MY friend Rob Hirst, Midnight Oil’s drumming powerhouse, gave my son Matthew a snare drum on a stand and a pair of sticks for his 12th birthday.
Matthew was ecstatic. His parents, as some of you might imagine, were less so. Nonetheless, over the years and with not a little pride, I’ve watched Matt turn into a pretty handy drummer. But it’s taken some years.
Dear reader, bear with me here as there is a point to what follows. In broad terms, a drummer’s contribution to a song comprises “time” and “fills”. “Time” is the simple, unfussy beat which underpins the whole song and provides that indefinable element we musicians call “feel”. On the other hand, “fills” are when the drummer deploys many more components of the kit, usually to mark the transition from one part of the song to the next. When Matthew graduated to his first full kit, his contribution to the world of music was always going to comprise 95 per cent “fills” and 5 per cent “time”.
Like all young drummers, Matthew felt that if he was not hitting every piece of his kit every 10 seconds, he was a fool to himself and a burden to the rest of the musical world.
Tiring quickly of listening to endless “fills”, I gaffer-taped the eager young player to a kitchen chair and made him listen carefully to Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, pointing out that Charlie spent 97 per cent of his time playing “time”. Matthew came to realise that playing solid “time” is much, much harder than stringing together an endless series of “fills”. The point of all this is this: as we get older, generally speaking, we get better.
A couple of years ago I went to see Jackson Browne in concert at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide.
I’ve always been a big Jackson Browne fan though my admiration for him increased tenfold when he stopped writing songs about strewing caraway seeds around the canyons of his mind and started writing songs about the state of the world. Jackson Browne is 70 years old this year and is, without doubt, at the top of his game.
At home in America he is, quite properly, revered. His capacity to sell tickets and records is undiminished. He is but one example of the way that Americans respect their writers and performers as they get older. Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Tom Waits – clearly heritage artists but clearly much loved, respected and supported by their audiences.
In Australia, it’s a different matter. With a number of notable exceptions, the music industry rule here is that once you turn 35, the powers-that-be (usually much older themselves) usher you gently off the stage. You are replaced with talented, younger artists who are prepared to do what they’re told. Careers for the over 35s, thereafter, are largely confined to nostalgia concerts and the discount bins.
Interestingly, Australian audiences will turn out in enthusiastic droves and pay big money to see international heritage acts. Even when Australian audiences do turn out for our own heritage acts, they are less interested in new repertoire. Perhaps not unreasonably, they expect the performance to largely comprise regurgitated “hits and memories”. It’s only the truly dedicated fans who are prepared to listen to an artist’s new work with open ears – and open wallets.
It’s frustrating but true that Australian audiences are very supportive of “tribute acts” but less so of original artists in career transition. There is the apocryphal story of Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss playing to a small audience in an Australian country town while down the road, on the same night, another pub was packed to the gills with fans watching a Cold Chisel tribute act.
I am not wholly lost in admiration for all things American but I do think we can learn a little from the way they deal with their older artists. I think it’s true that the older a writer/performer gets, the better he/she gets. This is because we’ve had a bit of time to reflect, to listen appreciatively and learn from the work of others and to trust our own judgement rather than that of others.
For my part, I’ve learned that less is more and that the real music exists in the silences. I’ve also learned to accept what I am good at and what I’m not. Speaking with my peers, I find that in these things I am not alone. I’m even more opinionated than I used to be, if that is conceivable, because in my 60s I really don’t care what anybody thinks.
Given the ACT chief minister’s recent criticisms of Canberrans “of a certain age”, I certainly don’t care what he thinks.
John Schumann will perform his own “hits and memories” as well as songs from his new album, “Ghosts and Memories”, at the Southern Cross Club, Saturday, November 10. Book at premier.ticketek.com.au