Death Camp Tourism
If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary: Death Camp Tourism.
Only after arriving in Poland did I learn that visiting Auschwitz is a tourist staple for any Contiki style visit to Krakow. Something you tick off the list, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
Learning this put me off more than slightly. The idea of tour companies scrapping each other to ensure your money, fed by swathes of backpackers who visit the death camps by day and then pub crawl by night; it seemed odd. Still, if I was to do one offensively touristy thing then surely I – a student and lover of 20th century history – should choose this one. Besides, it must be quite unique. It must be a change from the other, somewhat tarnished, milestones along the European tourist highway.
That’s the kind of frame of mind I was in. I arrived to Krakow at 7 am and booked a day-tour which had been advertised at the hostel as soon as I got there, before I could even check in. In fact I had already been offered a trip to Auschwitz earlier: outside the train station by a dubious man with a tattered pamphlet offering to give me a ride. And the largest poster on the window of the closed Information Centre had read: ‘Aushwitz-Birkenau Tours Daily.’ So not exactly hard to find. I paid 109 PLN to the hostel reception.
I was picked up outside the hostel one hour later by a man in a suit and black dress shoes called Peter. He drove me, and a British couple he had picked up from a different hotel, to Oscwiecim – the Polish name for an old town outside Krakow better known now by its German label, Auschwitz. For the first five minutes the British couple were clarifying the price of the tour with Peter.
“It said 46 euro, I don’t want to pay more.”
This says a lot about the modern Auschwitz experience: something in the holiday budget, to be ticked off the list, then to continue with the rest of the itinerary.
So far what I have written has been vague. But I just want to try and evoke how I felt before the experience. Is this really a memorial? I want to create for you the same sense of scepticism I held before going there. A scepticism I hoped would become a good literary counterpoint to the solemn and sobering experience of the camp itself. But here comes the kicker… that binary balance never came. This initial feeling, of falsity, of insincerity, has either remained or been heightened following my visit. I do not wish to point the finger of shame at anybody. I’m not saying this should be done better or differently. I do not know how that would be. All I am saying is that something is not quite right about the Auschwitz experience. Something about what it reveals of the human psyche. Maybe these three words can evoke for you the same sense they evoke in me. If so, then this entire preamble will be redundant, and you could just keep the image that forms in your mind when you see these three words. I read these three words on the cover of a book, something like New Eastern Europe, at ‘Massolit’ book store in Krakow. If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary:
Death Camp Tourism.
Simple as that. Usually my account of a historical tour would circle around historical facts and interesting information. Since much of the history of Nazi death camps is well known, and since they present you with a saturation of the history when you are at Auschwitz-Birkenau, too much to remember, I will avoid most of this. But let it be noted, that they did have a lot of informative, readily accessible history presented at the memorial. That is not what I am writing about. I am writing more about what is not there. What cannot be printed on a board alongside some photos and simply told to you. What has to be felt. What has to be experienced. The reactions. These feelings, experiences, and reactions, sadly, do not result from a visit to Auschwitz.
There are few mantras I believe in more fully than this: those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. So in one regard it is good there is a popular, well established record of this dark chapter in human history. But there is a very stark difference between remembering history and manipulating history. To remember is to feel something, to have a personal reaction to and realisation of; to link a private emotion with a particular event in the past. When I stroll by a WWI memorial, I remember the stories of soldiers who lived through Hell on Earth in the name of Who Knows What. When I walk through the infamous gates at the entrance to Auschwitz I – “Work makes you free” (rough translation) – I no longer remember the stories of the men who passed under it, for whom anything but was the truth. I do not think of the young mothers and helpless children who fell out of wagons onto the railway platform at Birkenau, underneath its iconic watchtower, unaware that they would only leave its barbed wire confines through one of the chimneys. I do not remember those terrible tales of those tragic people. Instead, upon hearing ‘Auschwitz,’ I remember the three food kiosks and two book shops you pass between the bus-laden car park and the entrance to the camp-memorial. I remember the clicking of turn-styles as you begin to climb the stairs of the Birkenau watch tower. The buildings and paving stones are largely untouched since 1945. The snow is on the ground and the flimsy wooden walls of the cramped wooden huts let in the same fatal chilly draft. The piles of shoes, of spectacles, of children’s clothes, of hairbrushes, lie in piles. The history is right there in front of me. Yet I remember none of it.
It is not my aim to depict Auschwitz merely as a tacky touristy spot. To be fair, it is still treated with decorum and respect. People are silent and solemn, often wide-eyed and open-mouthed. There is no food, drink, or smoking allowed anywhere inside. But something is not quite right.
The majority of Jewish people taken to ‘Auschwitz’ – the colloquial collective name for Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenhau (a camp built in 1941, 30 times the size of the first camp) and Auschwitz III – were Hungarian; 430,000 of these died. The name of the houses where Nazis stored stolen valuables from prisoners was ‘Canada.’ These are a few random facts. The numbers, the names, everything is a bit overwhelming. So eventually they lose their impact. The statistics, names, numbers, only confuse. If you want to remember the victims, do not be confronted with an over-abundance of material details. Remember history, don’t choke on it.
Just before the tour started I was thinking of techniques I could later employ to describe the lack of feeling I got upon arrival. I could see the buildings and fences, and still felt like I was nowhere special. Again, I expected this to form an initial sense of disappointment, which when written down would contrast with and exaggerate the great wealth of sadness brought on from my actual visit. That did not happen. After 3 ½ hours in Auschwitz I and II-Birkenhau, those initial thoughts remained. I walked in silence along the road from the Birkenhau platform to the ruined crematoriums – the walk which for so many new arrivals to the camp was a death walk. On the same road. And I still could not imagine I was anywhere powerful or significant. I stood in the very same dark chamber where a group of Soviet prisoners were the first to be killed en masse by the use of Zyklon B gas–an experiment proving so successful that it became the standard method of execution throughout the Holocaust.
I stood in that room where it was first tried. That stuffy, concrete room. I looked up and a drop of rain fell on my nose. A drop of rain that had dripped through one of the wooden openings down which a small handful of SS men had dropped the first bundles of Zyklon B and waited to see the effects. The same hole through which hundreds of thousands more such bundles would be dropped. A raindrop from that very opening. And still I was unmoved. I did not cry. I tried to well up. I could not. It was just a raindrop. Instead of filling with disgusted thoughts of how mankind could treat itself, my mind was filled only with the urgency to move forward and not hold up the stream of people behind me. My ears did not hear the imaginary screams of people who stood on this very spot, naked, wailing as they realised, having been fooled right to the end, by the fake showers mounted on the walls, by the Nazi troops telling them to remember the number of the hook on which they hung their clothes so they could pick up the correct ones after their shower, realised for the first time, that this is the spot on which they would die. I only heard the annoying crackle of static through the headphones of my compulsory audio guide. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost.
I did not smile throughout my entire visit, as expected. There was one time, however, when my lips tightened and almost turned upward. It was a vague sense of irony I got as we ended the tour. I think the irony was lost on all those who either work or visit Auschwitz, but perhaps somebody else felt it.
Tourists come in waves to the site of Auschwitz. They do as a guide tells them, unable to think for themselves. Prisoners from minority groups brought to Auschwitz were forced to speak German. English, the tourists’ lingua franca, is now the most prevalent tongue there, and almost compulsory if you want to understand the signs and placards. It is hard to be inconspicuous when you are forced to wear a sticker labelling you as a member of a certain tour group – an initiative designed to help your guide keep you under better control. My sticker was blue. I saw big orange ones, square yellow ones. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost. All these subtle ironies bubbled up into the half smile I talked about once I got to the end of the tour of Auschwitz I: we had to line up and hand back our audio guides. First, we were told, you had to unplug the headphones. Then we had to hang these on a metal rack, just like the person in front of and behind us. Then we had to hand our radio receiver box, after we had switched the channel back to 5 and turned it off, to an expressionless man with a badge around his neck. Of course we all did this without question or complaint. It’s easy to follow somebody else. Then we were told to go and wait by the white van in the car park, so we could be counted. Everybody had to be there. Everybody was. The van took us to Auschwitz II-Birkenhau.
In noticing the unintentional parallels between then and now I at first almost chuckled. Then I realised how sad this really was. The only part of the visit not designed to make me remember this terrible history, was the only part which did so. Only through this comical irony did I remember the sad story of those victims of mankind, and realise also the sadder story: that this dark chapter of history is not an anomaly. These victims are a by-product of humanity, a result of how we think, act, and treat each other, just part of a tragic production line that started long before any of us were born, and will continue to operate long after all of us have disappeared.
Voiceless City: The Broderick and Promises Unfulfilled
The Broderick were one of the best hardcore bands to emerge from Australia. The musician’s hardcore band. It shouldn’t have ended this way.
On Saturday June 15 2013, Melbourne hardcore band The Broderick played a 20 minute set at Bang nightclub. The weather was harsh, the crowd was disinterested and The Broderick were a band at the end of their rope. After seven years together that had seen them perform with some of the biggest bands in hardcore including Poison The Well, Converge and Misery Signals, yet had somehow yielded only one full length record, The Broderick were winding down. A week later they would be flying to South East Asia for their very first overseas tour after which they would call it a day. This would be The Broderick’s last Melbourne show. The venue was half empty but overrun with Mall Punks that were too drunk, too stupid and too ignorant to fully understand the significance of what was unfolding on stage. Instead the faux punks, decked out in basketball jerseys and eye liner, moved in hair straightened packs to survey the scene and after quickly realising that it was too unpalatable for their saccharine tastes would sneer as they scurried to the adjoining room to listen to a DJ spin lame 80s metal tracks.
This was to be The Broderick’s last Australian show and it was to take place at Bang- the lowest dive in Melbourne that was renowned for attracting only the most vanilla kids that would go to great lengths to dress up in their “punkest” outfit but actually knew nothing about the music or the scene except that you were supposed to swing your arms into people and make the devil horns during each song. To add insult to injury, The Broderick weren’t even the headliners. Instead they were wedged in between a hair metal tribute act on one side that was fronted by long haired freaks that were so serious and earnest that their performance bordered on parody and on the other side was IExist– a sludgy hardcore band from Canberra with a degree of popularity but nowhere near the quality of The Broderick.
It shouldn’t have ended this way. The Broderick are one of the best hardcore bands to emerge from Australia. The musician’s hardcore band. One of those rare hardcore bands to successfully wed heavy, brooding guitars and beautifully melancholic lyrics to create a whirlwind of emotional intensity that didn’t need the hollow thrills of breakdowns and mosh parts. News that The Broderick were calling it a day should have been greeted with sighs of disappointment and fond farewells. Instead their final moments were spent in a plastic dive in front of kids that could barely suppress a yawn as they waited for the next cheap trick to entertain them. Yet for all their undeniable talent and brilliant music, The Broderick never really got the recognition they deserved. The reason for this injustice? The Broderick.
“TELL ME AGAIN WHY MY THROAT IS CRIPPLED IN PAIN WHILE EMPTY FACES STARE A HOLE THROUGH ME.”
Think of 21st century Australian hardcore and the names that immediately come to mind are Carpathian, Parkway Drive, Miles Away, Break Even and 50 Lions. Over the last eight years The Broderick played with all of these bands and was better than each of them. Tragedy crippled Break Even before they could properly take flight. 50 Lions’ bro mosh schtick wears thin after you turn 24 and realise that swinging your arms around and fly kicking the air isn’t a particularly impressive feat nor a great way to impress women. Miles Away are a strong outfit that always play hard but are too generic to really stand out from the hundreds of other hardcore bands out there. Carpathian’s greatest success, Isolation was loaded with emotional gravitas that put them in the same mould as bands like Modern Life is War and Have Heart, but Carpathian could never properly transfer that emotional punch into their live shows, instead meandering through dull 30 minutes sets that sounded just like the record but without the same intensity. And Parkway Drive, despite reaching a staggering level of international fame and success that no other Australian band has matched, were always just a bunch of surfer dudes that belted out crunching metalcore riffs that were fun to listen to but were ultimately bereft of heart and substance.
The Broderick had all of these bands covered. They were aggressive like Parkway Drive but had an emotional centre that gave them meaning. The Broderick’s slow build ups combined with chaotic, frenzied finales gave them an edge that separated them from the generic pack, unlike Miles Away. In terms of angst and emotional intensity, Carpathian and The Broderick were similar but the fact that The Broderick became more intense and captivating on stage elevated them above their Melbourne counterparts who tended to leave their audiences feeling underwhelmed.
The Broderick’s ascent to the best Australian hardcore band was slow and almost didn’t happen. In 2008 they released Illusion Over Despair, a six track EP that was distributed on Washed Up Records. Illusion Over Despair, with its frantic, distorted guitars was well received within the local scene, cracking the vaunted Short Fast Loud Top 40 Hardcore Albums for 2008. Listening to Illusion five years after its release it’s clear that this was the work of a talented young band still finding its feet. Although the vocals veer too closely towards the throaty, growly, incomprehensible side of the scale, the seed had been planted; their chaotic brand of hardcore was in its embryonic stages and The Broderick was a band to watch out for.
Illusion Over Despair pegged The Broderick as an act on the rise and they soon landed coveted support slots touring with the likes of Poison The Well, The Ghost Inside and Carpathian. Doors were creaking open and all The Broderick had to do was step forward. Instead The Broderick sank into a creative black hole that can happen when you’re five guys in your early twenties with no direction or idea about what to do with your lives. Disagreements broke out, apathy festered and stagnation reigned supreme. The Broderick had hit a wall and the shows dried up. Sure, they still played the odd show at The Arthouse, but it was never enough to build an audience. Like most things in life, the artistic process is all about momentum- you need to be constantly moving forward, to be perpetually building, writing and creating however as soon as you stop, the rot sets in and apathy takes hold. But when you’re bunch of young boys figuring things out, putting one foot in front of the other every day can be the hardest thing in the world. The Broderick were rapidly overtaken by more organised acts and it seemed as though something which had started brightly would burn out.
“I FEAR THIS ANOMIE RUNS THROUGH MY VEINS.”
The next three years would be difficult for The Broderick. They entered a state of almost permanent hibernation; questions about a debut album were usually answered with a shrug or look of disappointment. Infrequently they’d awaken to pick up a support slot for a bigger band or to play a set at Bang or Next, the only two venues that paid a decent appearance fee but only attracted the shallow fans that didn’t care for the moody, atmospheric sound The Broderick were striving for. Creatively the band hit a wall. They knew what they wanted to sound like but the process of actually getting to that sound seemed a long way off. As vocalist Logan Fewster commented: “We found it really hard to write songs. We’d all bring our ideas to practice but we could never agree on anything. Each time someone put forward an idea, the rest of us would criticise it and pay him out. It was a tense environment we created for ourselves and it became difficult to do anything.”
Meanwhile, as The Broderick stagnated, the Australian hardcore scene was changing. New bands were emerging. Melbourne’s Hopeless took the scene by storm with their stellar full length Dear World. Carpathian called it a day and Break Even were dealt a cruel blow that permanently stopped them from getting to where they seemed to destined to go. “Other bands worked harder than us and were more committed. We knew we were as good as them but when it came to actually putting the hard yards in, we kept falling over.” Suddenly The Broderick had transitioned from up and comers to aging underachievers, destined to be discarded and forgotten.
“VOICELESS CITY… REMINDING US OF WHAT WE ARE.”
Out of all music genres, hardcore is most certainly a young man’s game. Hardcore bands are relatively easy to start – all you need is a group of friends, secondhandinstruments and an amp. As long as you’re willing to live rough, play hard and deliver breakdowns, you’ll always be able to pick up gigs. It’s this ease of entry that is hardcore’s greatest strength and weakness. It allows for a never ending influx of new acts to emerge and constantly regenerate the scene, however most of these new bands, for all their enthusiasm, lack the most important and intangible ingredient of all – talent. At the end of the day, energy can only take you so far before repetitive, droning breakdowns bore most listeners and drive crowds away. Although the hardcore scene remains forever young and vibrant, it’s swamped with mediocre acts that mask the real talent and perpetuate the myth to outsiders that hardcore is nothing but a hangout for thugs, knuckleheads and angry young males.
In this high turnover, limited talent environment most hardcore bands live a short existence. The rump of mediocre groups break up once the novelty of playing shows wears off. The lucky few bands that gain a following, crank out a few records, generally of declining quality, and live in the back of a van as they ceaselessly move from gig to gig. The elite hardcore band, that is the one with seeds of sophisticated talent, usually outgrow their humble roots and evolve into a much more accomplished group, shedding their hardcore skin and reaching for a broader audience.
The Broderick fit none of these categories.
Far too talented to belong with the chump bands, nowhere near successful enough to sustain even a meager living from touring and their sound, though sophisticated and evolving, was not gaining new admirers too quickly. To compound the problem, The Broderick were old. To be in your mid to late twenties in hardcore was to be as old as Moses. Being in a hardcore band means putting the rest of your life on hold. Family, friends, work, education, money. All of these things take a backseat when you’re in a hardcore band. When you’re 19, getting a good job or buying a house feels trivial and the thrill of the stage is all that matters. But as soon as you hit your mid twenties, that excitement has dissipated and instead all that’s left is the grind- the grind of another set played in front of small, disinterested crowds. The grind of underpaid, part time jobs to make ends meet. The grind of watching your friends progress with their careers while you’re still sitting in vans.
The Broderick had reached that stage. Still in the scene but outside of it as well by the dint of their age and the fact that the next generation had already usurped them. The Broderick had reached a fork in the road. Quietly disappear from a scene that had always given them an underwhelming response and wonder what might have been or launch one final assault. One last statement of intent to remind everyone of what had been under their noses this whole time.
After much debate and consternation, The Broderick decided to take the latter option. One last roll of the dice. The band knuckled down and sensing that this was to be their epitaph, summoned up a level of determination that up until now had never shown. Months of toil in the studio culminated in Free To Rot, Free Of Sin. The Broderick’s magnum opus and one of the best records produced by an Australian hardcore band.
“I AM FRACTURED. I SEE THE RUIN IN ME.”
From the first strains of opening track, Black Lung, it’s clear on Free To Rot that The Broderick had hit their stride. The potential for greatness that laced Illusion Over Despair finally blossomed on this 10 track record. The frustration from years of waste and ignorance had boiled over and had manifested itself in this maelstromic album.
Marc Harpur’s dissonant guitar that blends hardcore aggression with progressive soundscapes gives Free To Rot its unique flavor and provides the soundtrack to mid youth breakdown. What separates Free To Rot, Free Of Sin from its contemporaries wasn’t its aggression or its epic choruses, of which there are many, but its quieter moments. Harpur, showing expert craftsmanship, uses these quiet moments not as lulls in the action or the cost of doing business before returning to more breakdowns, but as opportunities to build the tension. Any band can deliver a crunching riff but very few understand that what transforms an album from just a random collection of songs into a cohesive whole is the ability to weave a narrative and mood through each track so that each song builds on the last and bleeds into each other without the listener even realising it. Harpur’s moody, atmospheric guitar provides that continuity. Even the interlude tracks add to the atmosphere. On “Unseen” muted guitars combine with Ash Denman’s superb drumming to create a feeling of dread and impending doom. As the volume gradually rises, the tension becomes almost unbearable as the listener strains for a release, setting the stage perfectly for the explosive opening to “Low Sky.” Instead of allowing the listener to catch their breath, the quiet moments of Free To Rot, Free Of Sin, close the walls around the audience, squeezing the air out of their lungs as they grasp for respite.
If Harpur’s guitar is the engine that propels this stellar record, it’s Fewster’s pained vocals that elevates this record into rarefied air yet simultaneously grounds Free To Rot with an emotional hold that almost strangles the listener with its ferocity. Fewster, fuelled by his own self loathing and insecurities, becomes a snarling beast desperately trying to exorcise his personal demons. On “Low Sky,” the standout track on a standout album, recounts the final days of a doomed relationship as both parties attempt to keep alive something that had died sometime ago: “We will talk, pretend and reflect / Of course you can’t go through another night like this.” Fewster’s decision to use The Broderick as his confessional is by no means revolutionary but it’s delivered with such sincerity and passion that the listener cannot help but be moved. Such is the level of despair in those pained howls that by the time closing track “Diving Bell” begins to fade and Fewster mourns that “I am empty skies,” the listener will be physically and emotionally exhausted by the significance of what has just been imprinted on their conscience.
“HOW COULD YOU LET GO?”
Free To Rot, Free Of Sin was the best hardcore album of 2012. It garnered positive reviews from all corners and those that heard it commented on its sophistication and power. The Broderick had arrived. Their ambitious vision for a progressive, moody hardcore album had been achieved, yet as soon as Free To Rot… was released The Broderick began slowing down once again. A national tour took place, support slots for touring overseas bands were picked up but it was all half-hearted window dressing. The Broderick couldn’t even be bothered to produce a film clip to promote the record for fear of being laughed at and seen as desperate, even though their teaser trailer rapidly generated over ten thousand hits. Even with a masterful album in tow, The Broderick still couldn’t muster the will to get out and push the record into the hands of those who needed to hear it. The haphazard touring schedule resumed and momentum was squandered. Fewster later reflected that “we didn’t promote Free To Rot properly… we knew it was a great record and were proud of it but as soon as the album was pressed we’d all stopped caring.” It was as though the effort required to produce Free To Rot had drained the band of all their remaining energy and now that their last great feat was accomplished were simply going through the motions of touring and support which as a band they were expected to do but the intent was gone.
The key ingredient that made Free To Rot so powerful was its maturity. It was the work of seasoned musicians who knew what they were doing and were determined to see the vision come to life. A band in their teens or even their early twenties could never have produced an album of such sophistication and gravitas. Yet it was this maturity that was now The Broderick’s undoing. Having been through the meat grinder of touring before, they no longer had the stomach to do it again.The problem for The Broderick was that they’d peaked too late. If they’d managed to produce Free To Rot when they were still full of youthful vigour, they may have found the strength to build themselves into what they should have become. Instead they were here. At Bang. In front of an audience that didn’t know who they were and nor did they particularly care. They were old men struggling to keep up in a sport meant for the young.
When asked to assess The Broderick’s legacy, Fewster is reluctant to give an answer but there’s no doubt that he’s proud of the band. “We accomplished a lot, more than most other bands from the scene. Free To Rot is something I’ll always be proud of and grateful to have been a part of.” At the same time, after repeated questioning Fewster can’t hide the pangs of disappointment. “We should have been bigger than what we were. We didn’t reach the level we should have. That’s probably our own fault.”
Talking to Logan Fewster about his band is like trying to hold water. He’s hard to pin down and reluctant to say anything, even to those close to him. After careful prompting he finally offers an opinion on why The Broderick never made it to the level he believes they should have- “We fought a lot. Nearly all of us quit the band at some point and we were lazy.”
At that point Fewster’s evasive skills take over and he has nothing more to say but perhaps it’s what he didn’t say that matters most. The Broderick failed not because they weren’t talented enough or because they couldn’t get that lucky break. The Broderick’s ultimate demise was because they were too frozen by the fear of failure to give everything.
“TRACE OUR STEPS AND MAP OUT OUR DESTINATION / WE’RE NOT MOVING, WE’RE STATIONARY.”
The final Bang show began just after 11pm. Close friends of the band, knowing that this would most likely be their last show, turned up to show their support. Parents came along. As always The Broderick play hard and Fewster radiates an animal magnetism that commands attention however the show is a disaster. The sound mix is poor and the vocals are completely inaudible. Ten minutes into the set the bass amp blows up bringing proceedings to halt. The band exchange tense, resigned smirks as they stand awkwardly on stage waiting for a new amp to be set up. Eventually after an unbearable pause, a new amp is found and The Broderick play one last song before exiting the stage. The audience is confused. The crowd is waiting.
We’re still waiting for The Broderick.
Fear and Loathing in Castlemaine
A Savage Journey to the Heart of Aussie Rock & Roll with The Cosmic Psychos
I’m sitting on a mound of gravel next to the two Daves. Behind me, a man in a black T-shirt is urinating. I’m studying the contours of an appreciably-sized mound of cowshit sitting two feet in front of me. My notebook is balanced on my knee and I’m trying to manoeuvre words onto the pages, which are being mobilised by the winds blowing in from somewhere along the vast expanse of the Victorian countryside. Dave Dave and the other Dave, Ridgy, and I attempted to figure out where the hell we are five minutes ago using the latter’s iPhone. We surmised that we’re somewhere equidistant from Ballarat and Bendigo, about a half-hour’s drive from Lake Eppalock, off the C326.
Dave tells me he’s going to take a piss and stands up, brushing dirt and gravel off his arse. He’s dressed in a white Mark of Cane T-shirt, a frayed Everlast baseball cap, sunglasses, white runners and oversized blue denim jeans—dad jeans. Ridgy is wearing a faded Sub Pop T-shirt, a camo hat, sunglasses, runners and a much better-fitting pair of blue jeans. They both flew from Adelaide to Melbourne the day before. Back home they both drive tractors for a living and Dave has a wife and two daughters. Dave is thoughtful and amiable with stern features undercut by an ever-present warmth and humour. Ridgy is laid-back and quick to laugh, and refers to himself self-deprecatingly as a “bogan.” Both have a firm handshake and speak in an accent distinctly country-Australian. Dave walks off a few feet behind us to take care of business and Ridgy offers me a beer.
Two hours before we’d assembled at the Espy in St. Kilda. We had our names ticked off by a lady in a fluoro vest that read “Cosmic Psychos Insecurity Team,” who brandished a clipboard and a bundle of fluoro wristbands which he applied to you after you check in. The tables at the front of the Espy were sparsely occupied by people, mostly middle-aged, in flannel over faded T-shirts brandishing fluoro wristbands, their legs wresting on cases of Carlton Draught. Ten kilometres away, in Collingwood, people at the Tote were doing the same thing. Same age-group, dressed much the same and each slowly wading into drunkenness. A drunkenness that will sustain for the rest of the day. Ever the diligent one, I kept the integrity of my role as reporter, drinking Mount Franklin as I etched the first few notes into my A4 Spirax and waited for the bus to arrive, which it did shortly.
A long white coach that read Doncaster Coaches on either side, driven by a stout, sonorous-voiced St. Nick with a full greying beard named Pete. Pete deftly peeled the coach from the lane way beside the Espy and introduced himself over the PA. “Now, it is illegal to have alcohol aboard a bus and a few of you snuck some cans on, but I didn’t see that now did I?” he said before being greeted with a chorus of exuberantly loutish voices crying “No, Pete! No way!” He put on a Moody Blues playlist that he switched to AC/DC once we hit the Westgate Bridge. Acca Dacca saw us out of Melbourne and into that verdant territory known as rural Victoria.
“You know, I mean, we both drive tractors back home. That’s what we do,” Ridgy says definably. He explains to me what this is all about. The Cosmic Psychos have been his favourite band since the 90s. He’s seen them five or six times, whenever they toured Adelaide. Before them he liked Mudhoney and a few other bands, but the Psychos were a band made for him, “They write songs about their tractors and shit, you know? It’s great.” Dave had heard on the internet that someone was making a documentary about the Cosmic Psychos. A crowd funded project, if you contributed $100 it bought you a ticket to the premiere of the film, an invitation to a gig at bass player Ross Knight’s infamous farm, a DVD copy of the film once it’s released and a T-shirt and stubby holder. If the film secured distribution, this was all yours, if it didn’t, your money was refunded. “It was really a win-win situation,” says Ridgy optimistically. The deadline for the funds was 31st August of 2012. They needed to raise $28,000. They raised just under $50k.
People are filing into a makeshift arena. One gentleman, dressed in a turquoise-black flannel shirt and blue jeans carrying a black, curly mullet atop his head, steps out of his coach and makes his way over to the stage. As he steps onto the decline into the pit, his pants fall to his knees. With one hand he deftly catches them before they go any lower and pulls them back up, his stride uninterrupted, brandishing a beer can in his other hand. The stage sits at the foot of a dirt hill, that is, the stage is the foot of the dirt hill. The length of the dirt hill connects onto a knoll which cordons off this DIY arena. which cordons off this DIY arena. The stage is settled with amps and monitors and microphones and instruments. Beside a large Orange amplifier stands a large white raffle wheel. A Stooges bootleg plays over the monitors. The ground around the stage is rocky, made up mostly of clay, which has been visibly eroded by tractors. More people gather around the stage and from a distance, they look like a variegated patchwork of flannel and black. They take photos, they drink beer, they see old friends. To the far right, little kids are playing in a fulvous pool of muddy water, flanked either side by mounds of rocks.
Dave returns and Ridgy hands him a beer, Ridgy offers me one again. They two tell me a story about a Psychos gig they went to in the 90s, “Someone rammed their car into a hairdresser’s shop across the road and then drove off. This bloke comes out and it’s the drummer from the band and he just says ‘Don’t see that at every gig.’ And then the cops arrive and ask which direction they went and the three of us all pointed in the opposite direction.” We laugh and stare out at the field in front of us, which is peppered with Eskies. A member of the Turbojugend passes by in front of us. As the band get ready to take the stage, Ridgy goes into how much he hates the Pokies, “They sucked Adelaide dry of its music scene.” A few feet from us, two guys, one in a Ride the Lightning Metallica T-shirt and the, Buddha-faced with a Travis Bickle mohawk, are sitting in a pair of discarded school chairs they found. They’ve made a game of throwing rocks into two small rusted vats emblazoned with BP logos. The band takes the stage.
Bass player and de facto bandleader Ross Knight, drummer Dean Muller and guitarist John McKeering, play a set of propulsive, electrifying garage rock. The wah-drenched, fuzzbox guitars and droning anvil bass make a sound that comes from some dark, claustrophobic place, somewhere between the Stooges and Oi! Punk. “I get six dollars a tonne for the gravel so empty your boots before you leave, please!” says Knight to a spattering of laughter before launching into another song. Ridgy sings along with every word. They’re his band. He provides me with the song titles as they play through each number. The songs are decided by the giant lollipop to the right of Knight’s amp. The names of audience members are called out in the interstices between songs for them to come up on stage and spin the wheel. The wheel is labeled with the names of Psychos songs: Custom Credit, Hooray Fuck, Dead Roo, Lost Cause, Pub. “Life is always dictated by the wheel,” says Knight. “The bass player there, Ross, he’s the heart and soul of the band. The surviving member,” Ridgy tells me. “Play something we can dance to!” someone calls out, “Dance something we can play to,” replies Knight.
Dave’s name is called out and he runs over to the stage to spin the wheel. In between each song the band members shoot off ocker one-liners about not remembering the songs or how dimwitted they are. At the end of the set Knight thanks everyone for coming down to his farm and supporting the band. The three members come together at the centre of the stage and embrace before taking their bows. Knight comes to the mic a final time to tell us to “get the hell outta here!” “I’ve gotta put my kids to bed,” he says. “Anyway, you’ve got a movie to go to.”
We pull up to the Castlemane Theatre Royal. The film’s title Blokes You Can Trust is on the marquee, illuminated by light bulbs. The ride had been electrified by the onslaught of the Psychos’ music booming overhead. My fellow passengers demanded repeatedly that Pete pump the music louder, the small, inadequate speakers of the Doncaster Coach distorting the already gnarled sounds of the Cosmic Psychos even further. “Volume, Pete!” they called, over and over. Nightfall came shortly after the gig ended and Pete’s deft maneuvering of the bus through the darkness of the Victorian country side was impressive.
Pete had told us that we should be ready to leave 15 minutes after the performance ends, around 6 o’clock. After the band took their bows the crowd dispersed and started leisurely making their way up the dirt road to where an assembly of coaches, microbuses, cars and vans sat idle. On the bus I watched as the passengers from the ride over stumbled onboard accompanied by friends they’d met or that they had made. A girl clandestinely sparked off a pipe beside the bus eliciting a coy smile from a gentleman passing by her. One of the passengers from my bus, a tall, long-limbed guy with a shaved head took photos with various people. It was afterwards explained to me that his name is Ryan Fitzgerald, or Fitzy, and he’s a radio and television personality. Before that he was a Big Brother contestant and an AFL player before that. He stood beside a grey-haired man in a flannel shirt who’d put his arm around Fitzy’s shoulders. Waiting for a camera flash, Fitzy had a genuinely warm and joyful smile on his face. He took a few more photos with various people, his smile authentic in each photo. One of the photographers wore a Cosmic Psychos shirt with a design like the Twisties logo.
When we arrive at the theatre, Fitzy grabs me by the shoulders “You’re very cool, calm and collected, mate.” I had spent most of the ride to the theatre with my head entombed in my notebook, making notes, crossing others out. I explain my purpose on the bus and we have a quick, friendly exchange before stepping off the bus onto a red carpet. It’s really more of a red rug, dirty and faded but possessing a thrifty charm. To the side sits a rather small but nonetheless impressive and fully operational tractor. A yellow skid-steer loader, it’s covered in dried mud and a poster for the film obscures the windshield. The poster has Knighty, Dean and John standing atop a bulldozer with “Cosmic Psychos” in large, white block-lettering with “Blokes You Can Trust” supplementing it below. A security guard explains that those of us with wrist bands can proceed to the back of the venue now and those without are to go inside the theatre foyer and receive one before proceeding to the back.
We flash our wristbands to a security guard dressed in a suit standing at the opening of a short alleyway that brings you into the courtyard behind the Theatre Royal. The security guard permits each of us entry with a solemn nod and brief interstice of darkness takes us into a fairy-lit courtyard that has been settled with a merch table and a chilli stand. The chilli stand has been setup beside the entrance into the main theatre and the merch table on the opposing wall. They are selling T-shirts and posters for the film. Towards the back, after a small Hawaiian-style bar which is closed, and down a small set of steps, are tables, at which some people have already started established themselves. Most people though are massing around the merch table. Those that have already visited the merch table are ordering chilli.
A group of guys gather around someone puffing on an electronic cigarette. I’m sitting at a table still sullying my notebook pages and he’s a few feet to my right. Fitzy is one of the guys who approaches, he seems to know the guy smoking, the two start conversing loudly. The other guys are some that I recognise from the gig at Ridgy’s farm and some that I don’t. They talk about the guy’s electronic cigarette. He prefers the electronic cigarette, he explains. Their speech is slurred and peppered with outbursts of laughter. “Anybody got a fuckin’ durry?” Fitzy calls out. The man with the electronic cigarette repeats the question. Fitzy runs over to a corner table and quickly returns with a cigarette, handing it to Electronic Puffer Guy. He takes it in his hand and proceeds to put on a quick magic routine using the cigarette. He makes it disappear several times using different sleights of hand. From where I’m sitting I see each time where he’s holding it. His audience, neck-deep in a Carlton Draught stupor all react with giddy incredulity. “Fuck off! How’d you do that?” The Electronic Puffer Guy smiles coyly.“It’s fuckin’ magic,” he tells them.
I can hear “When is this fuckin’ movie start?” being repeated around me. Someone’s singing a cover of “You’re the One That I Want” and someone else is threatening to cut them if they don’t stop. A young couple in front of me are sitting at a table with a grey-haired man, in his fifties maybe, dressed in a black T-shirt, the three of them eating chilli and drinking beer. A member of the couple, the guy, probably still a teenager, is dressed in a purple button-up, the cuffs peeking out of the sleeves of a dark velour suit jacket, black skinny jeans and Beatle boots. His hair is a greasy lattice and his skin is as pale as his girlfriend’s, a redhead dressed in a cheetah-print dress. I think to myself that he looks a lot like Richard Hell, and his girlfriend looks like someone who could’ve been Richard Hell’s girlfriend. They converse with the older man like old friends, suggesting they all hang out next time he’s in Melbourne. The guy, Richard Hell, talks about how much he hates people who take photos of their food. The girl explains that she was the one who picked him up when they first met, he’s “too scared to speak to girls,” he says. The older man talks about the band The Gun Club. Most of their sentences end in “man,” like “When is this fucking movie going to start, man?”
I notice that the mass of people that had been pinched between the merch table and the chilli stand has dispersed and collect my things to make my way into the theatre. I’m followed soon after by most of the people who were sitting in the courtyard. The main theatre of the Castlemane Theatre Royal is large and rustic. The paint on the walls is peeling and the rows of chairs that have been arranged look like donations from a local high school or the like. At the front of the room is a large stage, the wood panels of which are half painted in black and half exposed wood, the black paint receding from years of being trod upon, a crust of whitewash visible at the edges of the black.
On stage a portly guy of average height dressed in a T-shirt and jeans with runners is trying to make himself audible over the crowd, a microphone in his hand. Finally he figures out how to turn the mic on and starts commandeering the crowd, telling them to settle down and take their seats and be quiet. “You’re all pigs,” he says dryly. I hear someone mention that he’s a 3RRR DJ, he looks the part. “Say something funny!” someone yells out. “Say something funny? Shut up! That’s my first point of business,” he replies, “The movie is about to start,” he adds. “We’ve got people here from Canada, Perth and Adelaide, and what a fantastic day we had on the farm!” The crowd responds with cheers and applause. “Say something funny!” someone calls out again, this time a different voice. “You wanna know what’s funny? Most of you people actually put money in to see this fucking thing. That’s funny, you suckers! That’s funny.” He gives a short monologue on the Cosmic Psychos being one of the greatest, if not the greatest, bands in Australia before explaining that the buses are set to leave an hour after the film is finished and that if we can’t afford to spend the night in Castlemaine, we better haul off back to Melbourne, “cheap cunts,” he adds.
I look around the theatre, the members of the Cosmic Psychos are sitting in the front row a few feet away from me. Behind me two kids are discussing Nick Cave. “Yeah, Nick Cave fucking sucks,” one of them says. It’s said with an appreciation for everything there is to hate about a verbose, pseudo-literary, self-aggrandising, self-eroticising death-rock doofus and for everything there is to like about a band like the one sitting two rows in front of them. The 3RRR DJ hands the microphone over to Matt Weston, the director of Cosmic Psychos: Blokes You Can Trust. He’s skinny and stern-featured with a handlebar moustache. He’s met with cheers and applause when he takes the mic. “About two years ago Kim Muller, Dean from the Psychos’ wife, approached me and suggested I should think about doing a Cosmic Psychos doco and I thought ‘Who the fuck would wanna watch that?’ and I guess, there was a few of ya. So, uh, I just wanna say thank-you so much, this wouldn’t be possible without all your input, whether it was sending stuff through, photos, video, um, money, the money really helped. I hope you all had a great time today and on behalf of the Psychos as well, a big thank-you to all you guys. Good news is we’ve got film distribution with Umbrella, they jumped on early,” the crowd applauds, “so if you’re due for a DVD you’ll get it later in the year. Before the film starts we’re gonna show a couple of shorts of the rewards that some guys received for donating. Other than that, rip ‘n’ dig!”
The Cosmic Psychos might well deserve a place in the annals of music history. If for nothing else, they are progenitors of a new and completely self-styled musical genre: Fuckyouism. More than a musical style, it’s a bona fide life philosophy, sitting somewhere between nihilism and full-fledged anarchism. While Iggy may arguably have been the first to engage with it on a notable scale, the Psychos got it right. Iggy’s was about fuck you by way of fuck me. Self-debasement, bridge-burning, mouldering lugubriousness and self-destruction on a stupendous level, the Psychos’ was about self-preservation. Of course, the pendulum of the great decider sways favourably for both parties: both Iggy and the Cosmic Psychos made great fuckin’ records. Iggy’s story has been told through TV shows, interviews, documentary films, books, some very extensive reissue liner notes and biographies, including one very good one by Paul Trynka that’s a recommended read for anyone interested in just how systemic a crack in psychological eggshell can be. Iggy’s epic, which is on par with tales of Achilles, Caligula and the Galilean carpenter himself, has had its orators and is now one of the most important parts of the rock & roll canon. Now the Psychos get their turn.
The main theatre of the Castlemane Theatre Royal is at capacity. The patchwork of black and flannel travelled 45 minutes by bus and van, bought merch, ate chilli, drank beer, waited, drank more beer, endured a preamble from a radio DJ, heard word from a filmmaker and now sits, buzzing, in dilapidated chairs awaiting the celluloid-told tale of their favourite band. Before the film starts we’re treated to a couple of shorts, both documenting the prizes received by fans that donated considerable amounts to the film’s cause.
The first, a gentleman who donated five grand, received a three-course meal cooked for him by the Psychos themselves. No member of the Psychos has ever been nor will ever probably be a chef and that is something to keep in mind when considering the dishes the three served up for the generous benefactor. The first course, three meat pies (naturally) made to perfection by bass player Ross Knight, topped with a garnish of calamari ring. Next up, a second course of that most sumptuous of haute cuisine delicacies: the Chiko roll, served by guitarist John McKeering. Finally, dessert made by drummer Dean Muller, a dish of poop and pee (that is, yellow jelly with Picnic bars). The verdict: good enough for $5,000.
The film is an entertaining, remarkably funny, heartfelt and oddly fastidious rock & roll tale unlike any other rock documentary you’ve ever seen. Nothing before has been this engaging and unmistakably Australian. Ross Knight serves the film’s protagonist and the nucleus around which a sideshow universe forms and begins to spiral. Weston engages the raconteur in each of his subjects as they explain the initial formation of the band, their first tour (from which Knight was absent because he thought Europe was for “poofs”), their influence on the grunge scene of Seattle, their various tastes of success including their co-writing credit on a Prodigy song (Prodigy’s album The Fat of the Land included a cover of an L7 song, friends and fans of the Psychos, the song’s chorus was lifted from a Psychos song and as a result the Psychos received co-writing credit on one of the biggest albums of 1997), the untimely death of guitar player Robbie Watts and Ross Knight’s career as an amateur weightlifter (a hobby motivated by his disabled son who often needs to be carried and Knight’s desire to be able to do so into old age).
It features a roll call of alt-rock royalty: Eddie Vedder, Butch Vig, the members of Mudhoney, Ray Ahn of The Hard-Ons and King Buzzo of the Melvins and Fantomas who describes the Psychos’ sound as “late 70s punk rock played through a stereo inside of a muffler of a car dragging down the freeway.” The grown-up boys of Mudhoney describe finding the rather familiar and archetypical Psychos as “exotic.”
The crowd inside the theatre cheer and wail and applaud as they watch the film that they put on the screen. A particularly heart-warming frisson occurs when Ray Ahn describes the Psychos’ role as ambassadors of Australian music when touring Europe. “Alright, Belgium, you’ve got great chocolate and everything but what bands have you got?” his hypothetical sparks something in the crowd, the cheers crescendo as Ahn fires off an extensive list: AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, Radio Birdman, The Saints, The Easybeats, The Living End, INXS, Midnight Oil and on and on and on.
The film is punctuated with genuinely entertaining and funny animated sequences that are employed whenever a yarn should be ripped. For example, Butch Vig’s account of a night spent drinking with the Psychos while recording with them in the US. We observe the three animated Psychos members watch with glee as an engineer attempts to keep up with their alcohol consumption. He was drunk so far under the table, Dante couldn’t imagine it.
A particular highlight comes when Vedder explains “the game.” Taking out an Australian 50 cent piece that he “always carries” with him (“you never know when you the game is going to begin”), he and friend Matt Lukin of Mudhoney and Melvins proceed to demonstrate the game, with Lukin dropping his pants, pinching the coin between his butt cheeks and waddling it over to a glass placed on the floor in the middle of the room, when Lukin unclenches and drops the coin its impact shatters the glass. “That’s the first time that’s ever happened,” says Vedder.
The film and indeed the Psychos themselves embody a spirit that is transcendentally Australian, a pastoral freak show amplified by the gnashing cogs of the music world and the nature of people themselves. They’re a testament to the fact that while “you can take the boy out of the farm…you can’t take the farm out of the boy” and an embodiment of an attitude at once Australian and quintessentially punk: refusing to be anyone but yourself, and they expose it for being a triumph unto itself. So I guess, finishing off my savage journey, I’ll end it in kind: fuck you, rip’n’dig.
Photos by Nicole Reed and Kane Hibberd. Special thanks to Matt Weston and Mishell Vremen.