Melbourne Film Festival - July 30, 2009


It was the era of punk and POPISM, disco and discourse, AIDS and abandon. The early to mid-’80s found an audience eager for the postmodern guru Jean Baudrillard, the maverick entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren and the graffiti maestro Keith Haring. Art, music, fashion and even architecture crossed boundaries in audacious leaps.

Inauspicious pub venues such as the Crystal Ballroom at the Seaview Hotel in St Kilda, the Tiger Lounge in Richmond and Fitzroy’s Champion Hotel would become the locus for many of the new bands that proliferated in Melbourne in the early 1980s. Art student Nick Cave had become something of a shuffling icon along the then decrepit Chapel Street in Prahran, crossing paths with artist Howard Arkley, both no doubt on a quest for substances somewhat below the radar of the law. Cave’s bands, The Boys Next Door and, slightly later, the Birthday Party were regulars at the Crystal Ballroom alongside Ed Kuepper’s Laughing Clowns, the Go Betweens, The Saints, Whirlywirld, Essendon Airport and Primitive Calculators.

In the dark environs of such dubious venues a small but intense audience included a number of artists who were to become major figures in years to come.

The Ballroom was, when all is said and done, a dump. On nights when a decidedly bedraggled crowd struggled to form, the ceiling would drip an acid rain of coalesced perspiration, the air a miasma of acrid moisture and hovering smoke from botted cigarettes, a would-be Louisiana swamp worsened by the stench of moisture evaporating from cheap op-shop, rain-soaked woolen coats. And they were the good nights.

Jenny Watson had insisted this would be worthwhile. Watson was a struggling artist, pseudo feminist in background, radical avant-gardist in aspiration, rabid pop-tart in reality. Her hair was a matted, rusty red; her dress-sense a macabre punk-pastiche of tatty black velvet and torn fishnet stockings, smeared lipstick and mascara applied with a cement trowel. It wasn’t elegant. But then, it wasn’t meant to be.

To make ends meet, Watson was teaching painting part-time at Caulfield Institute of Technology. She had a student, a tall, gawky lad whose art statement seemed to have more to do with dying his hair jet black and scrawling semi-obscene graffiti in note-books. But Watson was besotted, and the young Nick Cave couldn’t have had a better publicist when it came to spreading the word among art circles. “You have to see this band!” she would shriek. And when Watson shrieked it was hard to escape. Of course we saw the band.

Thus it came to be that on dark winter evenings, when Melbourne sunk into Siberia-like hibernation, a small coterie of artists would be corralled into the stygian environs of St. Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. The Ballroom was a broken down rock venue struggling for life. Audiences fluctuated. At times half-a-dozen punters constituted a crowd. Entrance was via a gamut of passed out drunks, semi-conscious junkies, syringes piercing skin, a slick swamp of vomit and a littering of Victoria Bitter cans. This was the St. Kilda of the damned, long before polished floorboards and café latte. This was still the St Kilda of Albert Tucker’s visions of Good and Evil, prostitutes loitering in the dim lights of tram stops, a world of the living dead. At the time Tucker still lived around the corner and could often be spied stalking the streets, glowering at all around him.

Watching Cave’s band was like rehearsing for entrée into a Hieronymous Bosch painting, a carnivalesque monstrosity of malicious intent and play-time exhibitionism. The still-life elements of this canvas were supplied by the serious intensity of Mick Harvey, who slid into the shadows to the right, hugging his guitar closely, as though to distance himself from the suicidal activities centre stage. The only one who looked part of a more-or-less traditional rock’n’roll band was Tracy Pew, inevitably resplendent in fishnet singlet and ten-gallon Stetson, wielding a bass guitar like an AK47 and known to occasionally stuff his head into the centre of the bass drum as he flailed at his bass guitar.

Dominating the stage were two figures. One was Cave, a marionette on amphetamines, an Antonin Artaud performance come to life in 1980s Melbourne. What lights there were would flicker on and Cave would appear, screaming “Who Wants To DIE!?” as drummer Phil Calvert bashed out a crude, militaristic staccato beat. Inevitably to Cave’s right, as though indifferent to the chaos around him, was the sepulchral figure of Roland S. Howard. Even before years of heroin ravagement, Howard was a pale, skeletal figure, his dangling cigarette an extension of sensual, down-turned lips, an eldritch apparition doomed to a half-life while injecting an electrified accompaniment to Cave’s deranged monologues and narratives.

The stories told in these darkened environs were almost inevitably those of despair and darkness, although not without ample helpings of knowing self-mockery. Cave’s later biblical prophesizing was yet to find its genesis. Zoo Music Girl, Nick The Stripper, Release the Bats, King Ink; these were tirades of self-abasement.

Cave was not the slick rock star he would evolve into; he was the pre-gestation maggot struggling against a membrane of conservatism; he was ugly, chinless, potentially deranged, leaping without acknowledgment of pain, splintering Howard’s cigarette with an out-flung hand, indifferent to the stink of burnt flesh. “Hideous to the eye,” a “fat little insect,” were the lines of his self-portrait.

The haphazard video finally created for Nick The Stripper was performance art at its best. The torturous and self-important pseudo-mayhem of performance was reduced to a nightmarish party that pre-empted the strange shadowy debauches of Bill Henson’s later photographic work. Artists across the globe were experimenting with piercings, pressure, blood loss and sexual mutilation. In London Genesis P. Orridge, in his Coum Transmissions performances, had barbed wire wound around his face and tightened, the American performance artist Chris Burdon, notoriously, had himself shot in the arm and crucified on the roof of a Volkswagen. The Viennese school of body artists, most notably Herman Nitsch, were awash with gore. One of the ultimate performance artists, Iggy Pop, walked above his audience smeared in blood and peanut butter. In Australia, Mike Parr sewed dead fish onto his thigh and used a branding iron to burn the word ‘artist’ into his flesh. Cave, as art student, had no doubt taken in these events from a distance, but his import of extremes was to have a lasting impact on those in the small, stuffy rooms of Melbourne’s ‘alternative’ venues.

‘Punk’ in Melbourne at this time was a largely tokenistic gesture lifted from the pages of UK periodicals and fanzines. But as art historian Chris McAuliffe has pointed out, “punk demonstrated that an avant-garde culture was still possible.” As a movement it spread across the inner-city like a willful black fungus. Venues sprung up at the Exford Hotel in the inner city, the Champion in Fitzroy, the Tiger Lounge at the Royal Oak Hotel in Richmond and Bananas at Earls court, St. Kilda. The aged, but still vaguely glamorous Seaview Ballroom, built in 1897 as a resort hotel, became the most renowned of the venues, in part for the fact that it was closed in 1987 by the Liquor Licensing Commission under the belief that the hotel sustained a Mafia-based heroin trade. The venue was reopened in 1979 and the upstairs dining room, complete with chandeliers, became The Crystal Ballroom.

Music has long had a role in the solitary artists studio, now it took to the streets. Those ‘in the know’ were consuming the arty endeavours of David Bowie, The Velvet Underground and Roxy Music and, most importantly, The Stooges. Aficionado’s were touting Captain Beefheart and discovering the out of tune marvels of The Swans, Suicide, Pere Ubu and The Fall. When The Fall rather infamously toured in 1981, the young abstract painter Brett Colquhoun, already christened in the flames of The Birthday Party, decided to invite himself on tour, befriending the band’s acerbic front man, Mark E. Smith.

AMONGST THOSE IN the audience were a number of mainstays that would continue to attend without Watson’s prompting. Some were well ahead of Watson, others strangely indebted. A smattering of artists who would become substantial if not major figures in the Melbourne, national and, at times, even international art world made up a good percentage of the audience. John Nixon, then dating Watson, would attempt to outdo Tony Clark in melancholy black. Clark would stand to the rear, arms crossed in regal bearing as though passing judgment over some Grecian legal ritual, a perpetual scowl imprinted on his visage. Howard Arkley, with spotted tie, would sport the only facial hair in the room. The venue would be filled with younger art students, a veritable who’s who of new talent, including Brett Colquhoun, Jon Cattapan, Greg Ades, Stephen Bush, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, Nick Seymour, Maria Kozic, Peter Tyndall, John Mathews, Megan Bannister, Peter Walsh, Stephen Eastaugh and Andrew Browne along with playwright Tobsha Learner, photographer Polly Borland, writer Stephanie Holt and filmmakers to-be Richard Lowenstein and John Hillcoat; it was, in effect, a breeding ground for a new generation.

An early work of this period, Jon Cattapan’s Hot Corgis (1977) happily lifted Jamie Reid’s graphic anti-royalist imagery for the Sex Pistols, adding a somewhat expressionistic touch. This dystopian aesthetic continued in Cattapan’s work as he went on to depict St Kilda either flooded or in flames in cityscapes worthy of a J.G. Ballard novel. A drug-fuelled Howard Arkley grasped the spirit of the times in his 1982 work Primitive, the title grabbed from a song by US punk band The Cramps. Arkley had witnessed the overseas punk movement first-hand after a trip to Europe where trains would be crowded with mohawked youths. Primitive, not unlike the frenetic punk songs he had heard, was executed in a single night, the 120.5 x 403 centimeter sheet of stolen paper eventually crowded with the detritus of abstracted thought. Part of the process, again in a punk-like spirit, was the fact that he had promised Tony Clark a work to be shown at Prahran College, but had simply forgotten about it until the night before.

Watson had dragged the artists she knew to an early performance for not altogether altruistic reasons. Watson had a radar for talent and for ways to be linked to it. She had painted a text-based work titled An original oil painting (Black and white): For Nick Cave, with the words emblazoned on the canvas and given it to Cave as a prop for the song ‘Let’s Talk About Art’ for a 1979 performance at the Ballroom. Consolidating Watson’s hopes, the painting became a briefly utilized prop on stage, flung without regard for its future as a would-be museum piece.

The band, morphing from the moniker The Boys Next Door, later the Birthday Party and later still, The Bad Seeds, became a part of Watson’s own art project. Chris McAuliffe was later to note in an article in Art & Australia that the band were “able to acknowledge their debt to art and art rock both literally and ironically; the song introduces art with none of the subtle pretentiousness of art rock, but as if it were an item on a checklist. The very obviousness of the gesture over-determined, and thus deflated, rock’s flirtation with art. Watson was able to counter art’s high cultural tradition by rendering the painting itself generic and its exhibition momentary; in effect, the work was one that aspired to the status of a three-minute pop song. A telling symbiosis was achieved: the musicians were brought into the artists’ studio, while art appeared on the musicians stage.”

In 1999 I commissioned Roland S. Howard to write on the extremes of rock as performance for World Art magazine. A part of what he wrote was a description of a Birthday Party gig held in London, but the description could just as well have been that of one of the numerous infamous Ballroom gigs the band played. It seems apt to leave on Howard’s reminisce:

“The rider (alcohol provided in accordance with the contract) is sucked down at soundcheck, these people have no idea who they are dealing with. Afterwards, slightly less endorsed substances come into play. When stage time arrives, three fifths of the band, myself included, are wasted men. The memories grow hazy at this point, is it shame or adrenaline?

“Who knows, fewer care.

“I remember Tracy Pew falling flat on his face, his bass exploding in a sub-sonic boom as he and it hit the floor with all the weight of the near unconscious. It takes a good minute – a long time in a song – for Tracy to find his drunken feet and locate the song. We begin the next number, the introduction lasts a lifetime: Nick Cave is too involved battling some maniac in the crowd to be bothered singing. The song does start, but it’s like we’re all in different rooms, not for the first time Mick Harvey and I, extreme left and right, just stop playing and look at each other in disbelief. Nick is trying to scale the PA stack, but keeps falling down. Everything is falling down. I’m finding this hard to believe, we are onstage, nominally playing a song and Nick is beating a maniac over the head with the mike stand. The song dies – the hall is filled with the sound of the microphone, in all its reverberated glory, repeatedly smashing someone’s skull…

“If I stand here, I’m condoning this action, but to walk off would be traitorous, and at a time and a place like this there is no guilt, there are no excuses. It seems to go on forever, I’ve never seen an audience with their heads in the hands before… it is very, very bad.”

Ah, but as Roland well knows, it was in fact, for all the horror involved, very, very good. Those were the days….

- Ashley Crawford