Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday November 8, 1997
Is the new Dave Graney just the old Dave Graney dressed in purple? How often can one man reinvent himself? To find the answers, Mark Dapin accompanied the mercurial King of Pop to his home town.
In Mount Gambier, South Australia, there are half-a-dozen revivalist churches, three gun clubs, 16 hotels and one long, wide main street. There are also some tracks. Dave Graney, the self-pronounced King of Pop, was born on the wrong side of them.
The railway once carried passengers and freight to Victoria and nearby towns like Millicent and Wolseley. Today it lies disused, splitting the timber town in two. Housing Trust homes and timber factories spill around the narrow-gauge lines that divide limestone, working-class, eastern Mount Gambier from the dolomite-stone west side. Graney, winner of last year's Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) award for Best Male Artist, grew up on the east side on an estate of identical houses where garden gnomes stand sentinel over neatly trimmed front yards and mailboxes sit like trophies on poles. He spent his first year out of school in a factory. "I was at the end of a conveyor belt, and different lengths of treated and untreated timber would come towards me," he says.
"If I didn't get them off quick enough they'd bank up and start shooting out in my face."
The town lies in the shadow of an extinct volcano. Around the airport, army reservists crawl through the bushes in camouflage, ready to repel any assault from the nearby settlements of Tintinara or Keith. Graney is initially reluctant to discuss memories of Mount Gambier. "I haven't made it a big reason for my existence," he says. "I'm not the voice of the country or anything ... I am quite distant from most people here." He once said: "There's no reason to go there.
All I remember from when I was a kid is it's incredibly violent. And just drinking and car crashes - you could get a licence at 16, and soon as you got your licence you'd go out on the piss."
Nevertheless, Dave Graney, 38, recently returned to Mount Gambier - to play a concert at Shadows nightclub, his first home-town gig in several years. Fresh-faced and short, with thinning, fair, back-combed hair and a used-car salesman's moustache, he looks like a schoolboy disguised as a spiv, as if he might equally well have fake watches or stolen exam papers hidden in his coat.
When he won the ARIA award, he pronounced himself "one of pop's kings". That same year, dismayed ARIA organiser Peter Rix talked of dumping the award. "There just aren't enough talented blokes to go around," Rix said. "The male pop star thing is disappearing very, very quickly." He called Graney more of an antihero than a pop star.
Graney's musical life began in the '70s with The Moodists, now known as That Other Band. His wife of 12 years, drummer Clare Moore, joined That Other Band in Adelaide in 1978. "People don't really remember the bands we were in in the '80s, which is good in a way," Moore says. "It's like we came out of nowhere. We're a lot older than everyone
else but we don't seem to have been around for that long."
Ex-Go-Between Peter Milton Walsh first met Graney in the early 1980s. "At the time, his act was to come on like some hayseed who just fell off the back of the melon truck. He wanted you to underestimate him. That way he could do these brilliant ambush insults that would start off as compliments. David actually loved to play dumb, while a lot of people in bands don't have a choice - you might have a better conversation with a budgerigar."
The Moodists tagged on to the tail end of the Melbourne punk scene, playing "the new music" to tiny audiences in dark St Kilda pubs. But the home of the savage beat was never in Australia. The real scene, the buzz and the money, were in England. Like the Birthday Party, the Triffids and the Go-Betweens, the Moodists flew there to see if the streets of London were paved with gold records. They weren't. "I remember eating a lot of porridge and chips," guitarist Steve Miller says. "It was hand-to-mouth.
You often were squatting so you weren't sure how long you were gonna be in a place. Dave and Clare did it the hardest of all of us, but they were very stoic. I think at one stage they were baking their own bread. I ended up getting a job labouring but they stuck to their guns. They were living on a lot of sardines."
The Moodists did several gruelling tours of continental Europe, getting lost everywhere from Barcelona to Berlin. "He just could never read a road map; that's my big memory of Dave," Miller says. "He was always reading his books, never watching where we were going."
Back in London, their guitars were stolen. "More and more things just didn't bounce our way," recalls Miller.
The Moodists were overlooked by the powerful British music press. "We were making a sound but we weren't wearing the right clothes," says Miller, with bitterness."In England, you have to have the clothes."
The band crumbled and Graney and Moore went out on their own.
They were beginning to have some success when their visas expired.
They did not return home as prodigal children; they had to fly back on Russian carrier Aeroflot, the airline with the cheapest fare.
Graney was a new man when he stepped off the plane from London but exactly who that man was, nobody but he seemed to know. He was a kind of cosmic cowboy, a country-and-western lizard king, complete with Stetson, Gram Parsons cover versions and a bewildering line in cowboy hipster speak.
"I call myself a frontiersman because I'm a ramblin', gamblin' man, worth my weight in gold in this rational daylight world," he told The Sydney Morning Herald soon after his return. "I come from a tradition of artists and magicians that is truly wondrous. The frontiersman is well-dressed, good-looking and usually followed around by a lot of females who respect his elemental force. When I play in Melbourne my audience is mainly female ... beautiful, beautiful girls. It's because I'm a frontiersman - my music is totally masculine."
Steve Miller was "just a little bit" surprised at the new Graney. "I didn't think he liked country so much," he says. Graney began to refer to himself in the third person, as if he were somebody else; and then as if he were not a person but a quality. "You'd see him on stage talking about Dave Graney, saying, 'I'm more Dave Graney than any of you are.' It really blew people away."
Graney had paid his dues and was determined to be a celebrity this time around. He was tired of being a Dave Graney. He wanted to be the Dave Graney.
At Mount Gambier's Cafe Luna a man with a goatee serves us cappuccino and focaccia. "Christ, what is this?" asks Graney. "It looks like something in St Kilda. This is a blue-collar place; they didn't used to have the time for aesthetic choices about what they eat."
From grade four until the year before matriculation, Graney attended a Christian Brothers school in Mount Gambier. "The Brothers moved away in the early '80s, I think, to give the Fijians a hard time," he says. "You got caned all the time. We used to have a competition to see who could get beaten the most.
I got [caned] about 20 times in about three weeks and I was the lowest. You'd get it for everything ... being late, scraping the chair on the floor.
"Contemporaries of mine who use religious imagery didn't grow up in the same world that I did. Anybody who grew up in a Catholic world would not use religious imagery in their songs."
Graney was a good student and an ambitious teenager. "Dave has been convinced since I first met him at high school [that he would be a star],"
says Miller. "He's always been very determined, very talented, very stubborn. He wouldn't let anything stand in his way of getting where he wanted to go."
When Graney left school in the mid-'70s, the sharpies ruled the streets of Melbourne, strutting around in short jackets, straight-legged, high-waisted Lee jeans and platform shoes, in gangs with names such as the "Oakley Bowies". Adelaide was a rocker city. In Mount Gambier, however, the uniform was still Miller cowboy shirts.
The punk rock explosion left the town cold, but it changed Graney's life. "I used to order Sex Pistols singles from a sewing and electrical store down the road. There was no record shop; you got your records from a place that sold toasters. Everybody hated the Sex Pistols. You'd go in and order God Save the Queen and you were really connected to a happening world. The guy was revolted by you ordering it. That was very exciting."
He did not bleach his hair, rip his T-shirt or pierce his ears. "I would have been beaten the living crap out of," he says. There were no punks in country South Australia. "I almost moved away immediately," he says. Graney touches on his youth on his Night of the Wolverine album. Says Miller, "There are some references there to growing up in Mount Gambier and he makes them as scary as they were. In fact, they bring them right back and make me shudder."
In his recent work, one of Graney's main lyrical concerns has been his own imaginary celebrity. The more he has written about it, the more it has come true. He has abandoned the Wild West pose for a high-camp, post-modern-crooner image, a satirical take on a breed of performers that barely exists any more - the kings of pop. As Peter Milton Walsh says, "He is both a pop figure and larger than that - a construct from the many eras of pop. He has a tonne of vinyl, and a history of songs, both crap and good, in his head. His ambitions are so much larger than rock'n'roll - he could happily have been a grand old man of Vaudeville or a studio player in Hollywood. He's an Entertainer. He believes in it."
His ARIA award proved other people at last believed in it, too. Graney told
the mainstream he was mainstream. He even appeared on Tonight Live with Steve Vizard. Tony Mahony, who makes Graney's videos and illustrated his new book, It Is Written, Baby, remembers a gig at the Continental in Melbourne "full of exactly the same kind of stiffs who would have been in the crowd at [the Tonight Show]. It was really awful. They were sort of whooping and hollering as those people do when they punch the air."
The Cruel Sea's Tex Perkins says, "I've always seen a bit of a connection between the emperor's new clothes and [Graney]. I think he's trying to stretch that whole theory, that if you believe in yourself then everybody else will as well. No matter how ridiculous - or indeed naked - he is, his own crystal-clear, diamond-bullet belief in himself destroys any doubt you may have."
Graney's friends agree he is funny and honest, erudite and good company. But the word that comes up most often is "loyal". Graney is there when you need him; Graney will never abandon you.
They stick by him, too. Nobody is willing to say the new Dave Graney is just the old Dave Graney dressed in purple. "I guess Dave's friends respect his right to reinvent himself as a public figure," says Clinton Walker, author of Stranded, a history of Australian independent music. "If Dave has decided he is going to reinvent himself this summer as a peacock in boardshorts, they won't reveal the truth. Dave has become protective of his past because he's become so involved in the idea of inventing these personas for himself."
Graney says his lyrics describe a world of energy, luck and ambition. It's a curious world, peopled with figures from B-movies and pulp novels, from history and comedy, sport and murder, all wearing dinner jackets and arguing over dry martinis at some impossible cocktail party. Graney is the host, the compere and the MC, as well as the chronicler, the guest act and the thief who poisons the punch. He notices the absurdity of detail. In Biker in Business Class he tells the story of a drug courier at the airport, his corporate-camouflage suit offset by his trademark earring.
So much of his writing is about masks, hiding, disguises. In Graney's songs, KGB agents go undercover as rock stars, rock stars turn invisible, Jim Morrison comes back to life to join his local tribute band, The Australian Doors Show.
His first foray into publishing, It Is Written, Baby, is a collection of his lyrics interspersed with fragments of journalism, memoir and opinion. Graney's words have faces that mirror his own. They have quizzical, wry lips, eyebrows that arch in the face of the vernacular and eyelids that wink sarcastically at the would-be cognoscenti. Many of the songs work better on paper. Walsh says, "He's great at explaining the village that is Australia, and knows the Australian subconscious just as Morrissey understood the English - all the subliminal stuff of the culture is there in his work but it refuses to call attention to itself. Not just the popular stuff, either: the underground stuff, too."
His detractors have called him arrogant. "I don't know what people expect from performers," Graney says. "Sometimes I've had it said to me that people like a bit of vulnerability. They want to see a bit of blood and guts, a bit of uncertainty and diffidence. They don't get that from me. I might seem self-possessed and that's not orthodox in the rock music scene.
"I'm not talking about myself all the time. I'm not a personality-driven person. I'm not a totally emotionally driven performer. I'm not trying to reveal anything about myself or my life. I'm not interested in revelation or my feelings. They come and they go. I don't write songs about being pissed off or angry much. If I feel like that I'll go out for a swim or something. That's private kind of stuff. I'm interested in ideas and imaginative things."
At the moment, he is fired by ideas of reconciliation. He has been reading historian Henry Reynolds. "The Native Title legislation is the best thing that's happened in Australian life since settlement by white people," he says. "It's inching towards recognising our Aboriginal people as human beings." He remembers going to school with children from the stolen generation, dragged away from their families in the bush and forcibly adopted by white couples in the town.
"My perception of Aboriginal people has changed a lot in my lifetime," he says. "They're pretty stoic and very forgiving and have immense survival instincts. I was taught that they were a primitive race who were doomed to fade. All those soft ideas were used to render them powerless for so many years."
Graney says he is inspired by activists such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. He plays occasional benefit concerts but says, "I've always been loath to be one of those people who makes a career out of parading how beautiful their conscience is." More actively committed performers are unconvinced. Tex Perkins is surprised to hear Graney is passionate about politics. "Really?" he asks. "Well, what's he doing about it? Wearing a kangaroo around your neck isn't enough, Dave."
There was a movement last century for there to be another State in Australia," says Graney, "from here to Portland in Victoria and from there to Rhodes. It was to be called 'Princeland'." The King of Pop contemplates this wistfully. "I wish I had been born in Princeland." We are looking into a big hole and I am wondering what it is. "This is a big hole," says Graney. Cave Gardens, in the centre of Mount Gambier, is a result of the same volcanic activity that produced the Mount Gambier crater. The town's water drains into it. "There are holes like this all over town," says Graney.
Mount Gambier is famous for its drinking water and for the Blue Lake, which changes colour from green to blue every summer. There are other lakes around the town. We stand in the drizzle and look out on to an Edwardian vista of park benches, stiff-backed trees and still water. "When I was a kid, you'd come out here in panel vans on a summer's day," he says. "You'd swim out into that lake, but now I think it's overrun with weeds. You can't dive into it because of fear they might grab on to people." He considers this for a moment. "Weeds have never done that to me, but ..."
Graney now lives 50 minutes' drive from the centre of Melbourne "in an outer-suburban world of shopping malls and freeways, multiplex cinemas". He says, "I don't like the village life of St Kilda or Darlinghurst. I pass through that world now and again; it's supposed to be sophisticated like Seinfeld. People who don't read books tend to think Seinfeld is a world of great ideas and talk in that language.
"Village life is the 19th century way of life. I like the suburbs, the anonymity - driving around in a car. Suburban life is city life - communication by car stickers. In the outer suburbs, car stickers are everything: like, 'Girlies, put 'em on your face', 'Wankleys Thermonuclear Erections' and 'No Fat Chicks'."
It is nearly 8 o'clock on Saturday night in Mount Gambier, an hour to go before Graney goes on stage at Shadows nightclub. The manager of the Mount Gambier Motel (restaurant closed for the off-season) tells me I will not get anything to eat unless I'm willing to try one of the "alt-er-nat-ive cui-sines". He rolls the words around his tongue as if what is on offer is Peruvian blackened worms or Libyan dung beetle. The choices are chow mein at the Chinese or pasta at Cafe Luna. The streets are quiet. "Raunchy Girls" are advertised at Mac's Hotel, but not tonight.
Shadows is half-full, mainly with blokes with short hair, collared shirts and jeans - small-town boys on a big night out. The only thing that would go down better than Cold Chisel is a local Cold Chisel covers band. What they get is rock parody of a different kind. Graney performs an uncompromisingly restrained set, full of awkward, jerky, faux guitar-hero posing, odd little air kicks and hammy pseudo-crooning. At the end of each number he holds up cue cards reading, "Ta", "Good one", "Thanks" or "Smooth". The crowd have no idea what is going on. Graney could win them over easily. He could play all his faster songs, he could intersperse his better-known numbers with memories of growing up in Mount Gambier. He could make any attempt at all to communicate with them on their level.
But he does not because that is not what he is about. At the end of the set, the MC asks the crowd three times if they want some more. The first time he poses the question, the response is a big "yes" with a few isolated boos. The second time the knockers gather more support. The third time the answer is a fairly unequivocal "no".
Only then do Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes come back on stage.