since neither of us had ever actually heard the song. It appears on T.N.T. – AC/DC’s second album, which no kid in our group actually owned. Even so, we all somehow knew that “The Jack” was meant to be Bon’s filthiest lyric ever. Like the epics of Homer, the words were transmitted orally from person to person, in more or less garbled form. They had something to do with a game of cards, and the game of cards had something to do with rooting. But you needed to be an exceedingly worldly person to decode the symbolism. 

My friend took a shot, but I can now see that he got the whole thing hopelessly wrong. He tried to tell me that the song was about taking a girl’s virginity. (Probably he had it mixed up with “Squealer,” which really is about that.) He had it on good authority, or so he told me, that the lyrics went like this: “How was I to know, she’d never been dealt with before?/ How was I to know she’d never had a full house before?” I believed him – for about thirty years. And now, courtesy of YouTube, I find that what Bon actually sings is this: “How was I to know that she’d been dealt with before? / She said she’d never had a full house …” The young lady, in other words, isn’t a virgin at all. Quite the reverse – it horribly emerges, via the metaphor of the Jack, that the poor girl is a hotbed of venereal disease. Thank Christ I didn’t have to take that on board when I was ten. 


Sooner or later, with AC/DC, you get to the frontman question. If Scott had stayed alive, would the band still have gone on to become massive, as distinct from merely quite large? We’ll never know the answer. All we can confidently say is that Scott’s AC/DC and Johnson’s AC/DC were different bands with different merits. With Scott as frontman the band felt homelier, Aussier – neither of which is a bad thing. He imposed his personality on things, and his personality was unusual. The way he leered down the barrel of the Countdown camera – it seemed to indicate that he was taking the piss. So did a lot of his lyrics. This was a man who wasn’t afraid to rhyme “high society” with “ballroom notoriety.” He was the Noël Coward of the testicle-related rock lyric. 

Not that Johnson was averse to writing about genitalia. The guy’s very name was a synonym for the schlong. But his approach was more direct: he preferred the sledgehammer to the rapier. In a hard-rock singer, that isn’t necessarily a demerit. In fact it’s almost certainly an advantage: maybe AC/DC needed a no-frills frontman like Johnson before it could achieve global hugeness. Johnson made the band seem less quirky, more universal. Bon was a one-off, and you don’t hear people say that about Johnson. Johnson’s more of an everyman figure, and strangely ageless. He doesn’t look all that old now, but that’s probably because he didn’t look all that young back then. The fact that his lyrics are generally indecipherable probably counts as another global selling-point: fans who can’t speak English are not missing out on a great deal. Nor, when you could actually understand them, did Johnson’s lyrics give away much in the way of personal information, except that he enjoyed sex, preferably in the form of fellatio, and driving cars.  

Sometimes he was able to get both his favourite pastimes into a single lyric. “She was a fast machine / She kept her motor clean / She was the best damn woman that I’d ever seen.” If we took those lines seriously, we might conclude that all a woman had to do, in order to strike Johnson as outstanding, was keep her motor clean. Apparently he was associating with ladies who didn’t do that as a matter of course. But obviously it’s a mistake to query Johnson’s meanings too rigorously. The beauty of his lyrics has much more to do with their rhythmic drive than their semantic content. Piling up quick-fire rhymes in clusters of three or even four, Johnson gave the music an even more frantic sense of locomotion than it already had. “She had the sightless eyes / Telling me no lies / Knocking me out with those American thighs.” 

“Sightless eyes” – does that mean anything at all? Was the lady blind? On drugs? As kids we thought he was saying “she had me circumcised” – a lyric that makes slightly more sense than the official one. But if Johnson had to chuck in the odd semi-meaningless phrase to keep things hurtling forward, who cared? In this case you’d forgive him for just about anything, because he’s building up to the most memorable phrase in the AC/DC canon: “those American thighs.” American thighs are a distinctive thing, all right. But had anybody ever saluted them in song before Johnson did? Not as far as I know. I still can’t hear that lyric without picturing the then-thighs of Farrah Fawcett, as depicted on the famous 1970s poster – the one where she wore an orange swimsuit over a suntan of an almost identical hue. Not long ago I heard a TV interviewer ask Johnson how he came up with the “American thighs” line. Johnson confessed that he’d never actually met an American woman at the time. “But I’d seen a lot of ’em on the telly,” he added, “and I’d always wanted to fuck one.”

Well, we’ve all been there. But you wouldn’t want to keep thinking that way as a grown man, at least not all the time. AC/DC’s music caters for that snarling portion of you that never stops thinking that way. It does what hard rock has always done: it appeals to the parts of you that aren’t civilized. When you’re a young male, almost all of you isn’t civilized. As I entered my teens, my notion of the perfect woman still drew heavily on Johnsonian ideals: she was a fast machine in short shorts, who could ride a mechanical bull without falling off it. I like to think that my erotic priorities have matured a bit in the years since. I no longer pine to meet a lady like that; I doubt we’d have much to talk about. These days I yield to none in my abhorrence of sexism. When I hear a lyric like “stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen for me” (Johnson, 1980), I can detect almost immediately that it sells women a bit short, and doesn’t say much for men either.    

The older you get, the fuller your life is of things you’ve grown out of. But before you could grow out of them you had to grow into them, and that was the fun part. Growing out of things leaves you wiser but crustier. After a while it strikes you that there are some kinds of excitement you’ll just never feel again. For me, the thrill of being almost a teenager will forever be linked with my enthusiasm for AC/DC. Their music was the exact sonic equivalent of how it felt to be that young and raw, that full of energy. It was noisy, funny, randy, unpretentious, bullshit-free, dirty but innocent, totally uninfluenced by fad or trend or hunger for social respectability. There is something laudably Australian about their straightforwardness. They’re still making music, and it doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. I believe Malcolm is still wearing the same pair of Levi’s I hankered after in 1980. There will always be a place for AC/DC’s stuff. But the place is no longer my place, and it hasn’t been for a while. 

When our passion for someone dies, said Marcel Proust, a version of us dies too. We become somebody new, somebody our former self wouldn’t approve of or even recognise. By the time we’ve thickened into middle age, our past is littered with the corpses of our defunct loves. For Proust, that was good news, sort of. It meant that the more weather-beaten we are, the less reason we have to fear death, since death has already happened to us before, many times. “The man that I was, the fair young man no longer exists; I am another person.” 

Brian Johnson, on the other hand, said: “Forget the hearse ’cos I’ll never die.” There are days when I find Brian’s message more persuasive, or at least more invigorating. My ten-year-old self does still exist. He won’t die till I do – if I do. Just occasionally, some unexpected jab from the outside world will bring him fleetingly out to play. About a year ago I ran into my old friend and partner in mime Robin E. – the man formerly known as both Paul Stanley and Brian Johnson. It was a brief encounter, but we instantly fell back into our old dynamic, our old rapport. We didn’t bother pretending to be respectable men. There’s no point bullshitting someone you knew when you were that young. Thirty years’ worth of bark fell off us like rice-paper. 

The same thing happens, just once in a while, when I hear some half-forgotten scrap of AC/DC: an outrageous lick from Angus, a shaft of lyrical single entendre, the tolling of a big fucking bell. For a ghost of a moment I’m back there on the old shag carpet again, when all the good bits of my life seemed to lie ahead of me, and all the world’s promise could be crammed into the grooves of one black disc. 

(Originally published in the book Rock Country; republished in The Best Music Writing Under the Australian Sun)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Here comes the judge

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 20-21, 2017

Even if you were to take Martin Amis’s fiction off the table, you could still plausibly claim him as the Anglosphere’s most interesting living writer. Look at what he’s produced, in the various departments of non-fiction, just since the turn of the millennium. You have Experience (2000), the gravid memoir; The War Against Cliché (2001), that endlessly nourishing book of literary criticism; Koba the Dread (2002), his controversial monograph about Stalinism; and The Second Plane (2008), an indispensable collection of post-9/11 political pieces.

And now we have The Rub of Time, his strongest collection of non-fiction to date, a feast of a volume that brings together his hitherto uncollected essays, reportage, and reviews. All of Amis’s usual interests are here, along with some new ones. There are meditations on his favourite writers (Bellow, Nabokov, Larkin). There are pieces on sport and popular culture, including some wonderfully funny stuff on tennis. And there are bang up-to-date appraisals of American and British politics. Attacking these questions from the vantage point of his maturity, Amis confirms his status as one of literature’s great and exemplary all-rounders: always stylish, always deeply intelligent, always voraciously interested in the world around him. 

Sprawling and various as it is, the new book keeps returning to two linked themes: masculinity and excess. And a good half of it zeroes in on the place where these themes achieve their most startling expression: America. None of this will surprise the long-term student of Amis’s fiction, which has been probing these connections since his breakthrough novel Money (1984). The narrator and protagonist of that book, the cashed-up philistine John Self, was addicted to the modern world. That meant he was addicted, above all, to America. Starting with Self, Amis’s characters have always been hopping on planes and flying to the United States. And Amis has always been flying there too. Finally, in 2012, he stopped flying back to his native Britain, and settled in Brooklyn, New York. And why not? “America,” he writes in the present book, echoing Henry James, “is more like a world than a country.” What better place for the international writer to base himself?

Amis has already published one collection of non-fiction about America: The Moronic Inferno (1986), whose resonant title he borrowed from his mentor Saul Bellow. The best pieces in the current book revisit the inferno, and find that it has grown no less moronic. The clinching essay, written at the height of last year’s election campaign, concerns Donald Trump: a man who embodies the inferno so thoroughly that he wears it as a hairstyle.

What is it about America, exactly, that keeps stoking the fires of Amis’s imagination? There is a clue, I would suggest, in the following passage from The Information (1995) – another novel whose central character takes a life-altering flight to the States, where he encounters, among other grotesques, a woman named Phyllis. “In person, Phyllis seemed to be the kind of American woman who had taken a couple of American ideas (niceness, warmth) and then turned up some dreadful dial, as if these qualities, like the yield of a hydrogen bomb, had no upper limit – the range had no top to it – and just went on getting bigger and bigger as you lashed them towards infinity.”

Lashed towards infinity: it could be the title of the present book, or of the next biography of Donald Trump. Amis is not an anti-American. Far from it. But he is old-school enough to assert that some things do have upper limits. Decorum, he is in the habit of saying, must be observed. Which means, of course, that the satirist in Amis positively loves it when decorum is violated, the more floridly the better. Hence his ongoing preoccupation with America – its dreadful crankings-up of the dial, its lust for the infinite.

Take pornography – which Amis does, in the current book, by paying a visit to the San Fernando Valley, home of the American hardcore industry. How does pornography crank up the dial? By making itself more erotic? Emphatically not. It does so by becoming nastier – more sordid, more violent, more degrading to the female participants. Amis, who loiters on the set of a gonzo feature until he can take no more, gives you all the grim specifics. These would make for a rough read if the author didn’t introduce an uncharacteristic note of warmth, in the person of an “unforgettable” local porn star named Chloe, who serves as his guide through the Valley of filth, his bawdy Virgil. Chloe is an improbably self-aware and ironic porn star; if she didn’t exist, Amis would have been embarrassed to invent her. Since she does, he is free, indeed obliged, to use her humanity as a counterpoint to the squalor of her milieu. 

In his fiction, Amis has a natural tendency to heighten and exaggerate. His non-fiction plays it straight, since the realities it deals with tend to be exaggerated already, and often downright unbelievable. Reporting from Porn Valley, Amis achieves comic effects by simply offering up the facts in deadpan fashion. Mind you, the comedy is a deep shade of black. When a performer named Regan Starr complains of being violently assaulted during a porn shoot, Amis give us this:

The director of the Rough Sex series (now discontinued), who goes by the name of Khan Tusion, protests his innocence. ‘Regan Starr,’ Tusion claims, ‘categorically misstates what occurred.’ 

Like his late father, Amis is a connoisseur of language. He revels in the sobriquet of the maligned auteur, Khan Tusion; he instinctively knows that the surname must be isolated and repeated. And he knows that “misstates” is gold too: a quintessentially American piece of pedantry that makes Tusion sound like Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.  

In Porn Valley, reality is self-satirising. The same effect prevails in Las Vegas, where Amis goes to play in a poker tournament. Vegas isn’t just a made-up town. It would seem to have been made up specifically by Martin Amis. In its casinos and fake streets Amis encounters various avatars of American excess, including the morbidly obese. People’s very bodies, in Vegas, “are unbounded, infinity-tending, like a single-handed push for globalisation.” 

As long as he’s sailing close to the wind, Amis singles out a woman “who has munched herself into a wheelchair: arms like legs, legs like torsos, and a torso like an exhausted orgy.” Notice, if you haven’t already, the brazen censoriousness of “munched herself into.” Not many writers, these days, would dare to put it quite like that, for fear of incurring the dread title of "fat-shamer", or "body fascist". Who does Amis think he is, judging this woman he’s never met?

To a writer of Amis’s generation and type, the answer to that question is straightforward. He is a moralist, a satirist, a cultural critic; his job is to register what’s wrong with society. Judging people, therefore, is his bread and butter. And he’s still at it. Evidently he missed the meeting at which it was decided that judging people is no longer on. Also, he's still cracking jokes – another problematic activity, given that humour, as Amis has conceded himself, always entails an assertion of superiority. 

Pushing his luck in two ways, Amis is always getting himself into public scrapes. There is a piece in this book about Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party. In it, Amis observes, or claims, that Corbyn is “undereducated.” When the piece first appeared in print, that word earned Amis a brief spell in Britain’s naughty corner. Columns got written in which he was accused of snobbery, elitism, and other crimes against advanced mores. 

Writers of such columns, however, will always be at least one move behind Amis. He already knows what they think, and what they will say; his prose is already a reaction against their strictures. One of his key virtues as a writer is the seriousness with which he takes his vocational obligations. He knows that our culture is full of people who want to shrink the domain of the sayable. And he knows that one of the writer’s duties is to push back the other way: to establish what can still be said, if necessary by saying what can’t be said. If writers like Amis don’t resist the incoming tide of old and new taboos, who else is going to? 

Alas, the question has already been answered, at least in America. Suddenly the world has Donald Trump. After the cult of compulsory respect, we have the cult of in-your-face boorishness. Amis deplores both tendencies with equal staunchness, without having to vary his principles to do so. His critics, on the other hand, are required to keep two sets of books here. When Amis went on record denouncing Trump’s “cornily neon-lit vulgarity,” few newspaper columnists, to my knowledge, accused him of snobbery. Suddenly they were on his side. They saw the point of elitism after all. 

Amis, the man who invented John Self, is uniquely qualified to write about Trump. Unsurprisingly, his take on Trump begins with the man’s verbal output, before graduating to a more general indictment. Reviewing Trump’s latest book, Amis finds that his sentences “lack the ingredient known as content.” Nevertheless, they do convey a certain attitude. And that attitude clearly has its fans. Among other things, what Trump’s election tells Amis “is that roughly 50 percent of Americans hanker for a political contender who … knows nothing at all about politics.”

What is revolutionary about Trump, to put it another way, is not his ignorance, but the way he has converted it into a selling point. George W. Bush, when he stumbled over the delivery of a simple homily, at least had the decency to look embarrassed. So did Dan Quayle when he got caught misspelling the word "potato". John Self, too, had a vestigial sense of shame: he knew that all his cash did not make up for his lack of culture. Then again, Self was a fictional character; he was Amis’s fantasy of what a rich yobbo ought to feel, when his conscience finally kicked in. 

Trump, on the other hand, is real. If others won’t hold him to the demands of decorum, why on earth should he impose them on himself? Like the pornographers of the San Fernando Valley, like the city of Las Vegas, Trump has dispensed with shame. He has proved that an American can now go all the way without it. This is his fundamental breakthrough.

One of the most resounding passages in Amis’s book occurs in an out-of-the-way place, during a brief chapter in which the author responds to questions from readers of Britain’s Independent newspaper. “Why are you such a snob?” one reader asks. After replying, first of all, that he isn't a snob, at least in the class sense, Amis works up to this:

On the other hand, I think snobbery is due for a bit of a comeback. But not the old shite to do with ‘class’. ‘There is a universal eligibility to be noble,’ said Bellow rousingly. There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. Sometimes snobbery is forced upon you. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travellers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.

Startlingly, Martin Amis is 68 years old now. The former enfant terrible is now a grand-père terrible. But he is still out there on the cutting edge of public speech. Reading this book, I kept marvelling at what a committed writer Amis is. Superficially this seems an odd word for him, since he has never been committed to any particular partisan stance. What he is committed to is writing itself. He believes that even the shortest newspaper piece must be written with all his formidable resources. He is committed to his role as the autonomous, secular truth-teller, the equal-opportunity offender who answers to nobody except himself and his readers. He still seems to think that writing can change the world. It’s a good thing that he’s currently in career-best form. We are in no danger of ceasing to need him. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Best Revenge

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 11-12, 2017

Ten years ago, Bruce Beresford published a gem of a memoir called Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This. Written in diary form, the book chronicled a year or two of Beresford’s life in the trenches of the film industry. That first book was a revelation. One thing it revealed was how little of a modern movie-maker's time gets spent actually making movies. Beresford is one of our most prolific and celebrated directors. His CV is thick with garlanded pictures: Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy, Mao’s Last Dancer. But as his first book gorily showed, even a director as successful as he is must spend an ungodly proportion of his time developing projects that go nowhere slowly. 

Fortunately for himself, and for his readers, Beresford has always had a keen sense of the absurd. This was on show straight away, in the first two words of his book’s title. At the time, the actor Josh Hartnett was at the zenith of his unremarkable career. Professing interest in a project to which Beresford had reluctantly attached himself, Hartnett attended meetings at which he delivered long monologues about his seriousness of purpose as an actor. Beresford did a lot of patient listening, followed by a lot of patient script revision. Hartnett kept failing to commit. Finally he agreed to come on board – on the proviso that Beresford was dumped as director. 

A decade later, Hartnett’s career seems to have flamed out. Beresford, on the other hand, is still around. Now 77, he has directed more than forty movies and TV projects. He is a stayer. His sanity and sense of humour clearly have something to do with that. And now he has found a new outlet for those virtues, in his late-flowering incarnation as a memoirist. Poetry, said Wordsworth, is emotion recollected in tranquillity. Beresford’s movie writings do something like the reverse. Patient and phlegmatic while doing his day job, he turns wickedly acerbic, and sometimes bridge-burningly indiscreet, when recalling his successes and fiascos in prose.

Beresford’s new book is more diffuse than his debut effort, but no less funny or trenchant. It’s a memoir made up of fragments, some of which have previously been published in newspapers and magazines. Some of these pieces concern his professional life, while others serve up memories of old friends, old cinemas, even old cars. 

The book begins with an evocation of his late father. The old man seems to have been a bit of a trial. But here, as elsewhere, Beresford exercises his useful gift for converting frustration into laughter. “He favoured coats without lapels, a fashion he was convinced would be adopted worldwide. It has yet to catch on.” In his declining years, Beresford père had trouble walking but “imperiously refused the use of a cane to help his balance, preferring to fall over regularly.”

On radio and TV, Beresford has always been a trusty raconteur, whose knack for being amusing seems to stem from a boundless capacity to be amused. Fans of his sardonic, self-deprecating drawl will be happy to hear that his prose uncannily catches the tone of his speaking voice. “He was friendly and talked very quickly,” he writes of a dodgy producer, “though it was curiously hard to catch his eye.” Beresford’s prose style resembles the action of a veteran wrist-spinner. His technique looks loose, even effortless. His sentences drift along genially for a while, then bite the pitch and suddenly turn.

In the 1970s, when Beresford helped to shape the golden age of Australian cinema, film was at the height of its trajectory as a director’s medium. These days, Beresford ruefully records, the director faces competition from all sides. For a start there are the actors and their agents, who have long “held the whip hand” in Hollywood, and currently have the power to sink a project at whim.  

Then you have the producers and financial types. As Beresford illuminatingly explains, the rise of digital technology means that even the most junior of investors can now look over a director’s shoulder on an almost hourly basis. “They can then make some complaint, invariably referred to as an ‘observation’.” 

Beresford’s feelings about this are typically unpretentious. He acknowledges that the money people have a right to their views. But he explains precisely why the director’s views matter more. Directors, if they are doing their jobs right, will have “an image of the completed film” in their heads, whereas “people watching the work in progress, which is almost never filmed in sequence, have no such concept.”

The meddlers, you might think, ought to get that point, especially when it is put so pragmatically. But somehow Hollywood just can’t shake its fundamental disrespect for the artist. To survive as an artist in such a fundamentally lowbrow environment, you clearly have to have an extremely healthy sense of irony, or else no sense of irony at all. 

Beresford has one, which gives his film writings a dimension that those of the American insiders, even the smartest ones, crucially lack. The screenwriter William Goldman, for example, gets a lot of praise for his wised-up memoirs about the ins and outs of the movie business. But next to Beresford’s, Goldman’s prose sounds compromised, imperfectly liberated from the value-system of Hollywood's cigar-chomping boors and hacks. At some level, Goldman still buys and likes all that macho shit about meeting-taking and deal-making.

Beresford, in contrast, is utterly disinclined to romanticise the film business. He isn’t merely smart by Hollywood standards. He is smart by any standard. He knows about a lot of things besides movies. He is therefore able to write about them in an unusually cultivated and sceptical way. At one point he recalls that the script for his 1986 film, Crimes of the Heart, was almost killed off by anonymous readers’ reports – which tend to be written, he says, “by the scantily educated and deeply insensitive, a notably formidable combination.” 

The way Beresford uses the word “insensitive” here says a lot about the seriousness of his aesthetic. He doesn’t mean that such types are insensitive to other people. He means they are insensitive in a far deeper way – insensitive to art, to nuance, to the human feelings that films are supposed to be about. 

In a cultural world where people like that call the shots, it seems almost touchingly old-fashioned of Beresford to mention the concept of education. But he is eminently well-qualified to do so. He isn't just an educated man in the formal sense. Far more importantly, he has never ceased teaching himself about the arts. The pieces in this book cover a rich assortment of enthusiasms: opera, music, literature, painting. There are pen portraits of artistic friends and heroes, including Clive James, Margaret Olley, Jeffrey Smart, Barry Humphries.

If one were forced to voice a lone quibble, it would be that Beresford’s prose, when he is paying tribute to such figures, loses some of its usual vigour. He sounds distinctly livelier when he is registering irritation than when he is dishing out praise. Then again, it’s a rare writer who can’t be convicted of that tendency.

Otherwise, one’s only complaint about this book is really a compliment. In places it’s too skeletal. You keep wanting to hear more, much more. When Beresford writes, without elaboration, “I went back to England and directed a lamentable rock musical,” you find yourself thinking: hang on. What rock musical? Who wrote it? Who was in it? In what respect was it lamentable? You want Beresford’s affable but mordant voice to settle in for the long haul. 

And let’s hope this will still happen, in due time, when Beresford feels that his movie work is done. The world needs the full and methodical Bruce autobiography, in which he will put juicier flesh on his skimpier anecdotes, and will freely put the torch to the handful of bridges that remain standing behind him. In the meantime, the current book gives us a welcome dose of his bracing tone. In a world rife with philistines, he demonstrates that the best revenge is laughter, and living and working well.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Russell Brand: Peeved Messiah

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 7-8, 2017

It is hard to dislike Russell Brand entirely. On the other hand, liking him more than a bit would probably be excessive. Not that an author’s likability ought to matter to a book reviewer. Many of the world's finest writers and thinkers were well known to have been jagweeds in their private lives. We are obliged to look beyond such considerations. We are obliged to distinguish the work from its creator. 

The trouble with Russell Brand, however, is that he persistently goes out of his way to render this distinction meaningless. Everything he does is all about him, in the end – and in the beginning and the middle too. Whether he is calling for global revolution, or doing his jittery, artless version of stand-up comedy, or proclaiming that we need to keep an “open mind” about who really felled the twin towers, or interviewing some expert he can’t wait to interrupt or speak over the top of, Brand is always engaged in the same basic project – that of imposing his febrile, needy personality on whatever subject or medium is at hand. 

This time around, the medium is a self-help book called Recovery. A picture of Brand’s face features prominently on the cover, as it does on many another Brand product. The eyes fix you with their familiar stare, half baffled, half petulant. He looks like a peeved messiah, or Che Guevara preparing to send back a plate of oysters. Above the photo looms his accidentally resonant name, in its jumbo font: the surname that means a product line, the forename that is a homonym for an inconsequential noise.

The subject of the book is addiction. The modern world, Brand believes, is a dangerously addictive place. Even if you are not technically an addict, you almost certainly have an unwanted dependency on something, such as chocolate, or your smartphone. 

This means that Brand is in a position to help you, since – as you may have somehow failed to hear – he spent the bulk of his youth being addicted to just about everything: heroin, crack, alcohol, sex, junk food, pornography. Since 2002, however, Brand has been free of his major addictions, and has been hard at work kicking his minor ones. 

He credits his recovery to the twelve-step abstinence method pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous. His book is meant to tell you how the twelve steps can work for you, by telling you how they have worked for him. Of course you could always look up the twelve steps online for free, if you were so inclined. They're not hard to find. And reading them won't take you long: they only go on for around two hundred words. This means that Brand, after enumerating the twelve steps in his book, has a lot of room left over in which to talk about himself: an opportunity he seizes with frenzied gusto. Traditionally, self-help books are meant to be about you, the reader. This one is largely about the guy who wrote it. Once again, Brand has hijacked an existing form, smothering its etiquette and customs beneath the whims of his fevered ego.

You could argue that this is a legitimate move, from the practical angle if not the aesthetic one. After all, there is an important message at the heart of this book. And let's face it: allowing Brand to put his personal spin on it means that the message will reach far more readers than it would if contained in a book written by a mere specialist or trained professional. Whether Brand's readers will be able to plough through 280 pages of his hectically improvised prose is another question. But let it be said, for the moment, that Brand has some undoubted personal virtues that offer partial compensation for the way he writes. He cares deeply about his subject. He has obvious compassion for other addicts. And he is insanely honest. “The one thing I’ve always been pretty certain about is that this life is all about me,” he writes at one point. You could deduce as much by reading a page or two of his prose, but it's nice to hear him admit it flat-out. “Self-centredness,” he writes elsewhere, is “the core of my condition.”

Anyway, the twelve steps have proved so personally useful to Brand that he sees no earthly reason why the rest of humanity shouldn’t want to become ardent twelve-steppers too. After all, he says, these days everyone is an addict, of one kind or another. Therefore the steps can serve as a “universal” social tonic – even though, or perhaps because, performing them will commit us to a more or less ceaseless contemplation of the self, with no time left over for studying the world beyond it. Step Ten alone, Brand says, will involve us in “a daily, possibly constant process of instantiation of new ideals.”

You can see why a serious drunk or drug addict might be ready to volunteer for a future filled with the rigours of daily "instantiation". But surely it would be a bit excessive for a mild chocoholic, say, to sign up for the same draconian cure? Well, not according to Brand. And so a book that might have been a slim and pointed manual for people with real problems becomes a bloated spiritual guidebook for our whole ailing society. “I suggest,” says Brand, that the 12-step program “could be the genesis of a new way of being.”

Without apparent irony – or without nearly enough – Brand proceeds to reveal that he would like us to view him not just as a recovery guru, but as a “sage” and “prophet” too. Unfortunately, Brand is a non-starter as an intellectual. He is simply incapable of seeing the world realistically, with humility. He seems to have no sense of its size and complexity; he doesn't seem to grasp that many things in it – most things in it – have nothing to do with him. Except for a merciful late chapter describing the birth of his first child, the atmosphere of this whole book is suffocatingly Russell-centric. 

As for religion, Brand’s position is as follows. He is too smart for vulgar monotheism: he sees right through all that. But he’s too smart for simple scepticism too. The way he sees it, all the big religions share a common message. And he feels that it's high time that somebody (guess who?) had the courage to salvage this precious message from the rubble of the world's collapsed or collapsing faiths. And the message is: “love is the answer.” Or, to put it a slightly different way: “But I know and you know (don’t you?) that there is beneath the shash of thought and the wrought ascent and bilious plunge of feeling, some code of which the Sufis sung (sic).” Wasn't Brand meant to have been a comedian, at some point in his career? What person with even a vestigial sense of humour would be caught dead writing a sentence like that?

Faced with a book like Brand's, the critic is obliged to engage in a familiar ritual. Again a celebrity non-writer has published a superfluous and disposable book. Again the reviewer is compelled to blow the whistle on it, so that order may be restored. But really it's a strange sort of order we have, when celebrity typists like Brand get paid immense sums of money to inform us that we live in a shallow culture. Not that Brand is wrong about that. We’re addicted to trivia, all right. But when he lists the many kinds of ephemera that we’re hooked on, he somehow forgets to mention books like this one, which deliver the quick sugar hit of a famous face on the cover, followed by the shameful realisation that you’ve been sucked in by the junk yet again.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mad, Sad and Bad

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 19-20, 2017

Andrew O’Hagan’s new book (The Secret Life, Faber & Faber) is a triptych of long essays, originally published in the London Review of Books, about personality in the age of the Internet. Two of O’Hagan’s three subjects are Australians. The first of these is Julian Assange, who, back in 2011, enlisted O’Hagan to serve as the ghost-writer of an ill-fated autobiography. The second is the computer scientist Craig Wright, who last year laid claim to being the shadowy Satoshi Nakamoto, inventor of the online currency bitcoin. 

O’Hagan’s essays are unified not just by their subject matter, but by the high level of intelligence and sympathy with which their author probes his hyper-modern themes. There are many ways in which the Internet threatens to make us less human, and more stupid. The online world is coarse and binary; and its baseness seems to have inspired O’Hagan to write a set of meditations that are especially rich in old-school literary virtues. The Assange piece, in particular, is a masterpiece of nuanced ethical engagement – and of devastating character analysis. 

O’Hagan’s history with Julian Assange began when the British publisher Canongate “bought, for £600,000, a memoir by the WikiLeaks founder.” In proper post-modern fashion, this “memoir” did not exist at the time. The idea was that Assange, having received his advance, would write such a book in the extremely near future. Or rather: that O’Hagan would write the book, with input and assistance from Assange. For months, O’Hagan made valiant efforts to involve Assange in the writing process. Increasingly it became clear that the soi-disant autobiographer had no intention of pitching in. In the end, O’Hagan produced a draft that Assange refused to sign off on. The publishers released it anyway, under the title Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography

Assange didn’t like that. And then, after publishing the book, O’Hagan wrote his not-very-flattering account of the way Assange had conducted himself during its composition. Assange must have liked that even less. It turns out that Assange made a grave mistake, when he invited the astute and sceptical O’Hagan into his orbit. And this mistake said a lot about him. It was, O’Hagan argues, a manifestation of Assange’s chronic tendency to forget that other people have minds of their own. “He thought I was his creature and he forgot what a writer is, someone with a tendency to write things down and perhaps seek the truth and aim for transparency.” 

Of course, Assange himself claims to be a big fan of truth and transparency. But he and O’Hagan have radically different ideas about what these words mean. According to Assange, truth is synonymous with data, and transparency is something you demand from institutions. And such transparency must be total and unconditional, which means it is only fair to access and publicise institutional data by machine, in bulk, with minimal human involvement. Hence the WikiLeakean preference for the vast and unedited electronic information dump. Even Edward Snowden, one of the great leakers of our time, has chipped WikiLeaks for its “hostility to even modest curation.” 

Assange thinks big. He is, says O’Hagan, “not a details guy.” He has a few simple and unbendable beliefs, and he prosecutes them with a puritan’s zeal. He loves “the big picture … but not the fine print.” For O’Hagan, novelist and man of letters, things are the other way around: maybe there is a big picture, but it can’t be reached except by way of the fine print – the specific observation, the quoted piece of dialogue. 

Another reviewer of O'Hagan's book has said that it deals with “slippery” characters. But slippery isn’t quite the word for Assange; and maybe character isn't the right word either. Groping through the smog of the man's rhetoric, O’Hagan sometimes seems to wonder if there’s any character behind it at all. At one point, Assange’s agent assures O’Hagan that Assange, despite appearances, really does want his memoir to happen. O’Hagan’s exasperated reply is instructive: 

“And what does that mean, ‘I want a book’? He wants a book by not allowing it to be written? By not doing the work? By not committing himself to the interviews or liking what emerges from them? In what sense does he want a book?” 

Words, O’Hagan insists, must have meaning; claims must have content. This isn’t just a linguistic point. It is the very basis of ethics: in the end, we must be judged by what we do, not what we say. Assange, the big-picture man, seems to think that having high ideals exempts you from having to behave with personal integrity. A lot of starry-eyed revolutionaries have thought that way through history; and their revolutions have had an uncanny habit of turning sour. As a young hacker, Assange's handle was “splendide mendax” – noble liar. As an adult, he “has a notion,” according to O’Hagan, “that WikiLeaks floats above other organisations and their rules.” 

If we take the view that morality begins at home, Assange begins to look like a very iffy hero for our times. Like other Assange watchers, O'Hagan finds himself repelled by the visionary’s table manners. He eats with his hands. He licks his plate. He lets other people make his meals, and – far from washing the dishes – never so much as takes his dirty plate to the sink. This, O’Hagan concedes, “doesn’t make him Josef Mengele.” Still: “I found his egotism at the dinner table to be a form of madness more striking than anything he said.” Again, the local detail points us the wider ethical question. If we all gave ourselves permission to behave like that, what would the world be like? 

Early in his career, Assange was fond of quoting a maxim of Oscar Wilde’s: give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth. WikiLeaks, whose website uses technology that conceals the identities of its informants under a veil of random noise, is ready to proceed on the assumption that Wilde was right. But was he? Spend ten minutes online and you start to wonder if Wilde’s epigram doesn’t need some serious tweaking. Give people a mask and they will behave abysmally. 

WikiLeaks has a mixed record in the moral field. On the credit side of the ledger, more or less, you have the story of Chelsea Manning, who divulged American military secrets to the site. Manning can just about be called a “whistleblower” in the classic and honourable sense. She saw things that concerned her; she leaked them, although she leaked mountains of collateral data at the same time; although she didn’t precisely step forward to identify herself as the leak’s author, she knew the risk of exposure was high; and she suffered the consequences when they came. 

Compare that with WikiLeaks’ latest contribution to history: the publication, during the American election campaign, of the internal emails of the Democratic National Committee. That was not a leak but a hack, whose object wasn’t to ventilate and reform the processes of American democracy but to subvert and corrupt them – to sway the election in favour of a man with a professed contempt for the nation’s democratic institutions, its free press, and indeed for truth itself. 

So who was the masked perpetrator of that hack? The FBI, CIA and NSA have unanimously declared that it was Russia. Against this, we have Assange’s personal assurance that it wasn’t. But as O’Hagan is only the latest writer to demonstrate, Assange has by now wholly frittered away his right to be taken at his word about anything. He claims to be a friend to America and its institutions. But in practice he seems to be out there with Putin and Trump, trying to knock down those institutions with a wrecking ball. There was a time when Assange could plausibly assert that his goal was to improve America’s imperfect democracy. But the American landscape has changed: these days, imperfect democracy is beginning to look pretty good, considering the Trumpean alternative, which has the feel of a ghastly reality show that can’t be switched off. These are the alternatives currently on offer in the real world. Which of them would Assange prefer? If he would prefer the former, he's got a funny way of showing it. But for some reason the radical mind has a horror of impurity and imperfection and compromise, and likes chaos much better.  

It would be misleading to convey the impression that O’Hagan’s essay on Assange is a hatchet job. Like the book’s other pieces, it is rooted in a desire to understand. Indeed its overall effect is poignant, because it demonstrates that Assange is his own worst enemy. He seems constitutionally incapable of keeping a friend. The great whistleblower trails behind himself a growing cohort of former colleagues and sympathisers who have ultimately felt compelled to blow the whistle on him. This cohort now includes O’Hagan. “The extent of Julian’s lying,” he writes, “convinced me that he is probably a little mad, sad and bad.” In the tribal world of the Internet, this will be taken as proof that O’Hagan is an “enemy” of Assange, who has set out to smear him. But let us recall that this is a book, not a tweet. In books, context still matters, and so does language. In a book, as in the more civilised spheres of real life, “convinced” isn’t something you start off being; it’s something you become, after absorbing the little details and seeing what they add up to.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, January 21-22, 2017

How long is too long for a book about the Bay City Rollers? 550 pages would seem to be pushing it, for a band whose heyday has started to seem, in sober retrospect, more like a heyminute. It’s not even clear that the Rollers were a “band,” in the strict sense of the word. For the most part they didn’t play on their own records. Session men supplied the musicianship. The Rollers supplied the toilet-brush hair-dos, the three-quarter length flared trousers, and the tartan accoutrements. At the time this look caused a sensation, but it has not aged well. Nor has the sieve of posterity been kind to their songs. If you can name or sing one of their hits – leaving aside the cover versions – your grasp of Scottish ephemera is surer than mine. 

Simon Spence, author of this hefty new book on the Rollers, thinks it’s time that our memories were jogged, or clobbered. Perhaps, in theory, he has a point. It would be fun to have a literate, stylish, self-consciously pulpy book about Rollermania. Unfortunately, that book would have to be written by somebody other than Spence, whose prose is at best barely competent, with frequent lapses into the deplorable. The nicest thing you can say about him is that he’s done a lot of research. But you know this for a bad reason: he seems to have dumped every last bit of it into the book. If he has weeded anything out for the sake of narrative symmetry, or because he’s aware that life is short, it doesn’t show. At times he lays on a level of detail that would be excessive in a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill. 

The first version of the Bay City Rollers was formed by a trio of Edinburgh youngsters in 1966. Right from the start, they displayed a flair for the synthetic. Wanting a name that evoked far-off lands, they stuck a pin into a map of the United States. It landed on, or near, a town named Bay City. The Rollers bit came because they liked wheels. 

The Rollers’ lineup never stayed the same for very long. Keeping track of their constant personnel changes is like following the plot twists in a Vin Diesel movie: difficult, and not all that rewarding. At one stage there was something that fans call the classic lineup. This tufty quintet became the object of Rollermania, an international craze that peaked in 1976, and took especially zany form in Australia. In Sydney, 4,000 fans got into a parking garage and stormed the band’s limo. “There was a feeling we were about to die,” the lead singer would recall.

If the story of the Rollers remains relevant, it’s because they were post-modernists before their time, accidental pioneers of pop’s long swerve away from substance. “Their strengths were not in singing and not in playing,” said one of their early producers. “But they looked great.” In other words, they helped to inaugurate the age of the empty image. 

Or rather, their manager did. The Rollers’ Svengali, or Mephistopheles, was a deeply unsavoury man named Tam Paton. Paton had studied the career and techniques of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles. Unlike Epstein, whose influence waned as the Beatles quit touring and grew into their talents, Paton had the slyness to attach himself to an act that was, to put it mildly, in no danger of conceiving the next Sergeant Pepper’s. This meant that Paton could be the indispensable one, while the band members could be shuffled in and out at his whim. Paton ran the Rollers, said one of his associates, as a “musical chair situation. If there were five Rollers on stage, he always had another couple in reserve in case anyone stepped out of line.” 

Paton was a control freak, and several other kinds of freak too. On the road, he didn’t let the Rollers room with each other for more than one night on the trot. He didn’t want them forming alliances. Nor did he want them having girlfriends. Ostensibly this was a publicity thing: he wanted them to seem available, for the sake of the fans. Non-ostensibly, Paton had darker motives. He fancied the Rollers himself, because they looked like underaged boys, whom he fancied too. He warned the band that heterosexual intercourse was hazardous to the health: he said men and women could get stuck together permanently while doing it. He said women had an internal mechanism that could slam down and trap you in there. Some of the Rollers, who seem to have joined the band as virgins, were traumatised for life by such stuff. 

Tellingly, Paton invented no parallel tales about the perils of homosexual congress. On the contrary: he convened all-male orgies in the Rollers’ hotel rooms, and heartily urged them to join in. Considering his habit of firing recalcitrant band members, the Rollers’ ability to turn him down was compromised. To blur the issue of consent further, Paton plied the band with Quaaludes. Two Rollers would later allege that he raped them. There were hints and rumours that he violated other band members too. In time, he would be convicted of committing acts of gross indecency on teenaged boys. 

As the Rollers aged, Rollermania abated. By the early eighties, the band was definitively in decline. This part of the story is not pretty. The Rollers try to remake themselves as New Wavers. At one point they are reduced to recording a Buck’s Fizz cover. One of them gets busted for possessing child pornography. A former Roller stars in his own adult feature, after befriending a luminary of the porn industry named Ben Dover. 

All this would be less dispiriting if Spence could write with panache, or at all. Instead his slapdash English deepens the general sense of squalor. “During the interview, Bendoris reported gleefully how Paton had mistakenly left his trouser zip undone.” It seems far likelier that Bendoris reported this later on, after the interview was over. Spence’s jumbled syntax wears you out, after a while. Almost certainly you spend more time unscrambling such sentences in your head, and reassembling them into coherence, than he spent writing them in the first place. He makes five hundred pages feel like a thousand. 

Still, there are some incidental amusements, as when Spence refers to the “two-armed men” that Paton hired for purposes of security. A quiz for hyphen buffs: did Paton’s security detail consist of two men with weapons, or an unspecified number of men with two arms? Probably Spence wants to evoke the former scenario, but it’s hard to be sure, because he can be a stickler for the superfluous detail. On page 526, by which time Paton has died but hasn’t quite been buried, and the reader is weeping for release, Spence finds it necessary to note that Paton’s funeral occurred “at Edinburgh’s stark, modernist Basil Spence-designed Mortonhall Crematorium.” Even if Paton were Mozart, let alone Mozart’s manager, one could live without knowing quite this much about his crematorium. 

Spence claims, somewhere near the start of his book, that “the story of The Bay City Rollers is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions and complexity.” This is going a bit far. Certainly the wide-eyed young Rollers deserved a far less vile mentor than Tam Paton, who seems to have ruined several of them psychologically, as well as ripping them off to a man. The Rollers never saw more than a meagre fraction of the wealth they generated. One of them wound up working as a plumber, and wished he’d been a plumber all along. All this is very sad. You could even call it tragic. But to qualify as Shakespearean, the sad end must be preceded by greatness, of one sort or another. Mere fame, and unmerited fame at that, is not much of a height to fall from.