Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy?:
Misadventures in Music
by Stephen Cummings
(Hardie Grant Books)
Stephen Cummings was the lead singer of The Sports, which I knew. My old record shop sold a lot of their albums, though I wasn’t personally a huge fan: still, it was pretty hard not to like some of their songs and even know them off by heart in a Zeitgeist kinda way. He also wrote the jingle that Medicare use in their ads—I feel better now—which I didn’t know. It takes on a whole new meaning to me when I hear it in my head, knowing that. It seems so obvious that he wrote it.
This new book is a memoir that tracks and backtracks across the singer’s life in a pretty random sort of way and I’ve really only got good things to say about it. I suspect the cool kids will bang on about his hang-ups and phobias, while if any conservative types ever read it, I’m guessing they’ll cite it (the book, his life) as some sort object lesson in the dangers of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll and self-indulgence. Bugger that.
If most people had the wit and honesty to expose their inner thinking in the way that Cummings does in this book, none of us would look too much different. Admit it. And don’t throw stones. The human condition is pretty much weirdness papered over with normality. In short, I reckon it takes guts to write like this, even if part of me suspects that the ability to do it is tied to the same sorts of desires and motivations—look-at-me syndrome—that drives a person to be a performer in the first place.
So there are the usual horror stories of bad gigs, dishonest managers, crap venues and the self-doubts of performing, but much of it is recognisable to those of us of certain age, so that it takes on its own fascination. That is, we lived the same stuff, even if we saw only from the audiences’ side of the room. We recognise the venues (and even some of the specific gigs) and probably had the same problems with the opposite sex that Cummings check-lists. Strangely reassuring…
There’s funny/sad/revealing stories about the likes of Joe Camilleri, Steve Kilby, Michael Gudinski and others, along with scathing assessments of some fellow musicians. He admits, for instance, to being jealous of Nick Cave’s success, but who’s to say that just because of that his judgement about Cave is wrong? As much as I like some of Nick’s stuff (Abattoir Blues in particular), I heartily endorse Cumming’s assessment, to which he devotes an entire chapter from which I’ve extracted this bit, including a drive-by hit on author Will Self, (and I reckon Cummings gets him right too):
English journalists find Nick Cave a dark and chilling force, a bleak man in black, who talks of angels and has slept with PJ Harvey and once lived in Berlin and Sao Paulo. The English press also adores Will Self, whose novel The Book of Dave I once bought and frankly found a shocker—a Clockwork Orange knock-off only with four times as many pages and no memorable dialogue. Will is a big admirer of Nick’s work.
….He got Grinderman together for some raunchy cock-rock with his buddies. He had belatedly discovered the guitar, and he wanted to see the sights. Sensitive religious ballads were out. Instead Cave was talking about pussy and dirty stuff. He was playing guitar so hard that his rug was nearly lifting off. He sported a Fu Manchu moustache. I daresay this is just what the bohos in Northcote want: a balding male singing back-to-back songs about good-natured carnality.
Do you know what I want? To hear his wife’s side of the story.
God, that’s revealing. Such a conservative impulse in a culture that is taught to forgive the excess of the artist in the name of self-expression and creativity. Steve wants to know what Nick’s wife thought! Fantastic.
I thought he nailed Tex Perkins too: “Grunge and ex-alternative music had become the new mainstream, acts like Kim Salmon or The Cruel Sea, whose frontman Tex Perkins has never made my heart skip a beat. People say he’s so talented. To me he’s butch and so square. But Kim Salmon has made some great melodies.”
If all that sounds bitchy, I’ don’t reckon it is. The book reads more like a guy trying to figure out the vagaries of the capitalist economy, to discern the underlying logic of why some people make it and some people don’t, or why the market vastly over-rewards some while casting considerably less in the direction of others. That’s a mug’s game, of course, but I can see why he wonders. Go to this Steve Cummings fan site and listen to the half-dozen songs you can stream there and tell me they aren’t better than 90% of the music out there at any given moment. The guy’s been maintaining the standard for decades.
Here’s my partial explanation: demography is destiny. Or rather, if Stephen Cummings had been born in America and evinced the same sort of talent, he would’ve had a much more successful career and would be in a class with the likes of Vic Chesnutt or maybe even a Gillian Welch, people who are hardly mainstream big time but who can make a quid on a circuit and in a market that is 300-million strong rather than the 20-million strong equivalent here in Oz. He’d be in regular work, have regular gigs, a fanbase big enough to support a decent existence. He’d probably have more chance of other artists covering his songs too. Fact is, the numbers are against the likes of Cummings if they choose to stay at home. Not saying that other stuff doesn’t factor in—bad management, dud with money, bad habits—but the numbers are brutal, as so many Australians artists have discovered.
Another thing I really liked about the book is the insight it gives into the thinking of a professional musician. I think even these days—and not without cause—we tend to think of rock musicians as somehow not serious about what they do, but on the whole, I reckon that’s bullshit. In interview after interview, book after book, film after film I see about musicians, I’m struck by just how professionally they approach their craft, and that comes through really well in this book. This is a guy thinking hard about what he’s trying to do and I gotta say, I love watching that struggle.
Anyway, I enjoyed the book and happily recommend it. Here’s my final comment. The overwhelming theme to me was shyness. Being shy is like being an alcoholic: you can control it, but you can never cure it. So as revealing as the book it is, it is also brief and brisk, the urge to communicate wrestling with the need to hide. Hide in plain sight, maybe. Far from being self-indulgent, I read it as self-deprecating, an inevitable side-effect of shyness.
CODA: The book also made me want to dig back through his solo back catalogue, so expect some reviews of his albums as we go along. Actually, er, you can’t call them reviews when they’ve been out for years. Expect some…discussion.