There are many culprits for the lack of work I’ve been doing here – illness, weather conditions, my grief over the death of David Bowie, time spent working for other people, laziness – but I think lack of organisation is one of the bigger problems. Fortunately, I’ve spent a lot of the last week working out what I wanted to get done and how I was going to do it. Progress has, I think, been made, but of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
This time next week, there’ll pudding on your plate… or pudding on my face.
It’s InvasionAustralia Day again, and I’ve decided that I’m going to make an annual practice of adding to my list of Australian Anthems. For 2016, I’ve gone with one of Paul Kelly’s early classics.
Something that everyone seems to notice about Australians is our sense of humour. We’re laconic and wry and self-deprecating. Self-deprecation is very much at the heart of Australian humour, the flipside of our national fear of being seen to big note yourself, our love of cutting down tall poppies. It’s rarely been done better than here:
Not only does this song rock your arse off, but it take self-deprecation so far that it becomes almost a boast. The phrase ‘humble-brag’ hadn’t been invented when this song came out, but it is absolutely the best way to describe it. “Dumb Things” includes a lengthy list of stupid to the point of self-destructive actions, but also an allusion to Greek myth, the claim that Kelly always had a go, and finally, the wry acceptance of it all.
I plan to have this song played at my funeral. And I doubt that I’m the only Australian with that plan…
I truly believe this. Because mourning is not an entirely conscious process. Like any emotion, a lot of it goes on in the background. It’s not always on your mind; but it is always on your heart or soul.
(Yes, this is about David Bowie as well, but more obliquely. His passing has caused me to think about these things anew.)
You’re moving along just fine, and then you see something, or smell something or hear something, and it all comes back to you. And when it does, you feel a species of guilt, because we all know in our hearts that mourning never ends. If the way the people who are gone live on is in our memories, then to have forgotten them (with one’s conscious mind), even for a second, is to have killed them. And we apologise inwardly, invoking and palliating the shades of the departed, because it feels like our forgetting them has hurt them the way that their deaths hurt us.
All but one of my grand-parents died before I was more than 12 or so. (My maternal grandmother didn’t die until I was in my thirties, and I got to know her – somewhat – as an adult.) At that age, it’s less that one cannot process death as that one bounces back more quickly. You are young and bright and energetic, and sad that you will not see them again, but your emotions are still so inchoate that the simple fact you can’t put a name to it protects you from the worst ravages of grief. That’s how it seems to me at this remove, at least.
In the mid-Nineties, a friend of mine – the very queen of snark – committed suicide. I had feared that she might (and went on spend years wrestling with the guilt of not having done more), but it was still a shock and a blow. I cannot hear any version of “Tomorrow Wendy” without thinking of her, even today. Hey hey, goodbye, old friend.
One of my aunts died after a protracted struggle with cancer. She was, well, to us nephews and nieces, she was our second mother. She was kind and giving and supportive, and I honestly do not know how she did it. She wasn’t a saint, don’t get me wrong, but she was an excellent human being. (The thing that sticks in my mind: on the day of her funeral, one my cousins couldn’t make it due to other commitments. A young man in his early twenties at the time, he wept unashamedly about that. And this was a cousin on the other side of my family, related to her only by my parent’s marriage. She was that kind of person.)
One of my father’s cousins, who was basically an uncle to my brother and I, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was a great guy, smart, incisive, funny. He’d been a school teacher most of his life, and before that, a member of the first ever graduating year at La Trobe University (which was my alma mater also). I’d barely seen him for twenty years, largely because I spent a lot of my twenties far from most of my family (emotionally, and sometimes geographically), but I cried at his funeral, which was so crowded with his family and friends and former students (and their families and friends) that the church wouldn’t fit us all.
Freddie Mercury died. My girlfriend and I had been away for the weekend, and only learned it when we got back to her place and her sister told us. We lay together and cried on each other’s shoulders.
Gough Whitlam died. Non-Australians won’t understand this, but Gough was one of the titans of Australian politics, a man whose works and legacy you could not fail to have an opinion about. Love him or hate him, his death seemed like the end of an era.
Robert Anton Wilson died. No single author has ever affected my thinking or the way I view the world as much as him, no one wrote books I more eagerly re-read or shared with others. (If anything that I’ve ever said meant a damn to you, the odds are about 50/50 that you’ve him to thank for that. I was merely a messenger.)
David Bowie died. Yesterday.
I could go on. I could talk about Paul Hester, or Hunter Thompson, or Roger Zelazny, I could bring up Isaac Asimov, or John Lennon, or that kid you went to school with, but there’s no need. My point is made.
People in your life die. Artists who you never met, but whose work has touched your life, die.
We don’t need to know them personally, because like all those we love, we know their hearts. Family, friends or distant strangers, they are the ones Who have brought hope to your heart, fire to your spirit or electricity to your brain. Who made you smile on your worst days, and who appreciated your smile on your best days.
Mourning never ends, so their absence will forever make you sad. At times, it will reduce you to tears and sobbing.
But ultimately, grief is a cause for hope. Because the reason mourning never ends is that love never dies.
It’s perhaps a little late for it, years into his career, but perhaps that’s just when it felt real enough. When stardom was in his grasp, and all he had to do was reach out and take it. In retrospect, “Star” sounds like a mission statement, even a manifesto. Bowie started the song in 1970, tinkered with it on and off over that year and the next before finally recording it for his upcoming album. 1971 was a cusp year for Bowie, and a sense of make or break pervades the entire album of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. (Tellingly, Bowie’s vision of stardom includes both make and break. Bowie would both be Buddha and kill him on the road.)
“Star” is one of the most optimistic songs on the album, full of Warholian ambitions. Bowie sings of a Transformation, even a World Mutation (the capitals are quite audible). Did he intuit, even then, that one day he’d need to kill Ziggy? It’s hard not to feel that he understood, already, the need to be protean. Bowie as shapechanger, as trickster, switching effortlessly from heart-on-sleeve passion to above-it-all cynicism and back again. Endlessly. (Ask any student of the tarot: death is just another transformation.)
Bowie, at every point in his career, is an outsider artist. Even in his Eighties incarnation, as pop music royalty, as one of those who sat enthroned above the system, there’s a sense of subversiveness. At any point, like his goblin prince Jareth, he’ll reveal that his authority figure status is just another act, just another character. (If you cower, he’ll be frightening. Yes and, right?) And even if that never happens, at some point he’ll be bored with it, and go do something else.
To me, and I suspect to many another misfit, that was the most alluring thing about Bowie. It’s not that he made it okay to be weird, or to be artistic, or to be queer, although he did those things too. It’s that he made it okay to be, in the eyes of the external world at least, inconsistent. Bowie’s integrity as an artist was writ most large in his unpredictability. He was always Bowie, but what Bowie was changed constantly. Other artists might become golden oldies, but Bowie was always mercurial. Bowie was Ziggy and Jareth and the Thin White Duke and so many more, sometimes simultaneously. It’s never better encapsulated than here:
Which one is the real Bowie?
I don’t think it matters.
In the end, this is what I’ll remember him for. Not for being perfect. Certainly not for easily comprehensible lyrics. But for being himself, even when that self was a surprise to everyone around him (and at times, it seemed, to him too). For taking himself so very seriously, and not seriously at all. For the stream of his consciousness. For his endless reinvention.
He did not die. He could never die. Death is just another transformation. David Bowie simply moved on:
I have always tended nocturnal. I have been known to refer to the sun as “the big light that comes on when it’s time to go to sleep”. Moreso in summer, when it’s merely a common sense way of avoiding the heat (so long as you’ve no reason to be up early the next day). It suits me. I sunburn easily and I hate the heat and humidity.
But I don’t live in New York, and Melbourne is a city that does sleep, at regular and sensible hours. So as much as I love it here, and appreciate the weird beauty of the suburban night, the nights are long and empty of human contact. And then I sleep all day, or until mid-afternoon or so, and my friends are tired after work, or have something on, or have kids to look after, and I can maybe come visit, but not too late, because there’s work or school or both (depending on the household) tomorrow.
(It makes you stealthy, not so much from a desire to be a ninja as from a desire to not be an arsehole.)
The internet helps this a little – I have friends in other time zones to talk to, some of the time at least. But there’s no one I can pick up the phone and call unless it’s an emergency. (That’s not a criticism of anyone but me, by the way.) And I love missing the days’ heat, but the nights can be cold in more ways than one.
I used to get a fair amount of writing done of a night, but not so much these daysnights. Now I just wander around on the interwebs, reading things I’ve read before, failing to reach inbox zero, and playing games. And missing the world, because it’s gone to sleep without me.
I used to go clubbing three nights a week, week in, week out, and honestly, I still would if I had a crew and venues that played music I like. (It’s been a surprise to me, over the years, to find how little it takes to satisfy me.) I suppose I probably also lack the stamina, in my late forties, although I suspect it would come back if I worked at it. (You can have your gym, I have mine.) And my hair wouldn’t smell like smokers afterwards, either, which would be nice.
Sometimes I feel like my footsteps erase themselves behind me. Not always. But often. Most of the time, even.
I’ve felt that way, on and off, for twenty years or so, but more often as time goes on. I’m barely here anymore. Barely real. I lived, back in the Twentieth Century, but here the Twenty-First, I merely haunt.
All my stories are old and shop-worn, all my habits of steering conversations away from the awkward questions are distressingly well-practiced. It’s not that I don’t recall much of the last few years, it’s that there seems to be so little worth recalling. Memory is hollow.
I don’t know how exactly this happened. I can’t pinpoint any single thing that made this happen, no event or choice that decisively shaped me. I can’t, at this point, individually identify all of the snowballs that made this avalanche. I just know that I am buried under it.
I have become things that would have been an absolute anathema to my younger self, like cautious and content and complacent. (I’m fucking terrified as I type this, but I know it must be done.)
It’s not that I no longer want the things I once wanted, although I have come to understand that they won’t come as easily as the me of my early twenties thought. And yet…
I’ve come too far for anything else. I’m still not ready to be normal, and I doubt that I will ever be.
But as much as I’m still in that ocean, more and more I’m treading water instead of swimming.
And it’s funny, because all this noise and splashing is for an audience that hasn’t been fooled by it in a long, long time.
And it’s sad, because all this noise and splashing, all this attention-seeking, is just a way to hide.
I don’t exactly know how to change this. I really don’t.
But I’m going to find out. Because, however much I’ve clung to the notion that there was only one, there has to be more than one way to be a grown up.
We’ll talk again on this, and soon. I’ll play you my theme songs, and hopefully you can suggest some better ones for me.
Over the last few months, I have been watching the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican Primaries with some alarm. I mean, seriously, most of the Republican front-runners are disturbing in one way or another (Carly Fiorina’s insistence that what can most charitably be termed her hallucinations while watching a video are more valid than what the people who actually made the video say is in there; Ben Carson’s attempt to brand himself as in some way dangerous; Jeb Bush’s increasingly obvious desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else; Rand Paul’s existence; etc.) but the Donald is head and shoulders above the pack. He’s not just the clear front-runner in the polls, but also the clear front-runner in sheer offensiveness. He’s the kind of politician who makes satirists take to (more) drink, because there’s no way to exaggerate the reality of what Trump says. As Hunter Thompson said in similar circumstances, “the reality itself is too intense.”
Trump at CPAC 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
It’s at times like this I miss Stewart and Colbert. And understand, I mean no insult to Trevor Noah or Larry Wilmore – it’s nothing more than the difference a decade plus of hosting makes. In 2026, those two will be honed by experience to an edge of satire even sharper than we now remember Jon and Stephen being. In 2016, even they are stumbling to keep up with Trump. How does he do it? How does he confound some of the best satirists in the world? How is he always one step ahead?
And then it came to me.
How Trump does it.
The candidacy of Donald Trump is nothing more than the next logical step from the persona Stephen Colbert played for all those years on The Colbert Report.
He can’t be satirised precisely because his entire candidacy is nothing more than a giant satire of the entire system it purports to be a part of. Donald Trump the Candidate is merely a character played by Donald Trump the man.
And Donald Trump the man is very, very good at his art.
Now, I realise that there is no evidence at all to suggest that my theory is correct, but of course, there wouldn’t be. Trump isn’t about to leave that to chance, after all. Of course he’s going to be all “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” at this point in the proceedings. A year from now, maybe, he’ll come clean (although frankly, I think a posthumously released home video memoir is the most likely way he’ll tell the truth: free of consequence and at a profit).
Nor should anyone think that I mean to insult Trump with this theory. Quite the reverse – if I am correct, Trump is an absolute genius of political satire. Indeed, listening to the hateful, moronic bile that spews from the word-hole beneath that horrid toupee, I think that this theory is the only viable one for anyone who wants to respect Trump’s intelligence and media savvy.
Trump’s star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo by Adam Fagen.
Just letting you know that over the next few days, navigation on this site might be a little tricky, because I’m going to be moving things around and reorganising them. So while every effort will be made to ensure that things can still be found easily, some of it may temporarily disappear from menus. Rest assured, all of it is still here, and can be found by using the search box.
Apologies for any inconvenience, and thank you for your patience.
This has been a really bad year on this site. Despite the continued popularity of some of my features, updates have been few and far between – especially compared to last year, when I used to routinely post three new pieces each day. There’s a few reasons for this. First of all, I’ve been a lot busier this year, so there’s been less time to get things done. Secondly, when I haven’t been busy, I’ve been ill with depressing frequency. And finally, of course, there’s my own mounting disengagement with the blog.
Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. Somewhere along the line, this stopped being fun for me and became, instead, an onerous task. I’m very proud of what I’ve done here over the last 8 years, but I’ve gotten a tad burned out. And I’ve waited too long to tell you that. Mea culpa.
So what I’m planning to do, after today, is to stop posting new content for a while unless it’s new content that interests me to post. Too much of what I do here I do more from duty than joy, and that’s the fun killer for me.
Now, obviously, a site not regularly posting new content is going to slide in the search rankings, so I don’t plan to do that for too long. I have a plan. In no particular order, here it is:
Effective immediately, no more updates to The Rock’n’Roll History of the World. I have more than 200 entries waiting for me to write them – and a like number of bookmarks to assorted lyrics that I haven’t even got that far with yet – but I was also in the process of reformatting all the old ones when the Big River company decided to replace their existing widgets with a “new and improved” version that is larger, uglier, and lacks the fine control of the old one. Until that situation is resolved, there will be no new posts in this feature, and no more reformatting (because I now have to start that process all the fuck over again, and I just can’t deal with that right now).
When I come back, I’ll be re-doing the site’s theme and navigation. I’m going to be spending some time brainstorming that, and I have a couple of friends I’m planning to ask for help there, but my goal is to retain the accessibility of the current site while cleaning things up a little. This will most definitely include the creation of a site map, but other than that, I don’t know what else it will look like (although after a while with dark themes, smart money is that the next one will be lighter in colour.
I’m also considering going more personal with the blog. More talking about my life, about Australian politics, about the books and comics I’m reading, the games I’m playing, the films and plays I’m seeing. This is something I find a tad worrisome in this insecure age, but I think that what’s missing from this site, most of all, is its author. I’m tired of being the ghost in this machine.
I do have a few ideas for new features, some of which I think people are going to love, some maybe not so much. This point intersects with what I was saying about the redesign, above – some of these possible features have technical requirements that would need to be accommodated for them to find a home here. Some of them may wind up on independent sites. At this point, there’s insufficient data for me to decide, so research is going to be happening (not that this will be immediately visible here, but know that I will be busy even if the site doesn’t look like it).
The various Trade Paperback Timelines are all going to be staying, and I will be getting back to updating them more regularly. Ditto the Crossover Reading Orders, of which I have a few being worked on at the moment, and a list of the ones I want to add. (If there’s any new content before the redesign kicks in, it will be those.)
So that’s present and future of The Centre Cannot Hold. I hope you’ll be patient while I work this out.