We’re entering the home stretch now: just today and tomorrow to go. (Well, maybe an additional day for non-Australian stuff, but hell.) So today I’d like to lay some more instrumental stuff on you: the band that sounds like Australia, to me, really. The band whose line in a) stage banter and b) grim weepers is pretty much without peer. The band who I’m always happy to see, despite knowing a serious bumming-out will occur at some point during their gigs. The band I have pushed upon people relentlessly, zealot-eyed because I know that they’re pretty much the best thing ever.
It is, of course, The Dirty Three.
The song I’ve chosen is taken from the album which really hooked me: 1996’s Horse Stories. It’s an aural presentation of what it’s like to die of an overdose in the back of a car, and is called ‘Sue’s Last Ride’. Or, if you’re on the live trip, there’s always violinist Warren Ellis’s usual introduction:
Now on to a lighter subject: that of death. This is about waking up in the back of a car, dead. And it’s kind of all right. After a while, you get used to it. This is a bit of a memoriam to everyone who’s dead or dying tonight, and this is called ‘Sue’s Last Ride (or It’s A Fucking Bummer That You Died’).
The song starts quietly enough. Mick Turner’s muted playing is lovely, and Warren’s violin is plucked, sliding notes working into the melody before elegiac bowing begins. Jim White’s drums, softly, pad around the edges. You know more’s coming.
Slowly, slowly, the song builds. Its respectful, muffled-drum pace begins to increase. It becomes messier: the martial snare snaps become more haphazard. There’s a sense that things are barely contained: the drunk relative at the wake being held in check by his brothers, the whirling which continues after you stop dancing after you’ve had a little too much red. It reaches a point where it’s built to what you think might be the climax, but then it teases. Moves back. Rocks on its feet, preparing for that final push.
Chords slide up and down the neck, becoming more open throated. The drums start to accelerate. And then the violin starts circling, building and building. It starts to become a torrent, a warning siren violin hovering over the drums and the guitar. There’s fuzz on all strings, sawing and then fuck that theme comes back in, and all’s a whirl, a frenetic blast of colour with all three instruments daring each other to give in first.
Then it’s over. Feedback, cut. Done. And this is just on a record. To really get these guys, I figure you have to see them live. It’s how I discovered the band – or, rather, how I came to love them.
Live, the band are an explosion and a sloppy kiss. You can’t help but watch. There’s Ellis’s goat-legged revels, all stage-roaming and shit-talking, meandering introductions and rolling on the floor and yelling and dancing and calling down some kind of stringed lightning. There’s White’s drumming: all over the kit at once, seemingly about to knock everything over but managing to not only keep a subtly-textured beat going while also making it look like some kind of flagless semaphore demonstration. And hardly moving, the calm point of the stage, is Turner, providing the framework the whole thing hangs off. There’s a sense of impending oh-shit, but it never seems to come off the rails. It’s ramshackle in the best way – I guess this is a function of the fact the three members live in different countries, usually. But then, I don’t think they’ve been much for rehearsals: I recall a rumour that songs came together in the early days by writing names on a setlist and then working it out as they went.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but I like to believe it is.
I first saw the band perform by accident. It was at Homebake, a festival that was at that time held at Sydney University, where I was a student. I was hanging out with Katrina, a friend who post-uni has seemingly disappeared, and we were in a tent in order to see Crow play. But first, we had to get through Dirty Three, who I’d seen snippets of before and hadn’t really liked. As I wrote elsewhere:
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. 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.
I’d never been in a tent full of people where you could hear a pin drop. The band played a set that either tickled fancies or stunned to fuck the predilection of festival crowds to talk – nigh on unavoidable after an afternoon of beer and sunshine – and it made an impression. I was hooked, and I went to as many shows as I could after that. And spent many nights driving through Sydney, to get away from myself, meditating on beautiful misery such as this.
There’s one that sticks out in my memory, though. It was the Sydney launch gig for Ocean Songs, the album which is probably my favourite and certainly is the one I played the most when I was living in the UK and felt homesick – to me, it sounds like a coastal drive, at night, with rain playing across the windscreen. It’s the album that provides many entries on my List Of Things To Have Played At My Sparsely-Attended Funeral (try this, or maybe this, or this) if we discount the catalogue of Tom Waits. (‘God’s Away On Business’, anyone?) It’s certainly something you should have in your collection: if you take but one recommendation from me it’s that you go and buy Ocean Songs, now.
But I digress.
Anyway, the launch was at the Three Weeds in Rozelle, pre-gentrification. As we drank in the front bar (which you’d recognise if you’d seen pretty much any ’90s Aussie flick with a pub scene) Warren wandered around the crowd, praising everyone’s “finery” and generally indicating that Shit Had Started Earlier That Afternoon. It would be an interesting night.
Kim Salmon & the Surrealists were the support, which was a win-win proposition for me. I edged up the front during their set, and eventually D3 came on and played for what seemed an eternity. The stage was about a foot high, and the crowd vocal. It was like a family reunion where weird Uncle Warren was in fine fettle, all spit and larrikin side-eye and devilish fiddling, playing whole sections of the gig lying on his back on the floor.
I was wearing a T-shirt I’d made, as a fan of The Paradise Motel. It was pretty second-year arts student: the agony will set you free was written on the front. Mid-set, Warren eyeballed the shirt and came into the crowd for a chat about how much he liked it. Throat-clearings from his bandmates indicated he’d gone a bit too far off the leash, so he asked me what I’d like to hear.
“‘Everything’s Fucked’?” I asked, meekly.
“‘Everything’s Fucked’?” Warren shouted to the crowd.
The response was loud and affirmative. Warren slapped me on the shoulder and then kicked into one of my favourite tunes.
How something so sad makes me so happy is a mystery, but there it is.
Later in the show, Warren went into the band room and came back with a large cooler full of their rider. To Jim’s consternation, he handed it out to us down the front, before kicking ‘Dirty Equation’ in the head, exhorting us to get up on stage with them. I remember cradling a tin of Tooheys Old, dancing (yes! me! dancing!) with a room full of other mad fuckers to a sonic blast from what I firmly believe is one of the greatest bands in the world. It felt like the best place to be in the world.
(I bought one of the best band shirts I’ve ever owned at this gig: a maroon ringer tee with a logo that looks borrowed from an old salt’s forearm. I wish I had it still.)
(For an example of what recent gigs are like, I wrote a review of the most recent show I saw. You can read it here. If you’re interested, you can also hear the audio of that show here, on YouTube. It’s worth checking out, for sure.)
Dirty Three are a band I’ve badgered people to come and see, pretty much wherever I’ve lived, no matter who I’ve been seeing. I’ve stood alone, been drunk with overseas friends, partners, exes, and always spent some portion of each show in a little pool of solitude feeling the sense of merry woe that it seems only this band brings me. Things are shit, but they’ll be all right. It’s Epicurus hanging with Dionysus, I guess: for as much as there’s the trickster, the joker about Ellis, there’s a sense of honesty or a lack of artifice in the performance I still find touching. It’s not phoned in. It’s real.
So why do I like a band that are so adroit and making me feel crappy? It’s hard to say. I think it’s something close to love. Love is something you can’t explain: it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s these three blokes, it’s the music they make, and maybe even just the fact that the lack of words mean you can hang your own stories, your own memories on the tunes. I’ve had this stuff as the soundtrack of some of the best and worst parts of my life, and I guess they feel like family. Musical relatives. Messy, imperfect but mine on a level other stuff doesn’t reach.
It’s true, I suppose, what Warren says.
You are never alone with Dirty Three.