We slip into Sydney in the damp darkness, dump our load and we’re out. Well, Mardi Gras has just finished so enough of the entendres. To the Taste of Turkey where we eat en masse for the first time courtesy of Skip, the rep. We dip and drink and sleep.
I wake up at 10AM in our characterful if seedy hotel – high ceilings of distressed concrete, stained by rebar like horror film blood, a low hanging overhead lamp like a Laotian brothel. The rooms are set around a central circular atrium full of tropical plants. The rain comes straight down, a yard from one’s threshold. I horse up King Street towards the city. Think Kilburn High Road without the chain shops. Coming through the university campus to a park, I alight on the Powerhouse Museum of Science and Design. There’s an exhibition called “Unpopular” based on ‘90s American alternative rock in Australia — Beastie Boys, Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth, Beck, the Breeders, Pavement, Hole, Nirvana — all looking like they’re thoroughly enjoying themselves. These are the acts who rendered us irrelevant here in 1991 while we wrote our third album. There’s a brilliant exhibit featuring three giant 4:3 ratio screens showing audiences and artists in elegiac slow-mo to an ambient soundtrack of synth, fiddle and piano. It’s deeply nostalgic and the whole show gets it right by concentrating on the visuals and interview snippets rather than the music itself. The preponderance of female artists with electric guitars reminds you that the era was a feminist wave of sorts with the crossover of Riot girrl and the cooler grunge bands. The two Kims, Deal and Gordon, look so imperious, hard and beautiful. There’s a little room with Kurt and band ripping through Teen Spirit on grainy VHS. It was in Kilburn, funnily enough, we saw them in ‘91. That voice pinned my ears to the back of the National’s walls.
The museum is housed in a vast brick and steel engineering shed that formerly housed an electric tram power station. Escalators connect the various levels in a very open design with lots of enticing internal views. I have lunch on the cafe deck, the sun suddenly boiling high above. Exceptionally tame pigeons hop about on my table, scrawnier than their fat, chip-choked Scottish cousins. These wretched specimens look decidedly underfed. One blinks at me from six inches as if waiting for the secret of existence. My superior intelligence currently runs to knowing where the nearest toilet is.
I wander deeper into the city — Chinatown, business districts, theatre land. Charming 1920s brick hotels lean against towering ‘80s and ‘90s hi-rises. It’s very Manhattan. A man in a bespoke suit trails expensive cologne behind him as he ducks into a tobacconist. I have a vague ambition to see the bay but I start to tire and turn tail for the hour’s walk back. Besides, we’d flown low over the bridge and opera house on last night’s approach and the view of the city under low cloud at twilight was heart stopping. I cut through an arcade and find myself lost in a maze of Day-Glo grabber machines full of absurd faux-fur creatures. Back on studenty King Street I step into a bookshop, well stocked with decent second hand fiction. They’re playing Belle and Sebastian’s Boy With the Arab Strap. Of course they are. It has 47,392,855 hits on Spotify. Roll to Me has 47,778,808. It’s neck and neck, folks! The Belles will be on heavy rotation in Barnes & Noble. We’re in K-Mart.
I flop onto my brothel bed, shades drawn, and kick off my boots. I seem to flag with the flatness of my phone, like we’re both running on the same fuel supply. I plug in and perk up, slugging long draughts of cool water from my Del Amitri branded vacuum bottle. My room is just a large cell but its confines are a luxury after five hours on my feet.
The gig is a sumptuous art deco affair this country seems in no shortage of. Two of them on King Street are still picture houses showing interesting films. These cinemas, built on the way out of town, have just about escaped gentrification and the developers’ mechanical claws. Some have become performance venues. How long will they survive capitalism’s ravenous appetite for converting cultural amenities to private accommodation? The relentless advance of middle class vermin with mortgage money. The Powerhouse Museum is a bulwark against this. Filled with mad pottery, costumes and redundant machinery, it’s a trumpet crying from a crumbling battlement.
We find a late bar, do selfies and discuss affairs with good people. No side, no sarcasm. This enormous land, struggling with itself — is alive in ways buttoned-up Britain has never dared to be. Explicit, earnest and deeply lost like the rest of the species, the country turns away every day and comes back into the light, the high sun soaking its deserts, forests and vineyards in energy and cooking up a climate storm. The world ignores Australia at its peril. Because something is happening here and you don’t know what it is — do you, Mr. Jones?