This voting thing has got me thinking about two old songs. Even though they’ve been around for over 10 years now I still vividly remember writing both of them.
The background for Falling Aeroplanes basically came out of a long-held guilt I had at being born into a working class family and feeling this frivolous life of travel and adventure as somehow cheating. You see, I’m dangling from the end of a long line of farmers and manual laborers. It made me uneasy to think of my Dad wrestling cows out of boggy creek beds while the most taxing part of my day might be carrying a guitar amp up some stairs.
A concept of how I might frame this guilt-anxiety into a song hit me while at a backyard party in Newtown and I remember bidding friends a hasty farewell to rush back to my little room out the back of our dilapidated terrace to try and make it happen. Also my first release Early Days was about to go to press in a couple of days and since falling in love with the banjo I really wanted it on there somehow. Maybe this was the chance? I got it out of its case and paced back and forth strumming that opening riff. My room was only about 7 feet square so this soon made me dizzy. I sat down.
Now this share house I speak of could claim a considerable royalty on everything I produced whilst inhabiting its bounds. The place itself was a health hazard, the walls cracked, the frames had termites and the floors were rotting. We came home on a particularly soggy day to find four legs of an upstairs bed had breached the ceiling of our kitchen, poking down at us. Another day we returned to find the front door completely missing. My room, tacked on to the laundry out the back, seemed to be the most structurally sound part of the place, although a foot off the bottom of that door was missing too after a drunk friend kicked it in one night when I wouldn’t wake. It felt a bit like camping. I’d come home after weeks on tour to find stray animals had fashioned nests out of the doona on my bed.
Curtis, the medical student, was the mainstay at the house. When he finally moved out kicking and screaming he counted he’d shared with 36 different flatmates. Soon after I moved in he became my unofficial lyric consultant and I remember rushing into him that evening, seeking a metaphor, urging, ‘Curtis! What’s something you could do… that although an admirable effort… is actually impossible or even harmful?’
‘Hmmm,’ he sat on the moldy, musty lounge with some voluminous textbook open, ‘like, smoking a cigarette on a motorbike? Or….’
My mind was turning, just him listing weird things helped me get it.
‘I got it!’ I rushed back to my room calling back, ‘Like trying to catch an aeroplane…’
I recorded it the next day and it made the recording by a hair. Who knows where I’d be now if it hadn’t have? I went overseas as soon as Early Days came out and after a month or so people started emailing saying that my song was on the radio. It wasn’t until I got back that I realized just how much Triple J were playing it. I must say I never thought for a second that this solo thing would lead to anything much but that CD sold pretty good and soon I was being asked to make another one.
I wrote Punks Not Dead in a room at the Mount Victoria Hotel in the Blue Mountains about another flatmate who, along with the others, I went up there to get away from. I needed some peace and quiet. Seeing the ripe market for leather goods within her community and being a savvy business woman, Jade –an unusually earthy name for a hardcore punk- would hammer studs into belts, collars, wristbands, key-rings and whatever else, on the cement path outside my bedroom at all hours. With help of a half plagiarized melody from a song my sister wrote called ‘I Love Trucks,’ mine practically wrote itself. I took it back to the city the next night for a gig at the Landsdowne Hotel supporting Sounds Like Sunset and I attempted a first airing (with med student Curtis standing side-stage as lyric prompt) and it went down better than I could’ve ever expected. I always thought it to be a throwaway, but there you go.
When it came out on Hello Stranger, Punks Not Dead was picked up unprompted by Triple J and was given a thorough thrashing, back when high rotation meant airwave saturation. I remember taking a tour van to a mechanic in Sydney and Punks Not Dead coming on the radio in the workshop and the burly grease monkey growling, “Not this bloody thing again.”
I don’t really believe in polling and competitions when it comes to music, and most of what I would think were the best songs of the last 20 years wouldn’t get a look in here. I don’t expect mine will either but it’s interesting to look back at these two songs beside each other, written in a very close time frame. One meant as a whimsical snapshot, the other heart-felt allegory. But both coming from very real places.
I’ve played many shows since without a second thought to Punks Not Dead but when Falling Aeroplanes is neglected for whatever reason someone always comments to me after. So many people over the years have approached me to say they remember where they were the first time they heard Falling Aeroplanes and what it meant to them. Once at an after party in Launceston a drunk stranger, in an earnestly passionate tone, told me how he was fruit picking when the song came on a portable radio hanging from his ladder. He said he became transfixed, lost his balance and toppled to the ground below, paralyzing himself for a short time. He remembers lying prostrate, gazing up at the concerned faces of his fellow pickers while the last strains of the song played out. I bought him a drink to apologise.
Songs mean different things to the different people who hear them. And there are precious few of mine that give me great pleasure to sing time and time again. Falling Aeroplanes is one. It’s a weird thing, it has no real chorus or traditional structure, which is why I’m constantly losing my place in it live. But the feelings that inspired it are still a part of me. To keep singing it is a good reminder that I’m lucky to be still doing what I’m doing. And 10 years later, my Dad is still wrestling cows.