‘This 300+ page coffee table-styled book is a very handsome production indeed.’
By Ian McFarlane.
ROCK COUNTRY: The sounds, bands, fans, fun & other stuff that happened – Edited by Christian Ryan (Hardie Grant Books)
I’m fully aware of the irony of writing for an on-line forum such as Addicted to Noise but whenever anyone tells me that “it’s all on the internet now anyway”, I reply “Thank God for the printed word!” In particular when it comes to the subject of the history of rock and pop music (and I have a specific interest in the history of Australian rock and pop) – yes, just about anything you want to know is available via a Google search, but to me that’s missing that point. When it comes to an in-depth discussion of said topic I prefer my music reading delivered in book format.
Call me old fashioned, or a traditionalist (I’ve been called worse) but you see I have great faith in the printed word and as if to back up that notion I get hold of this impressive book called Rock Country, edited by Christian Ryan. This 300+ page coffee table-styled book is a very handsome production indeed. Contained within are 32 individual essays and dozens of immaculately reproduced and sometimes rarely seen B&W and colour photos (with many telling their own stories) spread evenly throughout. Even before you get into the content, the form and feel of the book are hugely enticing.
I should point out that Rock Country is not a book about music history as such, more specifically it’s about the culture of rock music: the sociology and experience of music and culture combined. What you get are 32 different reflections of what it feels like to be emotionally charged by the music and music personalities that the writers love. For the most part the writing is superb, lyrical, deep, sad, funny, engrossing, heartfelt… As often as not you learn as much about the writer as you do the subject, which tends to throw up a multitude of emotions and probably raises more questions than it gives answers. The sub-title “The sounds, bands, fans, fun & other stuff that happened” says a lot and very little at the same time.
As you flick through the book, you can either pick an essay to read at random or read everything from cover to cover (which is what I did). So what’s on offer?
• Clinton Walker’s salute to the song-writing genius of Barry Gibb (‘The Three-Minute Genius’)
• Tony Wilson’s search for the enigmatic Melbourne woman Keith Richards mentioned in a brief paragraph of his memoir Life (‘Keith’s Melbourne Wife’)
• Jeff Jenkins’ hilarious account of the early career of the irrepressible Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum (‘An Irregular Cat’)
• Samantha Trenoweth’s emotional story of the jubilant yet ultimately doomed life of Annie Burton (‘Embedded’)
• Max Bonnell’s amusing description of watching bands in pubs (‘That Slogging-It-Out Stuff’)
• Peter Doyle’s scholarly dissertation on the subject of rock ‘n’ roll obscurity (‘Neverywhere’)
• Jen Jewel Brown’s celebration of the life of Australia’s #1 rock star Michael Hutchence (‘Michael Hutchence – Ghost of the Year’)
• Helen Carter’s highly charged contemplation on the brief time she spent with Bon Scott (‘Bon Scott – A Smell like Pheromones’).
And many more besides…
Ian McFarlane talks to Christian Ryan
Addicted to Noise: Congratulations on the book Christian; how’s the response been so far?
Christian Ryan: Thanks very much, Ian. My girlfriend’s response was: it’s finished, at last, let’s live! So far people seem shocked and excited by the book.
When you came up with the idea for the book, what was your original intention and then did the outcome match the intent?
I wanted to make a book that’s exhilarating: where on every page you are hit with things you didn’t know, or a thought you’ve never had, a photo that smashes you in the gut, with beauty. The words and the photos are equal. I wanted to make a book that hits the reader physically, where you find yourself dragged in and immersed in it – to re-create, in book form, the feeling I have when I’m at a great gig, kind of swimming in the music, intensely alive, with all my deepest thoughts and worries rising up and falling off me.
With so much information now readily available on the internet, how satisfying was it for you to see this project of yours presented in book format?
I read, write, edit on paper. Photos on paper work in profoundly moving ways that photos on a screen can’t match. Same with words – when I want to read something on the internet, I print it out, hold it, let it seep in deep. If books die and we’re left with internet only, I’m cactus.
How did you go about commissioning writers to contribute to the book?
I asked writers I love. I wanted to create a space for writers who are doing daring things in non-fiction, tipping boundaries – Peter Doyle, Maureen O’Shaughnessy, Neil Murray, Clinton Walker, Tony Wilson – yet, crazily, aren’t getting the writing gigs they should be getting. I chased musicians who have great untold stories in them. I had a heap of ideas – things that made me curious. I was very open to other people’s ideas – things I didn’t know about. I avoided going after writers who are considered cool and hip but who seem to me to be writing from places safe and comfortable.
As the editor, I would suggest that your primary role was to frame the work, to give shape and an overall voice to the book. With 32 individual writers each with their own voice, what were some of the challenges that process presented?
The New Yorker is a magazine I love, except for its insistence on beginning seven out of eight essays the same formulaic New Yorker way: “At 3.30 p.m. on another windy Chicago afternoon, high school janitor Joe Brown, aged forty-eight, blahdy blah…” It’s stifling. The blood’s sucked out of the words. So … an overall voice? No. A challenge always hovering in my mind was to make the stories all hang together in a kind of implicit, not-quite-tangible way that somehow feels just right – and, more than that, that they should hang together, these startlingly different pieces of writing, no duds, in such a way that they sort of talk to each other, and there are odd resonances, echoes, making the whole thing feel strangely powerful.
Were you surprised with what the writers delivered?
Helen Carter’s line on Bon Scott after a night they had together at the Sebel Town House – Bon “… primping to the sound of Donna Summer’s disco hit ‘Love to Love You Baby’ while gargling Coonawarra red and honey for the vocal cords”. Tyrone Noonan’s line about Grant McLennan – “Grant felt that if he could write a song with enough longing and tenderness in it, his ex might hear it and come back to him.” Constantly surprising. The writers gave their everything.
Without naming names, were there any pieces that didn’t pass muster and that you had to discard?
Sometimes, when you’re aiming high, and no matter how many times you chip away at a story and try to get to its heart, the writer knows it’s not happening and you know it’s not. That’s inevitable.
I really enjoyed the wide ranging balance of music, culture, biography, reflection, experience, opinion that the articles presented. Was that balance of primary concern for you?
That’s good to hear. Thanks. And, loosely, yes – that’s to do with the how-stories-hang-together element I was talking about. Another thing I wanted was for the book to feel big, essential, to scoop up as many as possible important bands, artists, scenes, venues, pubs, songs, moments. But I didn’t want to do it in a rounding-up-the-usual-topics sort of way – not, like, “Give me 800 words on why the Station Hotel mattered.” I wanted the book to feel more zigzagging, elusive, exciting.
Speaking of balance, there would have been a lot of effort expended to get the balance of text and photos within the book right. And I think it works well. So did you have a big say in fostering that balance or was that the preserve of the publishing organisation?
The words and photos are equal – that’s nearly unprecedented in a book. The book has 150-odd photos in it. To make the book, a photo had to have a visceral physical impact on me. The first time I saw it, it had to smash me in the gut, give me a sudden thrill: that was the selection criteria. I guessed that if a photo could do that to me, it could do the same to other people. Not many photos have that power, and so I looked at millions of them, till my eyes would sting. The map of where they would all go was in my head. Turning the map into a book was Dominic Hofstede, the designer, whose instincts are brilliant, and who’s up for anything. And Janet Austin, whose rock pedigree is unbeatable, helped hunt down the photographers, a massive investigative quest – we’d ask their permission, they’d dig out the original film, slide, neg, disk. Sandy Grant, from the publishers Hardie Grant, gave the whole thing a brave “yes”: because he thought it could amount to something good. Most book publishers are running scared. He isn’t.
Finally, do you have a favourite piece and if so why?
No favourite – there are too many knockouts. But don’t miss reading David McComb’s essay “Fanlessness”.