A week of songs: day three

OK, so thanks to the Facebook chain post doing the rounds, I’m doing that song-a-day-for-a-week thing where I post a song I like and write a bit about it. You should do it too, eh? (Seriously, if you like the post, go write your own, and tell me in the comments, as I’d like to read your picks.)

This is day three. My pick for day three is a song that properly introduced me to what’s become one of my favourite (if not the favourite) bands, the Dirty Three.

Now for a bit of history. I had heard this band before – I think from the live clip of “Dirty Equation” that used to get a spin on Rage in those late night/early morning tunefests – but it hadn’t done anything for me. I hadn’t then really discovered much noisy stuff beyond Einstürzende Neubauten, and the Dirty Three are very much a live band, so it’s not surprising that this rough-arse clip didn’t grab me. I knew from the street press that the band were pretty popular, but I didn’t go out of my way to check them out.

In 1996, the Homebake Festival stopped in at Sydney Uni, where I was in second year. I was (and am) a massive fan of Crow, a band I initially hated until I heard the track “Opal” live and was facepunched into righteousness. And Crow were playing a stage under a tent – one of their first big shows since Peter Archer had left, I believe, and in support of the Play With Love album. So it was decided (with my friend Katrina, who I’ve not seen since university, sadly) to go along. I’d not really done many festivals at that point so it was still a novelty.

Anyway, Crow were on after Dirty Three, so in order to have a good front-row spot, we’d gone in before D3 began playing. It was the first time I’d ever seen them and it was a complete revelation. I’d never before been to a gig where people stood silently while the band played, many with eyes closed. It seemed somehow more than just some music being played, even when Warren Ellis yelled across the field at Sidewinder, on another stage, to “turn that shit off”. The gig was incredible: so much so that I drove from the uni, later on, straight to what was then a record store in Kings Cross that was open late, and bought a copy of the album they were supporting, Horse Stories, that night. It’s never been far from the player since.

The song I’ve chosen could have been any of the ones they played from the album: the wistful “Hope“, punchy “Warren’s Lament” or psychotic “Red“, but it is “Sue’s Last Ride” that I think encapsulates best for me what the band do best. It does the quiet/loud thing perfectly well, but it’s more than that: the spidery, muted guitar of the beginning is met with a plaintive, almost vocal violin that soon becomes a quietly circling dance, all occasional sliding notes and plucks. And then, it starts to get balls. Jim White’s drumming starts to thump and kick, but falls away as the violin starts a kind of call-and-response before a whirling, circular-sounding section, some kind of dance of death which flirts with dissonance and unkempt hair before reinstating the main riff of the piece in some kind of spit-slinging punch-up.

They’ve played this song almost every time I’ve seen them, and live the tension is drawn out and out until finally – usually with an enormous spitball – the catharsis of the final all-in section thunders home. The album version doesn’t do the song justice – at least, not on a good night. And of course, the album lacks the typical Ellis introduction, explaining how the song is for a dead friend:

“Now, on to a lighter subject, that of death, and this is about waking up in the back of a car, dead, and it’s kind of alright, after a while, you get used to it. This is a little memoriam, to anyone who is dead or dying, tonight, and this is called ‘Sue’s Last Ride’, or ‘It’s a Fucking Bummer That You Died’.

The band soon became one of my firm favourites. Ocean Songs is perhaps my favourite Australian album, and it’s the one thing that I kept playing while homesick in London, thousands of kilometers away from the coast that it reminded me of so clearly. While I’ve a soft spot for lots of their other tracks and albums, I’ll still remember – in the combination of anger, sadness and sheer weeping joy – the first time I saw the band play “Sue’s Last Ride” and let me in on the little patch of emotion they’ve made their own. They’re not the same now, but who is? Sometimes things are more piquant in memory because of how they’ve changed.

(To return briefly to the Crow part of the story, 1998 saw the release of the movie Praise, starring Peter Fenton, lead singer of that band, which also appeared on the soundtrack alongside the Dirty Three. It’s still one of my favourite soundtrack albums (largely because of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette!”) as it takes me back to the end of university, and seemed so resolutely Australian. The soundtrack featured another great D3 tune, “I Remember A Time When Once You Used To Love Me” in both their version and the original Greek tune by Arleta. I also had a terrible crush on actress Sacha Horler, who I think used to work at Berkelouw on Oxford Street at the time. Arts student, women in bookshops: it just writes itself, right? Not that I would ever have said anything.)

Dirty Three are playing the 2016 Sydney Festival. And though it’s expensive, and in a larger venue than is ideal, I’ll still go. And I’ll think of me, twenty years ago (almost) seeing them for the first time, and of all the nights where it’s been me and a copy of Horse Stories, alone. And I’ll still get a lump in my throat when they play this song.

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