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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Kev Carmody

I seem to be on a roll with Australian musicians at the moment, so bear with me while I offer a tribute to another one…

A few years ago I discovered that one of my favourite Paul Kelly songs, “Elly” was actually a cover of a song by an Indigenous Australian songwriter called Kev Carmody. I investigated further and discovered an artist of immense stature and standing, who has since become one of my most admired songwriters.

Image borrowed from Kev Carmody’s website

Kev Carmody was born into a family of stock drovers in southern Queensland and spent his youth working on cattle stations there. He went to university at the age of 33 and, not being able to read or write too well, found music a way to communicate his learning. Much of his work has centred on Aboriginal land rights issues and he has been a campaigner and activist on that front. He has also become one of Australia’s greatest songwriters, despite having being shamefully under-recognized there and elsewhere.

Paul Kelly has worked hard to bring some much-deserved attention to Carmody – along with his cover of “Elly,” another of Kelly’s most famous songs, “From Little Things Big Things Grow,” was co-written with Kev. Then, in 2007, Kelly gathered a diverse ensemble of Australian performers together to record versions of Kev’s songs, which were released as the double album “Cannot Buy My Soul.”

“Elly” struck me the first time I heard it as a stunning song– an authentic story that captured the essence of its characters and the landscape they move through powerfully; brimming with sadness and beauty.

Elly wrapped her 19 years in a coat from ’41
She had the looks that would make a grown man cry
From the Diamantina River country, she crossed the dry mid-west
From her childhood dreams and sheltered schemes she cut the ties

The commercial man made blunt demands, as they travelled south by east
Elly turned into a woman overnight
They sat her down in the heart of town
The millionaire’s retreat
She gazed up the tall, glassed concrete walls of main street Surfers Paradise

Kev’s songs are sunbaked and raw, direct and unadorned… take “Droving Woman,” for example. Twenty one verses long, it’s a story related by an indigenous woman at the funeral of her husband, describing their life together following cattle across the vast Australian plains.

She says “At the start well we knewed it so hard
We were always dealt the severest of cards
Honeymoon spent droving Jamieson’s stock
Through the wildest winter you seen

The song drifts like a slow moving herd through the tale, never changing pace or direction, unburdened by choruses or bridges, relying only on the power of its narrative and bittersweet melody to draw the listener along for the ride, which it does – effortlessly. It doesn’t shoot for grand statements, or use lyrical sleight of hand to achieve its magic – it simply lets the essential, universal truths within the story shine hard and bright as the night sky over the Australian desert…

I’ll sell up the plant and I’ll move here to town
Before the winter returns with a chill on the ground
For what I’ve just lost can seldom be found
I was blessed with the gentlest of men

Eventually the children will move to the east
But I couldn’t stand the bustle of even a quiet city street
I’ll stay in the scrub here where my heart really beats
For some dogs grow too old for change.

Another of Kev’s songs that hit me like a stomach punch when I first heard it is “Darkside,” a graphic portrait of urban decay on the wrong side of the tracks in a place called Logan in Queensland. The gritty journalistic style of the song was what got me; along with the way Kev sings;

Tavern drive-in, ya buy the piss
The grog we flog, they’ll never miss

The chorus, strung over a disturbing minor chord change, has a stark, raw power to it;

On the southside, darkside
South of the freeway them Logan kids
Used to hang out in that trashed out Rooster & Ribs

Songs don’t come much grittier than this – Kev presents the “darkside” of the Australian dream in a detached yet detailed manner that is devastating in its impact. When I listen to this song I can smell the vomit, feel the oppression of concrete and cars and the emptiness of directionless youth cut off from Nature.

Most nights ya screw or fight
Girlfriends, boyfriends, use the night
Hide their reality from society
Only place you can feel free
Moans, smashed glass, trashed out spew
Shit-hole smell, rat-shit view

On the southside….

This urban divorcement from the natural world is a recurring theme in Kev’s work. As someone who grew up in a fairly wild place, I really relate to this aspect of his lyrics. One of Kev’s most beautiful songs is “On the Wire,” in which the central character returns to his homeland after a long spell in the city…

I saw people who were trapped
Under the whip of fat cats
Saw people there devoid of their Dreaming
Deep down inside there with so much to hide
Brother you could see in their eyes there’s no meaning
So take me my sisters and welcome me home
So I never again walk alone
Our spirit demands that we die in this land
And I know now my spirit’s come home.

Kev’s music seems to be quite hard to find – I would have liked to link to a few more of the songs I’ve discussed here, but I can’t find them on the net. I bought my copy of “Cannot Buy my Soul” directly from Kev’s website, and it can also be found on Spotify. I recommend listening to the second half (which is Kev’s original recorded versions) first, before tackling the cover versions. Some of the covers are good, but it’s hard to improve on Kev’s uniquely indigenous delivery of his own songs.

Midnight Oil and the fate of Peter Garrett

Over the last few weeks I’ve been revisiting Midnight Oil, a band I first loved as a teenager; away from home for the first time and traveling across Australia. The Oils were an incredible band – intense, passionate and with the songs to match. In their heyday, they were surely one of the world’s best.

When I was first in Australia in 1998, the country was seriously considering cutting the apron strings of the commonwealth and becoming a  republic.  One of the names most commonly being thrown around as president of the new Australia was that of Midnight Oil’s lead singer Peter Garrett. The idea of having an all-Australian rock star as leader of their country probably appealed to a lot of people, especially given his political credentials (at the time he was president of the Australian Conservation Foundation), legal training and his vocal stance on popular causes. Back then, Garrett seemed the perfect figurehead for a brave new Australia.

14 years on and it’s a very different story. Australia is still part of the commonwealth, and Peter Garrett the politician is now viewed in a far harsher light by many of his former supporters.

Garrett called it quits with Midnight Oil in 2002 to pursue a career in politics. Rather than taking the obvious choice of working with the Greens, he joined the far more mainstream Australian Labour party. Environmentalists everywhere initially rejoiced – here at last was someone who would make a difference. However in the the intervening years Garrett’s parliamentary record has been starkly at odds to the impassioned stance he once took on issues like uranium mining and Aboriginal rights.

In his role as Environment Minister, Garrett gave his backing to several projects which had major ecological concerns associated with them; including a pulp paper mill in the Tasmanian forest and a controversial port dredging scheme in Melbourne. He even gave his support to a uranium mine in South Australia, for which he was inevitably labelled by opponents as the ultimate sell-out.

Garrett’s political career seems to be on the wane these days – he was demoted from the Environment portfolio in 2010 over a botched home insulation scheme that was plagued by major safety concerns and resulted in four deaths.

In some ways I think the fate of Garrett the firebrand activist is more of a reflection on the workings of our Western political system than on the man himself. By entering the world of mainstream politics, Garrett was bound to have to compromise many of his ideals in order to toe the party line on certain issues. He wouldn’t have survived in the Labour party had he not been, in his own words, a “team player,” and I’m sure he still feels that he’s of more value working co-operatively within the system than shouting at it from the fringes. What is disturbing is the extent of the compromise and what it says about the effectiveness or otherwise of the political process.

I’d love to read Peter Garrett’s biography, if he ever gets round to writing one – I think it would be an illuminating examination of how politics in a democracy really works.

In any case, Garrett’s political manoeuvrings don’t affect my love for the music of Midnight Oil one bit – after all, Garrett was just one part of that band, and the Oils owed their brilliance at least as much to the songwriting of Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie and to the musical power they had as a group. I’ll always return to classics like 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining; and when I do I’ll always be once again that wide-eyed teenager, traveling across the vast Australian landscape with my faced pressed up to the bus window and those great songs in my head.

Gig bookin’ blues…

Extract from the Rolling Stone Guide to Credible Songwriters, 2026:

“Bill Morris’ debut album was released to immediate, widespread acclaim and strong sales in three continents. Luxuriating in his new found fame and artistic credibility, Bill was finally able to relax, sifting with casual disdain through the piles of pleading, almost desperate, requests from venue managers around New Zealand and the world  to have him play at their bars and clubs. With record companies engaged in open bidding wars to produce his next album, Morris once again displayed his punk rock credibility by thumbing his nose at them all and recording his next album in a cabin in the Swiss Alps with legendary indie folk producer …………………”

It’s raining again in Port Chalmers. I stumble back from the pub and check my emails to see if any of the dozen or so venues I’ve approached over the last two weeks have replied. I’m not really surprised to find nothing in my inbox.

Things did, however,  get pretty exciting there a few weeks ago when I made my first sale on bandcamp – a full album download! I proudly logged into Paypal to collect my 8 New Zealand dollars (minus bandcamp fees and tax).

Since that initial rush, however, things have slowed down a bit. In an effort to boost sales I thought I’d exploit the loyalty of my colleagues at work, so I left a pile of albums at the reception and sent an email round the building, suggesting they might make a worthwhile (and extremely tasteful) addition to people’s collections. After a couple of weeks sitting there gathering dust, the albums did eventually fly off the shelf – when the cleaner knocked the pile over (going for the dust.) Luckily the cases were undamaged and the pile was returned to its resolute, prominent glory, undiminished by either its tumble or by a single sale.

Welcome to the realities of being an independent musician Bill!

OK, so the lesson here is, releasing an album means almost nothing. Making the record’s the easy bit. Now comes the real hard work- getting people to listen; and that means getting out there on the road. Booking tours as an unknown artist is a bit of a struggle – it’s a classic Catch 22 situation – the venues are reluctant to book an unknown entity, yet in order to get a following you need to be booking gigs.

For inspiration I have some good friends who have carved out this path ahead of me – people like Jo Little and Jared Smith and the guys in the Eastern. Over the last few years I’ve watched Adam and the Eastern return time and time again to Dunedin, playing every venue and gig there is to play in town. I’ve watched their audience grow to the point where they now pack the place out every time they play here. Much has been said of this band’s work ethic, but I liked hearing this little snippet that popped up on the New Zealand Herald’s website, in which Adam talks to Bernie Griffen about the faith required to do independent music. As Adam explains, you have to keep “topping up” your faith –  to keep believing in what you’re doing, even when it might appear that no one else does.

I suppose I’m just really just starting out on the road that people like this have been treading for years – and I’m not sure I could ever really do what some of these guys do, living on the road constantly. But I am acutely aware that nothing comes from nothing and if I actually want people to take notice of this album I’ve made, it’s time to take it to them.

So hopefully I’ll see you out there somewhere soon! (If I can just get a damn gig in Hamilton that is….)

Bill

Shenandoah – a fraudulent song!

Since releasing my album, I’ve faced a deluge of questions (well, one) about the closing song “Shenandoah,” and the story of its lyrics.

It started about four or five years ago when an American friend took an interest in the fact the name “Shenandoah” appears on the map near Murchison, in the upper South Island. He had grown up near the Shenandoah Valley in the state of Virginia and was curious as to how the name had arrived here. This sparked my own interest and the story ended up becoming the basis for a song.

The original Shenandoah is a famous American river, flowing through fertile farm land between the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains. The origins of the name are somewhat hazy – it is believed to be derived from a Native American expression meaning “beautiful daughter of the stars.”

The river has popped up repeatedly in popular music, most famously in the first verse of John Denver’s “Take me Home, Country Roads.”

“Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River”

The beautiful traditional song “Shenandoah,” which has many different versions and is the official state song of Virginia, may also refer to the Shenandoah River, depending on which version of its lyrics you look at.

It’s at this point I have to confess that the story I tell in the lyrics to my own Shenandoah song is “somewhat impressionistic” (that’s French for almost total bullshit). I simply skimmed a few articles about the Shenandoah connection in New Zealand, took the vague gist of some of the details and constructed a tune and rhyme scheme that fitted. It was never intended as an historic document, and shouldn’t be taken as one; it’s riddled with inaccuracies.

So in the interests of recovering a few of the tattered remains my journalistic credibility, I will here relate the true(ish) story of how the name Shenandoah travelled halfway around the world to a remote South Island valley.

One of early New Zealand’s most colourful characters was George Fairweather Moonlight. Moonlight came from a fishing background in Scotland and he, along with his cousin Thomas, made his way to New Zealand via the goldfields of California and Australia in the 1850’s. George Moonlight, who was often known as “Captain,” was a striking character – tall, strong and incredibly self-reliant. His skill as a prospector and explorer became legendary as he travelled the South Island, exploring remote areas of wilderness, opening up new routes to the mountainous interior and making incredible strikes of gold. His most famous, at what became known as Moonlight Creek, near Blackball on the West Coast, yielded over 8 tons.

Moonlight’s travels took him to the Murchison area, where for a time he owned a hotel. During this time he continued to restlessly explore the wilderness, naming several landscape features, including a river he called Shenandoah. Exactly why he chose this name is not known. Although in my song I describe Moonlight and his brother Tom arriving on the banks of the Shenandoah River in Virginia, there is no evidence the real Moonlight actually ever went there.

Also he didn’t have a brother called Tom.

He did, however have two cousins called Thomas. One had travelled with him to New Zealand, while the other had gone to Kansas, where he rapidly rose through the ranks of the army to become a colonel. Although cousin Thomas certainly fought in the Civil War, he didn’t die in it, as the character in my song does. In fact after retiring from service, Thomas went on to become the Governor of Wyoming.

George Moonlight died at the age of 52 in the remote New Zealand wilderness he loved, prospecting for gold. It took his family three months to find his body, which was laid to rest in a Nelson cemetery.

Songs are funny things. Sometimes they spew forth as complete entities, claiming their right to exist in a certain state, no matter how hard you might try to change or correct them. Shenandoah (my version) is one such song. It is a folk tale; a complete fabrication loosely based on a few true elements. But I couldn’t write it any differently if I tried. So please don’t take it too seriously!

When I wrote the song five years ago I had never been to the Murchison area. It was only a couple of months ago that I finally got the chance to spend a few hours there, when I was coming home after touring on the West Coast. I felt like I’d walked into the lyrics of my song when I pulled into the small town of Murchison to find a bearded man on a Clydesdale-drawn cart trundling down the main street.

I went to the visitor’s centre and asked to be directed to the Shenandoah River, imagining I would be driving up some gravel road to find a grand, dark river pouring austerely through bush-clad wilderness. However the lady at the desk only looked blank for a while, then informed me there was no Shenandoah River, only the Shenandoah highway, which forms part of the state highway between Nelson and Christchurch.

Somewhat deflated, I left Murchison and headed south. I had a long drive back to Dunedin and wanted to put some miles behind me before nightfall. Rounding the corner as the day’s last light faded in the beech forest, I came  to a bridge and immediately slammed on the brakes .The yellow AA sign on the bridge  informed me that actually, there was a Shenandoah river – and here it was!

Except…. it was called the Shenandoah Stream. And it was a trickle! An unexceptional, blink-and-you’d-miss-it creek bubbling under the small concrete bridge before disappearing unobtrusively into the Maruia River a few miles away.

I could hardly believe it. But then I thought, well, what else did I expect? This song that seemed to write itself in my head stubbornly refuses to conform to any kind of historical accuracy, so why would it bother to reflect any physical accuracy either?

So there you have it, the story of Shenandoah – a truly fraudulent song. But don’t blame me; it was my unscholarly muse that did it.