Saturday, 12 October 2013

Thylogale billardierii

I recently found some time to see a couple of shows at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and because they were so enjoyable (and because a few people I know would have loved to attend) I thought I'd write up a bit of a rundown of what I remember of them.


Shortly after I went to sleep one evening in June 1992, my dad woke me up to watch the last fifteen minutes of the first episode of a new live comedy show on the ABC called "The Late Show". That TV show and the others it spawned turned out to be probably the biggest influence on my teenage life, and principally this was because of one man - Tony Martin.

He looked like an older version of the 13-year-old me, a dag in a pair of round glasses, but he was funny and confident on stage. Like much of the population, we had "The Late Show" on every Saturday night without fail. When it ended in December 1993, some of the cast embarked on a series of stand-up tours across the nation. I was still a few months short of 15, and living in a semi-rural town which for entertainment had an occasional Blue Light Disco - there was to be no live version of Not With The Good Scissors for me. The stand-up stopped well before I was out of high school, but Tony was suddenly more accessible as the presenter of the national radio show "Martin/Molloy", which broadened his appeal to include people who didn't watch the ABC.

It was to be a full twenty-one years before I got to see him live, in (no less true for being a cliché) the intimate venue of The Butterfly Club. I'd never been there before; you go down a city alleyway, climb two flights of stairs, walk through a long bar and a long lounge decorated thusly, then go up another flight of stairs to a miniscule stage with seating in roughly the same layout as a 767. I sat in what would have been aisle seat 2C.

I knew that the show was a retelling of "The Yeti", a piece from Tony's autobiographical collection "Lolly Scramble" - but even though it was going to be largely stuff I was already familiar with I was excited to hear how he would perform the piece. There doesn't seem to be any love in Australia for the audiobook, which is the perfect presentation for his solo material, but I'd heard one piece ("Breakfast in Dubbo") performed before as an audio segment, and I wasn't going to miss this chance to hear a second piece performed live.

Sometimes when you see a person you've known through the media for years, it's a bit weird. You notice that they're shorter than you assumed, or they have grey hair behind their ears, or they're a fucking racist. But when Tony Martin walked onstage, there he was. It was Tony, he nodded briefly in acknowledgement of the applause, and he launched straight into the tale.

The story of "The Yeti" is of a young Tony Martin living in a boarding house in Auckland, run by an eccentric couple who only seem to take on eccentric boarders. From such a humdrum topic is wrought almost an hour of amusement. It wasn't constant laughter, but that wasn't what I was there for. I've no idea if the performance was altered from the published version - if it was, it was minor, and certainly there was nothing that I hadn't read in the book. That sentence might read as a criticism, but this was emphatically not a stand-up show - it was fifty-five minutes or so of character, of escalating bewilderment, of giving voice to the bizarre and exaggerated individuals who peopled the one-man play.

There was no audience interaction. No "you know" or "right?" to acknowledge the presence of others. And this worked. There was a mirror onstage, fixed to the wall stage left. It formed no part of the show. Every five minutes, a small blackout marked a pause.

So, it got to the show's end, which in the book reads
"all I have left is a copy of the article about Boyle's cigarette holder, a handwritten list of over fifty of Gunter's most popular sayings [...] and a single blurry snapshot of the house itself. Only when I look at these fading, fraying items can I be sure I didn't simply dream the whole damn thing."
It ended the same way in the show. But magically, astoundingly, a projection appeared on the white back of the stage, and there were the items concerned.

I'm not overly fussed when comedians exaggerate events, borrow stories, or compress and move things around to make funny things funnier. Stewart Lee, in his book "How I Escaped My Certain Fate", details how he described things his wife saw as things he himself saw, or tellingly changed the inappropriate inflatable alien doll left outside Kensington Palace after Diana's death from the now-forgotten A.L.F. to the more familiar E.T. (and then gets a further joke out of this change). I've heard Tony Martin do it himself on the "Late Show" DVD commentary, stating that there were three websites devoted to stagehand Alf Camilleri by the time the series finished, which is funnier than saying that there would have been if the internet was used for things like that in 1993.

So picture my shock, my glee, my undisguised delight when "Smoking Goes Out the Window" turned out to be a real newspaper clipping, with Boyle himself looking the elaborately-mustachioed prize dick we know him to be; when Gunter's sayings on a frayed bit of foolscap written in the identifiably younger hand of T Martin appeared; when a woman in the audience cooed at the washed-out old picture of a New Zealand house torn from everyone's shared childhood. It was truly astounding and just what I wanted to the show to be.


This was a weird little live art happening that I attended having arrived much too early for the DC3 show. I had read about Confetti in the festival program, which succinctly describes the performance as lasting about two minutes, playing to one person at a time, and being donation only. As it was going to be performed to an audience of just me, I assumed that it would be somewhat personal in nature. Beyond imagining that someone might ask me to blow a feather into a basket in a weird ASMR trip, I didn't think too much about what it might be. I got to the venue, which was the basement of the North Melbourne Town Hall. A gentleman stood by a door. I said I'd come to see Confetti. Silently, he nodded, directed me to a series of instructions written on the door (entry by donation, you may have to wait, etc) and then beckoned me to place some money in a small box. I took out my coin purse and emptied several dollars (and, accidentally, a button that had come off my shirt that week) into it. I was given a balloon to hold and ushered to a seat.

While waiting I noticed that no one else had come on their own (I'd come to North Melbourne for the DC3 show, and my wife judges herself - as a foreigner - too culturally remote from Australian satire). I twiddled my balloon and watched as others went through the door before me. There seemed to be a lot of shrieking involved behind the door. I noticed that there was simultaneously another show in the basement (this one) which looked more like what I had expected of Confetti. It looked calming and fun. Meanwhile a ten-year-old boy was emerging from the Confetti door doing an comic impression of someone who had just seen more than they'd ever expected to.

I was collected. The aforementioned gentleman and his colleague took my bag and coat, stood me in place, directed me to knock on the door, and then pushed me through. The following took about sixty seconds and a lot of the impressions were fleeting:
  • Two women pulled me into an underlit room entirely wallpapered with reflective prismatic stuff.
  • Dancing Queen was playing on a stereo, a glitterball was turning, they were shouting with excitement at my having arrived.
  • They made me dance with them. Made me!
  • In the indoor twilight, under the influence of ABBA, I was invited to down a shot of vodka, port, or something non-alcoholic. (Vodka.)
  • One woman gave me a stick and the other climbed up on a chair, holding out a piñata. I was allowed three tries to burst the piñata. (At this point I had forgotten I was a six-foot tall man in my thirties, and I swung a little bit too hard in my eagerness, slightly unbalancing the momentarily-worried-looking lady on the chair. I suddenly remembered I was not at my own sixth birthday party, and took two very mild pokes at the piñata to no further effect.) My failure was applauded with cheers and confetti.
  • I had to blow out a candle on a cake. There was more dancing. The music had somehow changed to Xanadu. The lights changed and everything was dark, except for weird fluorescent shapes which suddenly appeared on the women's dresses as they shimmied "for you, Xanadu" to me, kissed me on the cheeks and kicked me out the door.
Whereupon the two gentlemen straight-facedly handed my bag and coat back and nodded a curt goodbye.

It was hard to top that; nonetheless, the main attraction of the evening was still to come.


I got into TISM when I was 19. "Whatareya?" had just come out and it was a work of genius. I bought the album "" and it was twelve works of genius. It came not with a hidden track, but literally with a hidden CD. It was an education for me in really delivering to an audience, of playing with expectations. TISM were a band. They were often described as an anti-band, or even "about a band", which gets close to what they were. Being an anti-band, they often attracted anti-fans, which I'm not sure is a concept that translates to people who are fans of regular bands. Because the members of TISM were clearly false personae, they adhered to a made-up, abstruse, and ever-changing philosophy. It was all nonsense, but great fun. Back in 1998, TISM were touring Australia and NZ, and lead singer Humphrey B Flaubert regularly posted wry, amusing updates on the forum on the album's website. This was my first year in uni, so you can imagine what a potent Bachelor of Arts cocktail of influence I was under. I loved the whole idea of TISM, and there was a great satisfaction in getting to know them more than ten years after their career had started. In about nine months, I had hoovered their decade-long oeuvre. But I had never got the message: TISM fans were supposed to hate TISM. It was supposedly a terrible mask-removal for Humphrey to post on the forum as if he was a real person who had dressed up in a balaclava and played a rock show. Certain of the fans criticised the band for failing to criticise the fans. I never paid an ounce of attention to this - Humphrey was my hero in those dying days when I was still young enough to have heroes.

I went to plenty of TISM gigs in Sydney and Canberra - once even trekking to Melbourne for the DeRigueurmortis launch gig (eight hours in a bus from Canberra, slept at a friend's house, did some record shopping, saw gig, slept in the North Melbourne Youth Hostel, then eight hours in a bus back to Canberra). I once met Humphrey. It was at the Amnesty International signing tent at Homebake. You joined a big queue in hopes that by the time you got to the front, the band you wanted to see would be in the middle of their 15-minute timeslot for signing. I joined the queue and chatted to this girl from my home town who wanted to get John Butler's autograph. When TISM's timeslot arrived I was miles from the front. Crucially, I also noticed the queue had stopped moving. The people at the front were hoping that Paul Dempsey would lay his hands on their stricken brows or something, and they didn't want to give up their spot to talk to TISM. I excused myself from the conversation and jumped the entire queue. I spoke to Tokin, I didn't try to be funny, just told him that I loved the band's music and it was nice to meet him. Then I noticed that Humphrey was free, and I asked to shake his hand. He seemed a bit pleased with this. I told him his music had changed my life. (It had.) He thanked me and asked my name. He then signed a piece of paper with the words "Hi Ryan, Dear Ryan, Do you like the Beta Band? -Humphrey". I then tried to be funny and it didn't work. In retrospect, I'm glad for that little failure; the character of Humphrey glowered at me like he did at so much besides.

I was living in Japan when TISM played their final gigs. I was living in the UK when Humphrey formed his new band Root!, broke up his new band Root!, started using his real name, Damian Cowell, for a solo album, then formed his newer band the DC3. By the time I moved back to Australia he had finished touring the first DC3 album. All up it was ten years between Damian Cowell gigs for me when I saw the DC3 at the Northcote Social Club in 2012. Since then I've seen a bunch. The launch gigs of the second DC3 album early this year were some of the most joyous experiences I've had at a gig. There are plenty of songs that welcome positivity, which in a way is surprising. That's not the schtick. But then the schtick was only ever a veneer, and I love the positive songs just like I enjoyed Humphrey posting back in the day about some sweet moment of connection with a member of the audience that he felt onstage at the Metro in 1998.

Back in August I saw the DC3 at the Workers Club in Fitzroy. Damian was as sick as a dog, he clearly needed to be at home in bed. I found it a bit confronting, because my dad had died a few months earlier and they both had the same shaped head; my dad had wasted away from an aggressive cancer and weirdly this made me worried about the man onstage. It's a wholly inappropriate way to feel about an artist you admire - concerned for their health - because as much as you can be concerned for anyone's health in general, you don't know this person. I've said hello to him once or twice. Every now and then I see him in the street, as his 9-to-5 job must be based fairly near mine. But that I've listened to his art weekly for the last fifteen years does not create a relationship, just a fan. I keep coming back. I hope he keeps putting stuff out.

"Modern Unconsciousness" was something I wasn't sure would be successful. In summary, it's a concept album performed live onstage. As the DC3's lyrics are often very fast and wordplay-heavy, I wasn't sure how well this would play in keeping a narrative going. Of course, this problem had been foreseen - they played in front of a giant PowerPoint projection which included all the lyrics. Like surtitles at the opera. Totally legitimate. The story is that DC, on the tram to Southern Cross station (as I myself am, every morning) experiences an odd form of enlightenment whereby he is granted access to Modern Unconsciousness, which is half exclusive nightclub, and half extended metaphor for the banality of success as posited by reality TV and celebrity. Almost all of the songs were new to me. ("Indistinguishable" made an appearance, along with revamped versions of "The Book of Job" and "Anakie")

Performancewise, Henri and Douglas anchor the stage with a genial determination not to draw attention to themselves too much. Douglas smiles and Henri doesn't. Damian runs around doing his trademark hold-a-pose every so often. The set was deliberately minimal. Not to give away the ending of the show, but there were only three props and two of them were bananas. They will not be winning a Helpmann Award. It was the best show I've seen for a long time.

I imagine that "Modern Unconsciousness" will form part of the next DC3 album - it's certainly full of excellent stuff: the God monologues, the song "The Invisible Gorilla" - it'd be a shame to never get a chance to hear these again. Maybe it could be the first album released as a PowerPoint file.

Did I say I'm too old to have heroes? Well... I take that back, maybe. And next time I see DC in the street you know what I'll do? I'll politely let him get on with his life without interrupting.


I was desperate to see one of these gigs, after falling in love with the single "Men Teach The Boiz (Gurlz Kiss the Boiz)". (Certain bands I like owe debts to the Residents.) It just didn't happen. Next time, C.E.E., next time.

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