Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds invited the Laughing Clowns to reform to appear at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival they curated staged in Sydney on Cockatoo Island in January, 2009. It had been about twenty five years since their last performance. They were sublime. “I loved that band,” Nick said. All Tomorrow’s Parties looped back to the beginning of the punk rock era in Australia. Seeing the Boys Next Door and the Go Betweens and the Laughing Clowns on the same bill was remarkable in the early 1980s. But what these musicians are creating now is exponentially more remarkable. I remember the excitement of seeing Grinderman perform in Sydney in 2007. Much had been made in the press of Nick turning fifty. This side-band of his was a blast of rude energy acting as a Trojan Horse cloaking smart, provocative lyrics. The Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women” is a folk song for our era; our problems, our delusions, our mistakes are described but at the end we’re encouraged to “come on back to the fray”. When Michael Almereyda explained his motivation for filming an adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 he quoted Emily Dickinson’s response to Shakespeare’s writing: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head is being taken off I know this is poetry.” This electrifying sense is what I always feel at performances by any of Nick’s bands and the Laughing Clowns, then and now. I loved the Laughing Clowns on first sight twenty five years ago. The instrumental complexity was familiar to me, as a jazz fan who strayed into popular music, and Jeffrey Wegener has always provided for me the equivalent of the sharp liner notes that were printed on jazz record sleeves. But what Ed’s songs and musical arrangements introduced me to, that has deepened slowly over the years, is an appreciation of the heart-lifting qualities of soul music. The sexy groove of the brass arrangements is exhilarating but the Laughing Clowns have a vast dynamic and emotional range and what was most moving for me was the sweetness in their quieter moments. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter delivered me to the Laughing Clowns. And Duke Ellington delivered me to Wayne Shorter. I started listening to Duke Ellington’s music when I was a child and it guided me through life. He had a reverent curiosity and kept evolving and progressing, expanding the boundaries of his music and he brought into his orbit younger musicians who had the same inquisitiveness. I discovered Charles Mingus when he made The Money Jungle with Duke Ellington. I discovered John Coltrane through his duet with Duke Ellington on “In a Sentimental Way”, which remains one of the most elegant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They make sound feel richly soft, as if it were cashmere or velvet. In his autobiography Duke Ellington called John Coltrane “a beautiful cat” and rhapsodized about how smooth their recording session had been. When Duke Ellington died in 1974 I was looking for another mentor. I read somewhere that John Coltrane had suggested Wayne Shorter as a replacement when he wanted to leave Miles Davis’s band. I was beginning to become interested in Buddhism and was intrigued by the Zen references in Bill Evans’s liner notes for Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and John Coltrane’s spiritual music. I discovered that Wayne Shorter was a practicing Buddhist. He has Duke Ellington’s expansive curiosity: “I need to find out more about other people’s cultures with the time I have left,” he told Ben Ratliff, music editor of the New York Times, in 2004. “Because when I’m writing something that sounds like my music – well, not my music. I don’t possess music – but when they say ‘Wayne Shorter’s playing those snake lines,’ I should take that willingness to do that, and extend it to the desire to find out more about what is not easy to follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else’s life.” Long before the pop world could accept the seriousness and strength of Joni Mitchell’s jazz impulses he played on her records. And last year he appeared on Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River. Amongst new arrangements of her songs they played his composition, “Nefertiti”, made famous by Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock played Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”. When I was a teenage journalist Wayne Shorter was the first person I conducted a long radio interview with. He was touring Australia with Weather Report. It was a great late line-up of the band with Joe Zawinul on piano, Peter Erskine on drums and the explosively soulful Jaco Pastorious on bass. It was thrilling to see a jazz band walk onto a concert hall stage lined to the rafters with stacks of speaker boxes. A heavy metal band might have emerged from the wings. Or Parliament might have walked onstage, plugged in their instruments, and stirred up some incendiary funk. Later the same night I saw Weather Report play an acoustic set at a small jazz club and what they played had a profound, painfully tender beauty. A couple of weeks ago Ben Ratliff was taking questions from New York Times readers. He was asked which of the musicians he’s interviewed he found the most opaque or confounding. “Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque,” he replied. “But I think there’s a reason we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say – about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things – you see that underneath the oracular statements are some strong and simple ideas and a lot of humour.” It’s with that spirit I approached the Laughing Clowns. There were long stretches where I saw them perform every week. They struck me as something highly original. In speaking with Jeffrey and Ed it became clear that there was little overlap between the jazz I was familiar with and what they listened to. I had practically no frame of reference for anything from popular music. It was obvious they were drawing from a wide range of inspirations but there was something about them that was entirely themselves. They inspired trust. I was less interested in trying to reduce them to something familiar than waiting for what was entirely new about them to become familiar on its own terms. The bizarre thing that Ed has to deal with is that one of the legends he’s constantly being compared to is himself. Timewise, the Saints independent single “(I’m) Stranded” is the big bang, an explosion of energy out of nowhere that brought the punk rock movement to life in among the Australian musicians I got to know. There was magic and danger in the combination of Ed’s guitar and Chris Bailey’s voice. Punk rock was a global phenomenon, a response to a time not an artistic movement, and it now seems inevitable, but the Saints were among the earliest. I was curious and grateful to see the Saints perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. They hadn’t been a part of my world. It was probably Clinton Walker who played for me the records that Ed made with Chris Bailey, and I responded most to their third and last record together, Prehistoric Sounds: its brass arrangements and deep soul groove set the direction Ed would follow with the Laughing Clowns. Robert Forster wrote about the first time in thirty years that the Ed and Chris Bailey and original drummer Ivor Hay played together as the Saints, a year and a half ago in Brisbane:


ROSANNE CASH & ALEXANDRA LANGE: heirs to Edith Wharton

first published on the Huffington Post on September 9, 2010


In February, Alexandra Lange created a storm with an essay on Design Observer suggesting that the New York Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, is not good enough:

Ouroussoff has an opinion about design, but his reviews offer not much more than that, opinion. His approach — little history, less politics, occasional urbanism — shrinks the critic’s role to commenting only on the appearance of architecture.

She described a man whose feet don’t touch the ground as he jets around the world writing about one superstar skyscraper after another. In my mind I have an image of a man in a Prada suit dangling from a glass facade by a V.I.P. pass attached to a lanyard.

She was concerned that he has no deep engagement with New York City: “I don’t recall him ever referring to his neighbourhood, to a favourite park or plaza or to the pedestrian everyday city that the rest of us occupy.”

And that his writing is lifeless, that it’s polished to a polite sheen, but has no bite or character.

Mark Lamster and Lange have instituted a “Lunch With The Critics” column on Design Observer, discussing, on location, architectural projects that are creating an impact. Recently they discussed Park 51, the proposal for a mosque and community center in lower Manhattan.

“It’s been gratifying to see our mayor so heroically defend the project, but I’m rather surprised — or perhaps not surprised — that we haven’t heard from Times critic Nicolai Ourousoff on the matter,” said Mark Lamster.

“I agree that Park 51 is the sort of situation in which Mayor Bloomberg, with his no nonsense rhetoric and nasal Massachusetts accent, shines,” replied Lange. “He’s not letting the right get away with turning this into a security issue, and he is acting like a real New Yorker, letting everyone go about their business (porn shops, delis, cultural centres) knowing that two blocks is a relative distance. It is as close or as far as it feels to you.”

The critic’s willingness to engage with thorny big issues is important, but in reading Lange’s blog, and her tweets, I’ve become struck by how her point is made through the patient accumulation of sharply observed ordinary details. Last week on her blog she casually drew attention to a poster on a bus shelter advertising the movie The Social Network, which had the words “Punk, “Billionaire” and “Genius” superimposed over the sweet face of the young actor portraying Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:

I understand I am supposed to be wowed by the contrast between his downy face and the words Punk Billionaire Genius but what non-modelesque young man gets a billboard of his face nowadays who isn’t an upstart genius online billionaire?

It was the way that she identified the typeface on the poster — “Crypto-Kruger typography, with lightweight Futura in a justified block” — that made me think of Edith Wharton’s writing. I sent her a message through Twitter saying that identifying the typeface seemed like good etiquette. “I am all about the etiquette,” she replied. “I write thank you letters. Credit where credit is due is the bare minimum.”

We can appreciate the works of novelists who created portraits of cities and society from patiently accumulated small, ordinary details — Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James — as astute critics and city desk reporters. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is set in 1870s New York and through the Countess Olenska we see the stirrings of modernism that would eventually demolish the old society.

2010-09-03-images3.jpegCountess Olenska’s study. Still from Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence.

The Paths to Abstraction exhibition currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales chronicles this time. It begins in 1873 with Whistler making a connection between painting and music leading on to Degas and Monet and Cezanne painting what they were thinking and feeling about the landscape as much as what they were seeing. Running parallel are the discoveries and science and the feats of engineering that were transforming the way people lived and worked and entertained themselves — the Remington typewriter, James Clerk Maxwell’s studies of electricity and magnetism, the telephone, the gas engine, the phonograph, the electric light bulb, the machine gun, the skyscraper, the automobile, Kodak’s camera with film on rolls, x-rays, Lumiere’s movies, Freud’s theories of the psyche, quantum theory, the Wright Brothers first flight. Art, science and engineering began to converge in 1905 with Einstein’s “Special Theory of Relativity” and cubist and abstract paintings with shapes that could as easily have been parts of machines as anything organic. The timeline finishes in 1917 with things getting crazy with Duchamp’s urinal and the first Dada exhibition.

Edith Wharton describes Newland Archer’s shock at seeing, for the first time, what must have been impressionist paintings: “But these pictures bewildered him, for they were nothing that he was accustomed to look at (and therefore able to see) when he travelled in Italy.” Our social customs condition the eye: I’ve been looking at paintings of the Australian landscape by early European settlers who couldn’t come to terms with the strangeness of the Australian fauna. The collection of the Mitchell Library contains a sketch of a koala by the surveyor William Govett that’s part monkey and part small European brown bear. At the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a painting by John Skinner Prout from the 1860s that has kangaroos with faces that are part fox, part rat.

Edith Wharton doesn’t attack people and systems to make them seem ridiculous, she just accurately describes them and we see them for what they are, with all the delusions vanity brings. The book begins at the opera: “She sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.”

One of Lange’s criticisms of Nicolai Ouroussoff is that he’s immersed in the rarified world of the superstar architects — Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel — and his stories are only about “the endless renewal of architects dreams.” Her piece is an homage to a piece Michael Sorkin wrote in the Village Voice in the 1980’s criticizing the New York Times architecture critic of the day, Paul Goldberger, for being unable to tell truth to power. Michael Sorkin’s writing is both brilliantly funny and deeply knowledgeable, and his columns in the Village Voice in the 1980s chronicled the time when the notion of the designer and architect as rock star was starting to gather steam. When Edith Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920, New York was moving into a period when arts had a fine comic edge. The Marx Brothers in vaudeville would take their absurdity into film, alongside the screwball comedies of the 1930’s. The New Yorkerwould be a home of fine comic reporting from Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and James Thurber, that would lead to Joseph Mitchell’s great humorous accounts of the lives of eccentrics and bums and ordinary people towards the end of the 1930s. The musicians of the time, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Yip Harburg, had Wharton’s eye for detail and delivered their observations with wit.

Design in the 1980s had a sharp comic edge too. Harold Koda and the late Richard Martin were curating exhibitions at the Fashion Institute of Technology that were a mix of reverently scholarly art history, design appreciation and wicked wit. An historical survey of tartan ended with a pair of Vivienne Westwood tartan bondage pants that had been donated by Simon Doonan, who was creating subversive window displays at the Barneys that was a few blocks away at the time in Chelsea.

2010-09-03-images4.jpegGlenn O’Brien and Jean Philippe Delhomme ad for Barneys

Glenn O’Brien was writing great comic copy for Barneys ads. Even the designs of Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, while not humorous, were intentionally absurd: Kawakubo’s designed a “lace” sweater with a pattern of holes created by loosening screws in knitting machines. The Storefront for Art and Architecture was founded by Kyong Park in 1982, and it made architecture seem like the wildest, most important activity imaginable. There were openings there, in the late 1980s, that reminded me of the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffanys, with people from every walk of life, particularly the eccentric, egghead fringes and a crazy atmosphere. I expected diplomats to be disappearing out the bathroom window before the place was raided.

A few years later there was an opening for a Rem Koolhaas show at the Museum of Modern Art that was completely cut off from the city. I remember a chilly aura of branded glamor and names being checked off a guest list, and now that I think back on it, I can’t recall the models under glass, I just have a vision of the displays of accessories at a Prada store.

The turning point in the 1980s was perhaps Philippe Starck’s renovation of the Royalton Hotel for Ian Schrager. It was brilliantly designed and conceived. I remember walking through the hotel with Ian Schrager, before it opened, feeling like I was accompanying the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole. I was writing an article for Blueprint and Schrager was commenting upon the work of designers and architects he read about in the magazine. Vogue had claimed an exclusive on the opening of the Royalton and Blueprint‘s editor, Deyan Sudjic, argued that architecture belonged to the city, so my story went ahead.

2010-09-03-images1.jpegRoyalton Hotel Lobby by Philippe Starck

Philippe Starck’s household products increasingly exhibited a calculated, manipulative buffoonery. They were absurd but not actually funny, like the Michael Graves kettle with the plastic singing bird. The Philippe Starck and Michael Graves products for Target seem to me to be reverse snobbery — good design for the little people — rather than genuinely useful. They were products that laughed at us, not with us.

2010-09-03-cid_2507331.150.jpgLe Corbusier. Villa Savoye

Lange has been writing about the evolution of household products during the 20th century for the New York Times. It’s hard for us to imagine now how shocking the floorplans and furniture of the modern architects must have seemed, although even now looking at photographs of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye from 1929, they seem to have come out of nowhere, landing fully formed from another planet. They swept away the familiar luxuries of servants and formal dining and entertainment areas and replaced them with nothing at all. Instead of precious metals and decoration and plush furniture, there were flat, austere pieces of furniture and chairs that seemed like sketches made with coils of machine-made metal and upholstered in monchrome leather. It would be mid century before the streamlined simplicity sunk in for the middle classes. Alexandra wrote a review of Easier Living, By Design by Russel and Mary Wright.

The easier living the Wrights described — both in the book and in their lines of domestic products — sounds very familiar today, with buffet suppers, one-pot meals, portable seating and lots of double-duty storage. But the Wrights’ work was revolutionary at the time: not only did they simplify our plates and mugs, chairs and cabinets, but they simplified the way we were to live and work in our homes… The Wrights were marketing more than just goods; they were among the first designers to sell a way of life. And it worked. Wright’s American Modern ceramic dinnerware became one of the best-selling lines in history.

2010-09-03-images.jpegWright ceramics, Met MuseumThis was followed by an \n”}}” data-beacon-parsed=”true”>essay about kitchen design that showed tastes in living spaces swinging back towards grand spaces and servants quarters and a fetish for expensive professional cooking equipment running in parallel with the rise of superstar architects. “In an instance of history coming full circle, the styling of today’s mega-kitchens recall those from the end of the 19th century.” It’s a theme she’s returned to on her blog.

Architecture and design are now at a crossroads, amped up to a point where the marketing IS the goods. Grand architectural plans have been dented by the global financial crisis and design companies are figuring out what to make in a world increasingly interested in the idea of “collaborative consumption”, quality products that can be shared and traded rather than unthinkingly acquired for status and then parked in storage facilities. Architecture and design criticism not only has to reengage with the built and manufactured world but with society and culture itself as these changes are playing themselves out. There has to be good street-level reporting of everyday life like Lange’s writing.

2010-09-03-images2.jpegRosanne Cash’s tweets roll alongside Alexandra Lange’s on my Twitter timeline. She observes life in New York City with fine granularity. She’s currently on a book tour for her recently published memoir, Composed, that’s also a concert tour. Cash has dealt with the public interest in her private life with dignity and good humor. She’s placed her music within a heritage that stretches back past her father, Johnny Cash, to his ancestors in Scotland. And she mixes that country tradition with her own urban sensibility. She seems equally a descendant of Jane Austen.

This morning she tweeted:

Jeez, I forgot about George Eliot in my revised history of the world. “MiddlemarchTopFiveBooksOfAllTime #WantToSeeJenniferEhleInRemake

(Jennifer Ehle portrayed Elizabeth Bennet in the version of Pride and Prejudice that fueled a whole industry of romantic comedies from Colin Firth, as Mr Darcy, emerging dripping wet from a lake.)

At a time when our views of daily life are either the voyeurism of the tabloids or the play-acting at life of reality shows, Cash’s tweets are a wry commentary on the ordinary moments in her odd life:

If Twitter doesn’t stop telling me to follow Aimee Mann I’m going to blow. It hasn’t changed in weeks. #ILikeMagnoliaButStopHoundingMe

Mr. L at breakfast talking about Jimi Hendrix, then suddenly mutters ‘fucking Mets’. #HowDidHeGetThere? #HeThinksImTheNonSequiturThinker

Dear Texas School Board, these are not faith-based: Sunburn, Evolution, the Key of C, Climate Change, Nausea, Traffic. And Evolution.

And the beginning of tweet-serial “revised history of the world”:

Before I get on 9 hr flight I give you my revised history of the world: MenMenMenMenJaneAustenMenMenEleanorRooseveltMenMenChrissieHynde …


First published on the Huffington Post on 08/17/2010


Grinderman is the first great band of the Anthropocene Epoch. Their music is wild, primal, charming and funky and their lyrics are witty and clear-eyed observations of where we stand as a civilization at this moment in geologic time.

“All of a sudden it seems impossible to escape the basic idea that we humans live on a planet that we can’t control,” say The Friends of The Pleistocene. “Eventually and inevitably geologic time spills into human time and into our human world: volcanic eruptions disrupt travel; landslides propel modern houses into the geologic layer of an inland sea that existed 10,000 years ago; earthquakes displace millions of people; an uncapped well gushes liquid geologic time into the Gulf of Mexico … When it comes to living in relation to the speed and rhythms of geologic time, we contemporary humans are only beginning to figure out how to rebut our own hubris.”

During the twentieth century, Joseph Campbell connected myths across cultures and through time. The day-to-day lives of human beings change vastly through time, he said, but the human condition and the stages of life are constant, and we can gain insights by putting ancient stories into context in our time. He died in 1987. He couldn’t predict the defining mythology of the twenty first century, but he said that astronauts had shown us photographic proof that we lived interconnected lives on the planet earth and warned that our technology was not going to save us. He encouraged us to look to artists, who are heroes who live lives of self-discovery and clear paths through new territories for us to follow. “The hero’s journey is not to deny reason,” he told Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth. “To the contrary, by overcoming the dark passions, the hero symbolizes our ability to control the irrational savage within us.”

In advance of the second Grinderman album Grinderman 2, to be released on Sept. 13, there are film trailers, and the artwork for the first single, “Heathen Child,” that are positioning devices that set in place a context for the album. In one trailer, directed by John Hillcoat, a wolf prowls through an ornate bathroom with gold fixtures. It could be the abandoned palace of a deposed dictator, one of the uber-grand massive buildings that will never be finished now in Dubai, or a mansion that was abandoned by tenants who lost everything in the global financial crisis. There are brief flashes of torn flesh and gushing blood that are like something remembered, something buried deep in the mind that flashes back into consciousness. The Heathen Child looks like a future primitive human, from a time when the grace and refinement and spiritual order of our civilization might have broken down.

Grinderman – Heathen Child by MuteRecords “Heathen Child” by GrindermanIn the twenty-first century, the Bad Seeds albums have drawn from the myths that guided humans as they were becoming settled, discovering how the world worked through science, building great cities, and altering the natural world with the development of agriculture and engineering irrigation systems. The Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheusalbums wondered about the power music has to move people. Is beautiful music a gift from the gods, held within the lyre of Orpheus, whose music moved inanimate objects, soothed savage beasts, and charmed the gatekeeper to the underworld? Or is it a pact struck with the devil on a deserted crossroads on a moonless night? The language of these albums is gospel, the music of the downtrodden who tell their pitiful stories but lift their voices and hearts to the heavens.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a predatory mysticism exploited the incorporeal advances in science — the x-ray, recorded and projected sound, electricity — and created a fad for contacting the spirit world. The recorded sound industry was pioneered by a company whose logo was an image of a dog sitting on a coffin listening to a machine playing a recording of his dead master’s voice. At the turn of the twenty-first century, two robots, Spirit and Opportunity — reminiscent of Sony’s robot dog Aibo — were listening for the voices of the dead on Mars. On their website in early 2008, the Bad Seeds sat at a table in a Victorian drawing room, around an antique ouija board, and Nick, a medium in a jewelled turban, made a show of contacting the spirit world. In one session he conjured up an image of a skeleton on a sheet. In another session the table moved up into the air, seemingly of its own accord. The message the spirit world kept sending was the title of the album, DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!!

The first Grinderman album in 2007 began to absorb the implications of the Anthropocene Epoch, that the human impact on the earth’s natural systems is so vast that we might be headed for a cataclysmic breakdown where our civilization is swept away, and we’ll be lucky if we survive. The restorative myth for this epoch is the Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women.” It has the spiritual authority of a funked-up folk song. It’s a summary of the dark delusions of humankind over the last couple of centuries, with scientific progress and ingenuity, mathematics, genetics, evolution explained, but also self-righteous wars and selfishness revealed, and weakness, too, trying to think up grand schemes to maintain a dominion over nature, but being bored, restless and willing to walk away if everything explodes. But, at the end of the song when we hear a sound effect suggesting “six billion people, going down,” a sweet voice urges us to “come on back to the fray.”

The crucial Bad Seeds album, the one that quite possibly sparked the formation of Grinderman, was Nocturama from 2003. A nocturama is a zoo environment where light and dark are artificially reversed so that nocturnal creatures will be active during zoo visiting hours. The title song wasn’t on the album, but it became available later on a collection of B-Sides and Rarities. The song “Nocturama” is a rough sketch of ideas that would be developed through other projects: perhaps the “silent tiger” is a metaphor for the loss of biodiversity, the “ailing ape” might be us, the “penguin face down in water” a reference to the effects of global warming, the “forgotten llserelaama” a pun on seeming impotence of resolutely nonviolent figures in the twentieth century.

The movie The Proposition, which Nick wrote for John Hillcoat, presents the folly of the Industrial Revolution’s fervor for dominion over nature, with Captain Stanley determined to tame the brutal Australian environment and his wife tending a rose garden in a sere landscape, and a bounty hunter wonders about the ethical implications of the theory of evolution — if we’re descended from apes does it give us license to act like animals? There was a monkey on the cover of the first Grinderman album.


In John Hillcoat’s adapatation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, which Nick and Warren Ellis wrote the music for, all color has been drained from life and only begins to return at the end of the movie, when the resolute goodness and compassion of the child triumphs. He is taken in by a family and the natural world begins to regenerate.

In Nocturama, Nick expanded the allegory of artificially manipulating light and darkness to suggest we’d turned the whole world into a nocturama, literally and spiritually.

“In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction,” Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in National Geographic in 2008. “We’ve grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night — dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth — is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost. And yet above the city’s pale ceiling lies the rest of the universe, utterly undiminished by the light we waste — a bright shoal of stars and planets and galaxies, shining in seemingly infinite darkness… Unlike astronomers, most of us may not need an undiminished view of the night sky for our work, but like most other creatures we do need darkness. Darkness is as essential to our biological welfare, to our internal clockwork, as light itself. The regular oscillation of waking and sleep in our lives — one of our circadian rhythms — is nothing less than a biological expression of the regular oscillation of light on Earth. So fundamental are these rhythms to our being that altering them is like altering gravity.”

The sucker punch realization of the Anthropocene Epoch is that at the moment that we comprehend how much impact we’ve had on the earth, we see how damaging this has been and that the damage may be irreversible. There’s no hope that things will get better.

“In the face of the evidence of climate disruption, clinging to hopefulness becomes a means of forestalling the truth,” Clive Hamilton writes in Requiem for a Species. “Sooner or later we must respond and that means allowing ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, in short, to grieve. Climate disruption will require that we change not only how we live but how we conceive of our selves; to recognize and confront a gap between our inner lives — including our habits and supposition about how the world will evolve – and the sharply divergent reality that climate science now presents to us.”

Nocturama is the simplest and sweetest and most heartwarming of the Bad Seeds albums. It addresses our fear of darkness and warns against being drawn towards false light, being guided instead by a personal sense of responsibility. Nick draws from the Gospel of Thomas, which quotes Jesus as saying: “There is light within a person of light and it lights up the whole universe. If he does not shine, he is darkness.” It’s a humane, quiet album in which love is celebrated and thrives because of the acknowledging of human flaws, dark secrets held in our hearts, and the mistakes we’ve made. It renders everyday situations with an ordinary beauty. “Bring It On” is a love song in which a man encourages a woman to tell him everything that would usually drive him away and it will only make him love her more. It’s a duet with Chris Bailey from the Saints, who has a powerful soul singer’s voice. Like all of Nick’s songs it has multiple perspectives: It could also be a dialogue between humankind and God, between a child and a parent, between friends, or enemies.

The songs create and appreciate honesty, constancy and forgiveness. They promise, and deliver, unconditional love and loyalty. They catch fire in the heart, like the word of God catches fire in all of humanity on the album’s closing song, “Babe, I’m on Fire,” another reference to the Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus talks about the word of God being a fire within the hearts of humankind. In The Road, the boy also asks if people he encounters are carrying the fire.

The first three songs of a Bad Seeds concert scroll out over the audience like a legend at the beginning of a film: Once upon a time in the land of… the people were weary from fighting a long war. These three songs are equivalent to the prologues that established the mythological context for the events in ancient Greek plays. A history of our time could be compiled from these Bad Seeds prologues. The Grinderman concerts in Sydney in 2007 had a different structure, something more like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Grinderman performed the songs from their first album. In the second set, the four Bad Seeds who make up Grinderman performed stripped down versions of Bad Seeds songs. And the concert ended with the Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women.” The Grinderman mythology seems to be drawn from the first act of 2001: A Space Odyssey some future primitive state where one creature sees beyond the struggles of existence and is curious and courageous enough to reach for the monolith.

Ten years after the moon landing, Joseph Campbell lamented how the wonder had drained from the event:

That is the arrogance of the kind of narrowness one too often sees; it is trapped in its own predictable prejudices, its own stale categories. It is the mind dulled to the poetry of existence. It’s fashionable now to demand some economic payoff from space, some reward to prove it was all worthwhile. Those who say this resemble the apelike creatures in 2001. They are fighting for food among themselves, while one separates himself from them and moves to the slab, motivated by awe. That is the point they are missing. He is the one who evolves into a human being: he is the one who understands the future. There have been budget cutbacks in the space program. We shrug it off. But that is where we live. It is not “out there.” And the great symbol remains, that remarkable view of earthrise. Earthrise is like all symbols. They resemble compasses. One point is in a fixed place but the other moves to the unknown. The fear of the unknown, this free fall into the future, can be detected all around us. But we live in the stars and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures. The Kingdom of God is within us.

The album concluded with “More News From Nowhere” a retelling of the Odyssey that reflects how the myth speaks to our time as story of homecoming, putting the battles and trials of the journey into perspective and reconnecting with family. In 1996 Robert Fagles published a translation of the Odyssey that a colleague said had the swagger of a Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah movie. He died in 2008, the year that DIG!!! LAZARUS, DIG!!! was released. “He said he couldn’t decide which of the epics was his favorite,” his New York Times obituary reported. “Some days were Iliadic, he said — you felt you were in a war — and some were more like the Odyssey, when all you wanted to do was go home.”

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For 25 years Nels Cline dreamed of making the Lovers Album, an orchestrated portrait of the shadings on love’s spectrum from yearning to euphoria to regret. A mix of jazz standards, film music, rock songs and his own compositions. When it was released on Blue Note in 2016 it concluded with “The Bond”, composed for his wife, giving the project strength and clarity: love throughout marriage will be tested by many shadings of mood but will endure, a bond, unbreakable.

I had a conversation with Nels in 2013 when Wilco were performing two concerts at the Sydney Opera House. And while he was still dreaming about making the album, that conversation started me dreaming about making a special edition notebook, an homage to Lovers. He mentioned some of the songs that he was considering arranging for the album, and the reference that stayed with me, that shaped the concept for the notebook, was the instrumental music “The Search for Cat”, the closing sequence of Breakfast at Tiffanys.

Nels defined the album as mood music. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a genre riddled with kitsch: albums of syrupy string music to study by, read by, dine by, drink cocktails to, to put you to sleep, or simply “music to live by”. There’s no contemporary equivalent. The closest thing is ‘mood’ apps but they’re psychological not cultural, combining graphics and sounds to reframe negative moods, to induce calm and contentment.

By recording this album with Blue Note Nels’s workings of popular songs are in the orbit of great jazz studies of sentimentally popular music. Dave Brubeck’s Dave Digs Disney.  John Coltrane’s version of “My Favourite Things” from the Sound of Music. Duke Ellington’s sublime study of the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. But I thought about another interpretation. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue isn’t mood music but it does create a phenomenally sensual atmosphere. And I thought about Max Richter’s Sleep, a complex study of sleeping and waking consciousness and lullabies. By concentrating on “The Search for Cat” I could consider the intent of the whole Lovers album as sonically inspiring you to cherish those you love. And the book would be a cherished token.

Breakfast at Tiffanys wasn’t product placement as we think of it today. Truman Capote’s book didn’t seek the marketing input of Tiffanys. When the movie came to be shot an arrangement was made that sequences could be filmed in and around the New York store in exchange for Audrey Hepburn modelling jewellery that Tiffanys could then use in marketing. In retrospect, what a deal for Tiffanys!.Audrey Hepburn’s sweetness and shining spirit, no matter the dark subject matter of the movie, and her delicate beauty giving warmth to the severe lines of the Givenchy couture and chandelier bling of the diamond-encrusted baubles she wears, has made her forever Tiffany’s spirit creature.Through her Tiffanys has been able to present luxury as a life force

I’ve always seen the moral of the movie in the words of the Beatles, “money can’t buy you love”. Desperate to find refuge within a luxurious coccoon she finds that refuge instead with a stray cat she’s taken in, and George Peppard, trying his luck as a writer, both of whom love her for herself. The token that symbolises that love is a tin ring, the prize inside a cheap box of Crackerjacks, molasses-flavoured, caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts. They make that ring special by taking it to Tiffanys to be engraved.

I thought about a Lovers book that would be the equivalent of that engraving, elevating it to a loving gift. It wouldn’t be a boxed set kind of thing. The music would live a separate life as an album, CD or download. The book would add to it.

It would have Nels’s liner notes, and the lyrics to the songs that he considers crucial, even though the album is wholly instrumental. And more of Angela de Cristofaro’s beautiful drawings, different versions of the jewelled dagger being plunged through the heart of the Great American Songbook on the album cover.

The book has a stainless steel engraved spine, shellacked covers (an homage to records) and sunshine yellow end pages.

It’s to be a journal and an album, a guest book, a record of birthdays and family recipes. Something to paste birthday cards and polariod photos of your dogs and cats into.

And as a reference to the mood music albums of the 1950s and 1960s a few recipes for cocktails and canapés so that you can host your own version of a party with the kind of goofy abandon as the one in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

A Requiem for Aibo


This Aibo listens to Nipper. Photograph by pt at Flickr.

The mystical theme of the space age is this: The world, as we know it, is coming to an end. The world as the centre of the universe, the world divided from the heavens, the world bound by horizons in which love is reserved for members of the in-group: That is the world that is passing away. Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end. Our divided, schizophrenic world view, with no mythology adequate to coordinate our conscious and unconscious, that is what is coming to an end. The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth, that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the Kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbours, in our enemies, in all of us.

Joseph Campbell. New York Times Magazine. Circa 1977.

An entire cyle of myth played itself out, from beginning to end starting with the Apollo 8 crew’s photograph of earthrise, the view back to earth from the moon’s orbit that showed us that we are one group of humans living within one habitat, undivided, and ended with a series of exquisitely beautiful Bergdorf Goodman advertisements photographed by Sheila Metzner and published in the New York Times Magazine towards the end of 1999, which showed a woman on a barren planet — perhaps Mars — living in something like Richard Neutra’s Kaufman House with only Sony’s robot dog AIBO, “man’s next friend” as a companion. The computer age ended with symbols of glamorous desolation that aligned with the wasteland identified by T.S. Eliot in the 1920’s, and that Arthur Schlesinger recognised as still existing in the middle of the century. “Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1948. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”

Joseph Campbell died in 1987. In 1988 his series of conversations with Bill Moyers, recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Studio, The Power of Myth, was shown on public television in America and was an enormous hit, they reignited a public thirst for mythology but in the series Joseph Campbell noted that an era was ending and he had no clear idea where the new context for mythological stories would be found. The idealism of the civil rights era and the ambition that sent humans to the moon had passed and the falling of the Berlin Wall was bringing the curtain down on the cold war. The boom that would become a frenzy in the decade after Campbell died would bring about some powerful social and cultural advancements: the internet would remain free and owned by no-one, but what would largely be remembered was a hunger for ridiculous amounts of money tied to goofily improbable schemes.

Movies were carrying forward some mythological messages, Campbell noted in The Power of Myth. George Lucas had drawn heavily from Campbell’s writings that connected up myths across cultures and through time for his Star Wars movies. Campbell’s response to the movies was that: “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which Lucas has dressed in modern idiom — the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.” Campbell died before the introduction of the internet, but he’d owned a computer. He likened it to an Old Testament God that was “all rules and no mercy.”

The myths for a new century, a new time, look beyond the computer to what remains human. In his 1999 novel All Tomorrow’s Parties, William Gibson predicted that as the millennium turned the world would end and no-one would notice. What ended was any sense of the divine being something outside ourselves. We’d travelled outside of ourselves to look back with God’s eye at our world when we put humans into orbit. We’d cloned animals (and perhaps humans) and in our dominion over nature had all but destroyed our world. The invention of the atom bomb gave us the power to wipe out the world. The novel ends with time symbolically beginning again: the last few chapters are truly poetic and inexpressible in logical terms. But these things happen: the entirely synthetic creature, the idoru, Rei Toi becomes organically human, an Eve for a new age made entirely from shards of our knowledge. Humans find themselves again within authentic stories: symbolised by the struggle between Cody Harwood, the media baron who manufactures abstracted existences around celebrities and Rydell, whose exquisite sensitivity to patterns in data recognises the aimlessness and inhumanity of the data stream. And the innocent, damaged boy Silencio, with the idiot savant’s ability to recognise patterns watches time being remade. And the bridge burns. This made me think of the Buddhist parable that the raft is not the shore, when we arrive at the other side we don’t drag the boat along behind us, it was merely a vehicle to deliver us to a new shore. We’ve arrived somewhere beyond the computer: it’s useful, but not Godlike, it serves us not the other way round. The perspective for this new mythology was introduced in Nick Cave’s 2001 song As I Sat Sadly By Her Side, the co-ordinates given are universal and global. Two beings sit beside one another and describe what they see through the window and in their own hearts: it’s a dialogue between Nick and his wife, Nick and the listener, Nick and himself, Nick and God. It’s a new age: the song vaguely references the final book of the New Testament, Revelations, where Jesus is the bridegroom of humankind, wiping away our tears now that the former things have passed away. It’s a call to action and has the rhythm of an engaged heartbeat. It seems to be a conversation recalled while Nick is walking out into the world. A couple of years later William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition would outline the mythological system for this new age, finding connections, human connections, that are meaningful: the only technology in the book was what was already on the market, an Apple cube, a regular powerbook, a mobile phone.   

His novels have become the defining myths of the digital tele-communications section of the computer age. He’s truly a Joseph Campbell figure for this new age. The Sony Walkman had helped define William Gibson’s concept of virtual reality. He wrote of walking through the streets of Vancouver with the “bleak majesty” of a Joy Division album playing within his thoughts, adding to his experience of the city. It was a bridge between the analogue and digital worlds. Gibson was also inspired by adolescents being absorbed into the abstract visual worlds of early arcade video games, the musicians of Nick Cave’s generation constructing elaborate mental worlds within the broken parts of cities worldwide, Ridley Scott’s movie Bladerunner, and the first personal computer, all of which happened circa the significant science fiction date of 1984.

The Bladerunner legacy is the one that’s most obvious to identify. Humans destroyed the landscape and all living creatures and had to relocate to Mars. On earth they’d created robotic animals to replace the real wildlife that had become extinct. On Mars they created humanoid robots to be companions, but even the robots were lonely. The robots (replicants) turned to classical Jules Verne and H.G. Wells science fiction to make their existence bearable, stories that represented Mars as a verdant paradise. The rogue replicants escape to earth, determined to have an authentic, meaningful existence, whatever the hardships and however broken the landscape, since they’d be a part of a genuine community.

AIBO, a Japanese word meaning companion, and a clumsy acronym for an artificial intelligence robot seemed to be the beginning of a breed of smart creatures that might, one day, be capable of becoming genuinely independently intelligent, lifelike. It’s possible that, like the Walkman, the AIBO represented the culmination of a technological system, as it was dying out, not the start of something new. Sony unwittingly symbolised the fulfillment of the Bladerunner prophecy. A version of AIBO, the rovers Spirit and Opportunity were robot dogs traversing Mars. One of them landed, rolled into place on the surface of the planet and began playing (Sony recording artist) Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born To Run”. A melancholy book about Sony, by John Nathan, ended with a chapter entitled “Idei the Heretic” in which the then Chief Executive suspected Sony as we knew it then would have to die. He was right. He was removed from the job. AIBO was discontinued, and the Qualia range, something as bizarrely perfectly unreal, like a Victorian naturalist’s specimens remains only as high-priced range in America. Qualia suggested that electronics would create heady new sensations, comparable with the joy of savouring a $400 glass of wine, or a perfect leaf plucked from a rainforest. Qualia stores were exclusive tombs, with their own scent and concierges clad in Yohji Yamamoto costumes demonstrating electronics to potential customers. The Qualia operation reminded me of the Tyrell Corporation’s perfect Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters with its all but real owl, and the nearly human Rachel.

The part of us that hears

needs to be heard

The part of us that sees

Yearns to be observed

The part of us that touches

Wants to be engaged

The part of us that feels

Needs to be nurtured

It’s the part of us that gives shape and meaning to sensory experiences – to Qualia.

Sony brochure.

The last decade of the twentieth century was heady. It was as if perfectly sane businesses began reading William Gibson’s novels and considering them urban planning documents and manufacturing schematics for technological devices. Gibson’s symbolic inference that all life would pass through the computer screen and find a truer existence there was taken as a bald fact. There were business plans that chased this notion that were patently absurd and unworkable and fell apart almost immediately. There were those that were sinister, like Enron’s befuddling commodities trading leaving a wake of environmental and human suffering in India, a couple of dimly lit years in California, and denuded pension plans of its employees. But there were those that were market dreams as fine and valuable as myths, that allowed people to do things for themselves: to market their own products directly to one another (e-Bay) with an escrow payment system that kept their financial details secure (PayPal), a search engine that was (then) unmuddied by advertising (Google). Google maps allowed us to view our world any way we wanted. And alongside these commercial ventures, the internet remained free and a community: with its backbone universally available (the World Wide Web), a system for sharing and collaborating through several sets of copyright tiers (Creative Commons), an operating system that re-invents itself through collective labours (Linux), and now the hyperlocal phenomenon of Placeblogging through .