Wednesday, July 25, 2012

100 reviews, # 1: Jeff Apter's Chasing the Dragon

When it comes to Jeff Apter’s biography of Marc Hunter, Chasing the Dragon, I’m not only biased; I’m also jealous. About ten years ago, I determined to follow up the minor success of my book about the Go-Betweens with two other music histories: the ‘80s story’ of the Go-Betweens would be joined by the ‘sixties story’ of Pip Proud, and the ‘70s story’ of Dragon (of course all of these artists’ tales bled into subsequent decades, but there was some pattern and structure to this idea – which is not to say it wasn’t insane). Dragon was to come first, simply because I needed to shore up some profile for myself as a writer before embarking on the difficult (to sell, as so few had heard of him, and to write, as he remembered so little) Proud story.

Easy to plot these things out, we hacks do it all the time, and the plotting is half the fun. But I was different because I had a contract. An established publisher had drawn it up, and it was just a matter of when could I drop by and sign it, get my tiny advance and start for real on my Dragon book. I had a number of interviews with past members, and some further contacts to follow up, and some choice archival material. My great idea was to write the book in the first person of Dragon itself – like it was a monster – all too true, really. This was also a good idea because the group had no consistent members throughout its existence (Todd Hunter came closest, but left in the late 90s; of course he has since resurrected the band to good effect). Nothing ever lives up to your own expectations – least of all something you do yourself – but this could really have worked.

It was coming along, when I got a call from my would-be publisher: a meeting with the company’s New Zealand distributors had put paid to my project, as far as everyone there was concerned. NZ wasn’t interested in a Dragon book and therefore (in the minds of the Australian publishers) there wasn’t enough of a market. The contract was torn up, withdrawn, deleted, whatever, and I never even saw it. While I bravely vowed to press on, fate, fear, pursuit of a real day job and other junk got in the way and it withered. Some of my research was reshaped for the sleevenotes for the reissues of the first two Dragon albums on Aztec, the second of which is due to come out in 2012.

All of the above is not a tragic story of wasted time that could have been spent inventing the iPad or whatever people moan about when they think about the past. I mention this to alert you to the frame of mind I was in when I heard about Chasing the Dragon, and why I should not be writing a review of Chasing the Dragon. And here it is:

Apter is the ubermind behind a big fat conveyor-belt churn of hagiographical studies of (mainly fairly humdrum) musicians (that said, Mark Evans’ recent ‘as told to Jeff Apter’ memoir of AC/DC is masterful!) and he’s no doubt developed a process that serves him well in production/completion/deadline terms. He is probably already mapping out his 2013 titles, Not So Dum-Dum: the Tex Perkins Phenomenon and Such as That Which a Rolling Stone Would not Gather: the tale of Ian ‘Mossy’ Moss and for all I know his Sing if you’re Proud to be Pip. 

The choice of Marc Hunter as a biographical subject is a natural one, and while I would argue that Hunter was only one of a bunch of men that made up Dragon and not even necessarily the most interesting (someone else was researching a Paul Hewson book a few years ago – nothing’s come of that yet), attention is of course typically directed to the front man – that’s why they’re called ‘front men’. Hunter was a stunningly clever person, with an extremely quick wit and huge charm. He made a very good fist of appearing not to care what others thought of him and he was involved in the creation of many excellent records, though rarely as an instigator.

Apter captures the essence of Hunter’s public persona well, particularly in the extraordinary self-deprecatory – bordering on depressive – comments he made throughout most of his career (Though not an example of great wit exactly, Apter’s information that Hunter would typically introduce live performance of the song ‘April Sun in Cuba’ as ‘Another piece of shit’ gives the flavour of the singer’s approach). He also presents Hunter’s final years interestingly, when he was losing money and, though still well-known, unable to command large crowds.

However Apter also, for reasons that are either cunning elements of a process he developed, or attributable to the abovementioned laziness, streamlines the Hunter story fairly heavily. The reader never gets bogged down in the detail that would have infected my Dragon book (e.g. Apter radically understates the number of singles Dragon released before ‘This Time’ was a hit; contrary to his neat claim on pages 60-61 Paul Hewson did not replace Ray Goodwin, and in fact you can see them both playing in the band on Countdown clips on YouTube; do these things really matter to the bigger picture? In a sense ‘no’ and in another sense ‘absolutely’). Personally, I can see why it would be easy to dismiss the fact that Hunter recorded a solo single in New Zealand in the mid-70s as irrelevant in itself; but is it so unimportant if we are trying to piece together a complex, self-destructive singer – not, certainly, a reluctant star but definitely one with an unconventional approach to stardom? Which is to say – he recorded a solo single in New Zealand, Jeff, why? Was he planning a solo career back then? Did he do solo shows in the mid-70s parallel to being in Dragon? You make a lot out of his love of ‘lounge’ music, and how it was so different to the prog-rock Dragon; so what about this pop record, ‘X-Ray Creature’? What does that say?

At other times, one wonders if Apter has actually listened to his interviewees: he accepts the line that Marc Hunter didn’t care about the albums he made between his ejection from Dragon in 1978 and the band’s reformation in 1982; that they were tossed off, and more of an excuse for a party than a genuine attempt to promote a career. Yet he will also quote a collaborator from this period as saying that recording with Hunter was ‘always interesting and fun’, producing some ‘great stuff’ and that he ‘always managed to keep it serious.’ I personally feel these are terribly underrated albums, full of great songs, at least as good as the best Dragon pop. Apter’s attitude is noncommittal; he clearly thinks that any participant’s opinion is better than his own, or that it’s all a bunch of opinions in a pot, and that since he apparently doesn’t like the music much himself he might as well stick to others’ memories, barely probed.

The laziness also goes down familiar roads of the rock bio where authors so often feel safe dissing things they have surely never heard merely because it’s fun to slag off the unsuccessful or obscure: for instance, Apter’s discussion of a pre-Dragon band, Heavy Pork, as ‘less-known-the-better.’ Once again this is a small point but an important one exemplifying certain unsatisfactory elements of the overall. Apter has never heard Heavy Pork – or if he has he doesn’t say as much – and is pretty sure we’ll never hear them either, and indeed, there are probably no recordings or perhaps even reliable memories of their songs or sound. This proves nothing about their value, and a good writer doesn’t make those kinds of judgments on something he or she can’t know anything about: when did ignorance ever keep you critically aware? Excuse the hyperbolic comparison but if Max Brod had burnt Kafka’s manuscripts, would that make Metamorphosis ‘less-known-the-better’? Apter shows similar colours when he comes to discuss the first two Dragon albums, Universal Radio and Scented Gardens for the Blind. There is some indication that he has listened to the first of these (he could have bought it on CD, although he presumably didn’t listen to the end of the Aztec reissue where the mid-70s Hunter solo single is included), and perhaps not the second, for which he quotes conflicting assessments including some tosh about ‘god-awful mellotron’. He plainly didn’t see the need to do a huge amount of research on either of these records, to a degree I personally find baffling (not because I believe he has to like them, but if you’re writing a biography of someone, at very least pretend to care and acquaint yourself with everything they’ve done!). One song on the first Dragon album is reputedly about Marc and Todd’s father: a song on their fifth album with lyrics and music by Marc Hunter is about the problems inherent in fame, fortune and overabundance. It’s always interesting to read about how an artist talks about their own life in their work – particularly when they’re commenting on a life they’re presently living. Apter couldn’t spare the time to sit down with a few LPs, unfortunately – or even to peruse a lyric sheet.

Indeed – coming back to the streamlining and/or laziness speculation – I found myself often wondering how much work he genuinely put into even the basic research for this book. For instance, there is an oft-told story about one of Dragon’s panoply of mid-seventies managers locking them in a room one weekend and telling them they couldn’t come out till they had written a hit single. On the Monday they had ‘This Time’, their first hit. True or not (Apter did interview three of the principles who could presumably have confirmed or denied) it’s a nice piece of Dragon folklore, and not mentioned at all herein. There are also curios like Apter’s references to producer Peter Dawkins which indicate that he isn’t sure if Dawkins is still alive – he is – but figured he could hedge his bets by referring to him in the past tense. 
Apter also seems to have little feel for the period(s) he’s writing about. He happily quotes onetime journalist, now record industry exec Ed St John putting forward one of the strangest, most utterly refutable broad statements about Australian music in the 1970s: ‘The music critic community was more influential then, and they tended to reward you if you were inner city and cutting edge, and give you demerit points if you were pop and on Countdown.’ It’s true that a small cohort of opinion-shapers was dismissive of teenyboppers, and untrue to imply that people who are ‘cutting edge’ should not be rewarded, but overall the notion that a ‘music critic community’ wielded power in the mid-70s is simply ridiculous. Countdown and other music TV; 3XY and 2SM and other pop radio; promoters – this was where power was weilded. Music critics, whatever their forum, were wielding less than they do even today, and that’s barely anything.

And so it goes.

People who like to read books about pop music get a raw deal, probably due to the assumption amongst publishers, on the whole, that music books may as well be cheap and nasty because they’re not generally bought for literary merit, but for secondary reasons – sentimentality, or as a guide or adjunct to something else the reader already owns, or for the sake of a lightly scandalous read about a celebrity – big Who Weekly features, but more padding and less care. Paul Kelly’s and Don Walker’s books from the last few years are exceptions, and that very fact shows up at least as much about the snob appeal of the market (Kelly and Walker are high-end ‘bards’) as it does about the merit of their books (which is considerable).

Chasing the Dragon has a whole different set of problems, chiefly its author’s lack of interest in the work at hand, but also its perceived audience. I hear Dragon songs every time I go to the supermarket (it’s one of the things I love about going shopping) and on the radio; they get played at birthday parties or in television promos for the Puberty Blues series, for instance. I know they’re as ubiquitous as any other generic ‘hits and memories’ staple pitched at people my age or slightly older. Dragon might not have been such personalities as, say, Sherbet and Skyhooks, but everyone knows they were all heroin and hysteria, and Marc in particular was tall and good looking. I assume that Hardie Grant, the publisher here, made the assessment firstly that there was no need for a Dragon book to be written by anyone professing a special interest in the man’s output, and I also have to assume that the advance Apter got was not enough for him to indulge himself in a lot of research (the so-called ‘bibliography’ on the last page of the book is laughably tiny).

Apter has produced a professional and commercially acceptable book, presenting a very superficial outline of a complex and unusual individual. Ultimately of the Apter book I could not say I would have done better or with fewer mistakes, only that I would have produced something I liked more.

As the shallowness of his book indicates, and as I will sorrowfully admit, most people don’t understand the broader Dragon oeuvre in ‘pop craftsmanship’ terms (and cultural snobbery doesn’t really countenance ‘pop craftstmanship’), and would be unlikely to purchase a book discussing it in detail, and so on. Ultimately, people – everywhere – tend not to write in complex ways about pop music, or at least when they do, the people who like that pop music often don’t want to read it, i.e. pop music is seemingly artless, therefore, don’t get arty (much less intellectual) when you’re discussing it: it puts off the punters. If pop music books are going to be nothing more than sentimental journeys and/or tabloid tell-alls – full of stuff you either already knew or could have guessed, or reshaped tropes from other classic tragedies – perhaps it’s best to keep away from them altogether.

I know I said ‘ultimately’ but actually there’s one more issue. I’ve met Apter, and I’ll probably meet him again someday when I’m least expecting it. Australia is a diverse and relatively small nation, and while it has a wide cultural arena, I am writing this critique in the full knowledge that Apter will read it, and that at times in my life I will probably end up talking to him. Who knows, he may even comment (don’t, Jeff). The point I would like to make about this probability is that generally speaking niceness continues to prevail in a lot of criticism and discourse on topics like the above (and many others, of course) because of such a two-degrees-of-separation scenario. But even Apter would surely agree – especially when he’s not on the receiving end – hatchet jobs (which, incidentally, this has not been) are part and parcel of keeping a culture spinning round.

My feeling with this book is, everyone (author-subject-readers) deserves better. I would extend that to the field of criticism in our artistic community as well. This production gets a C minus. 


Petticoats and Chrome said...

And I would give your Go-Betweens book an A, even though you said you did a bit of work on it after the first edition.

David said...

That's so nice, thank you P&C.

djbtak said...

Good stuff David - I don't know enough about Dragon, but you're especially dead on in your critique of music criticism revisionism being peddled by those insecure about their own relation to corporate bullshit back in the day. The game has certainly changed and perhaps a certain kind of knowingness about the professional scene has its ascendancy, but it doesn't change the fact that back then, if you wanted to reach a large audience as a performer you had to suck a lot of not very attractive arse.

There were some writers (like yourself) who called that and went out of your way to support genuinely independent production, which in turn made some other people feel not cool enough after the fact. But those dudes were usually not wanting to talk to anyone who wasn't already industry-credentialled, and their complaints about indie elitism are pretty nauseating.


GlenM said...

I do agree with your assessment of the Jeff Apter book on Marc Hunter. And it did bug me that he had Paul Hewson replacing Ray Goodwin and later Tommy Emmanuel replacing Robert Taylor while Hewson was still in the band (Taylor and Hewson are together on the 'Live One' album and clips of the show on YouTube). There were other problems with chronology, as well.

I am the writer researching the Hewson book. I started it back in 2007 or so, submitted chapters to publishers, was turned down because the subject matter was too old and, hence, I put it in a drawer for a number of years. With the advent of the Kindle and iPad I've recently reignited the project and I am very close to finishing the interview phase. It's been quite difficult with Paul being the man in the shadows in terms of press, etc, but I am getting there.

Paul Hewson is one of the unsung heroes of Australasian pop music and was certainly relegated to a bit player by Jeff Apter. I think his is a tale worth the telling.