The last story for the Sydney Morning Herald after 25 years and 36 days. A farewell. For now.
First or last? Biggest or most moving? Greatest of all time? I’m counting them in as they are counting me out, and I’m very happy to declare that there is no answer.
If 25 years at the Sydney Morning Herald – and 32 all up in journalism, so far - has taught me anything it is this: anyone who tells you they’ve already seen the best gig, heard the best album, found the best talent they ever will, run from them if you can; aggressively ignore them if you can’t.
Nothing is fixed: not the sound or style of music, nor the quality of it; not the way we receive it or play it or buy it or own it, nor the pleasure we get from it. Discovery is always possible, renewal of faith is always available.
If I hadn’t had it already instilled in me from my teen years devouring Stuart Coupe, Jenny Hunter Brown and Frank Brunetti, what I learnt from reading Bruce Elder, Wanda Jamrozik and John Clare/Gail Brennan before coming to the Herald, and after that from Jon Casimir, Harriet Cunningham and John Shand was that wonder never ceases.
And I can testify to the fact that it doesn’t.
I may have thought at one stage that the best gig I had ever seen was possibly a tossup between Radiohead at the Entertainment Centre in 1997 (in which I confessed in my review to being near tears – though it wasn’t “near”, it was actual), Gillian Welch at the Roxy in 2004 (when the downstairs disco kicked in during the second set and still it couldn’t break the spell of the acoustic duo) and Talking Heads at Narara in 1984 (when the band arrived near midnight and those of us who were exhausted from 12 hours at the stage front were transported out of fatigued bodies).
Or between Elvis Costello in the Capitol in 1982 (the first of more than 25 times I would see my second musical love/first musical obsession), Jeff Buckley at the Metro in 1995 (as mesmerising as legend has it) and Kate Bush at the Hammersmith Odeon 2014 (again, actual tears – such a sook! – for a life/musical/emotional high).
But then in the first few months of 2017 there was PJ Harvey (who could have made the list in 2001, 2004, 2008 and 2012) at the ICC Theatre, and Underworld (who might also have figured from the ecstatic 1999 Big Day Out) at the Opera House to give me two of the most compelling, thrilling, wonderful nights ever.
And this list doesn’t even include the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings shows last year (all three of them), Bruce Springsteen multiple times since 2013, or Brian Wilson at the State Theatre and Opera House more than a decade ago, nor You Am I any number of places since the mid ‘90s, the Drones in a packed bar, Emmylou Harris in an Auckland theatre or Crowded House in the southern California desert and the harbour foreshore. And Leonard Cohen. Dear god, Leonard Cohen.
Yeah, I’ve been excited and moved. And it keeps happening: new artists and veterans, fresh records and ones I’m discovering 40, 50 years after release.
Which is what makes this the best job around: there’s so much out there waiting to be found.
Those who declare this period or that period music’s best time (a moment in history which coincidentally almost always aligns with when the speaker was aged somewhere between 15 and 25) and any subsequent period the worst time for music (a longer moment in history which coincidentally almost always aligns with when the speaker is aged anything over 30) are not just demonstrably wrong, they are self-defeating.
Locking yourself out would deprive you of the chance to explore the incredible and still developing talent of Laura Marling or the return to music of Holly Throsby, the sudden explosion of brilliance of Beyonce or the rise to prominence of A. B. Original.
It would mean the ignoring the power and intellect of Smith Street Band and Nikki Lane, the sustained quality of Bill Callahan and Jason Isbell, the promise of SZA and the continuing gifts of Aimee Mann and Patty Griffin.
And why would you deprive yourself of such pleasures?
Of course, how you find out about these new gems to put alongside your McCartneys and Chisels, your Jonis and Madonnas, your Pink Floyds and your Go-Betweens is another issue altogether.
When I started at the Herald the only place you could find album reviews was up the back of the TV supplement: a classical review, a pop review, a jazz or “world” review, and that was it.
Since then while some inspired and inspiring editors such as Peter Cochrane, Helen Anderson, Joyce Morgan, Clare Morgan and Jon Casimir came through, we’ve had and lost, regained and lost again full pages and lengthy examinations, half pages and medium length pieces, quarter pages and brief coverage.
We’ve had every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and now some Saturdays; open space and constrained space online; reviews as defining what we do and reviews as niche interest.
What’s next? Buggered if I know. Buggered if anyone knows. But here’s something else I learnt from Bruce Elder: people will want what they want and get what they want no matter what “wise” heads tell us.
And they do. And when they do, they’ll let you know about it.
While I’ve been damned to hell by a 14-year-old (and any number of older folk), threatened with a smack to the chops (by a drunk musician who didn’t like his review) and called every kind of fool there is (most of which I have embodied at some point, to be fair) the ledger has been heavily weighted to the other side.
Readers have recommended albums and artists, shared my enthusiasms, tempered my criticisms and amplified my thoughts. The communal experience of engaging with and loving – or hating – a musical moment is pretty fabulous. We’re all fans in our way.
Yes, being here has meant I’ve had the chance to see my first operas from the good seats (and Jenufa some 20 years ago remains a peak moment to this day) and explore the continuing wonders of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
It’s meant I got to talk with Thom Yorke in a semi-darkened hotel room and Polly Jean Harvey in an overly bright one, Nick Cave in a Japanese garden and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in a Kansas City foyer, Robert Forster in a dress (his) and Ryan Adams with some cats (also his), Burt Bacharach and Hal David separately and both the teenage Silverchair and the septuagenarian Rolling Stones together, and if not a Beatle then a Beatle producer and a Beatle wife.
And, yes, Elvis Costello more times than he would have necessarily chosen.
It’s meant I have a tape of a phone call which begins with “Hello Bernard this is Kate Bush” and my gasp of shock and awe in response; a memory of running up the road from an Auckland theatre so I could get back to my hotel, call my wife and shout at her “I just met Johnny Marr”; and a daughter who may still be scarred from seeing her father bounce around her high chair like a manic pinball, nowhere near coming down from having just talked with Martin Scorsese.
All of that comes from being part of a legacy, a tradition of readers and artists trusting the Herald to be a voice and a conduit, from Fred Blanks – who I read when I didn’t really know what he was talking about but knew I was getting something valuable – onwards.
I got to be part of it for a few years. What a job. What a privilege. What a pleasure it’s been.