Saturday, August 1, 2009

Remembering David McComb

Vagabond Holes, a book reflecting on and remembering David McComb, has just been released. My connection to McComb is the same as many people: I loved his band The Triffids. 

The collection of essays, memoirs, photographs and the odd poem by McComb (and others including John Kinsella), is edited by Chris Coughlan and Niall Lucy. Of Niall, I should say a great big thank you. He was a DJ on 6UVS-FM in the post-punk period: for awkward 17 year-old brought up on commercial radio his programs were pretty powerful stuff. They were surprising, challenging, exciting.

David McComb, like me,  grew up in Western Australia. There the similarity ends. He in the lap of upper-middle class comfort, me not. As student, I saw The Triffids an awful lot. They were the main game in Perth from 1982 to, um, the early '90s. The only fun in town, you might say. David McComb wrote with such eloquence and intensity that "coming from Perth" became a much, much more interesting experience than it otherwise could have been. He gave us the words and the emotions to explore the world with.

David McComb died in 1999 in Melbourne, just before his 37th birthday. 

Anyway, the book throws up all sorts of memories. There are photos of gigs I was at (like the Shaftsbury Hotel, where I hitch-hiked a couple of hundred kilometres to be there). But Vagabond Holes provides more than just a beanbag of memories to flop down in to. It is a generous tribute to a brilliant songwriter. The editors try to tease out some of the themes and achievements that myth has overgrown or obscured. There are some wonderful personal touches, too, like Gavin Martin (a journalist who arrived in Perth from the UK) finding David "gracious, attentive, always wanting to be sure I had amusement and company during my stay". David had that kindness about him. Later, Martin sees McComb at The Triffids London headquarters, at "the sort of convivial get-together they did so well". Megan Heyward records David's "exceptional's the kindness and generosity I remember most". He showed the same generosity to me, when I was at a loose end in London. Kindness we can't repay.

I like James Paterson's piece. It's an unfinished argument with David about songwriting. Paterson not only writes clean, unfussy prose, but has stories to tell of working with McComb on songs. Paterson notes how McComb became enthralled to the Birthday Party, steering away from the more ironic, playful pop of the early tapes and singles. (When I saw Nick Cave at the Brixton Academy in 1990 Frances Walker came up at the end and said to me: "That was the Triffids".) As for me, well, I could get with McComb's fondness for Gram Parsons, but found the Rolling Stones covers hard to understand. Like, jesus, they are the enemy. 

That the book embraces both a vernacular and an academic world view says something about the world in which David McComb moved. There is still more to explore and consider.

Not all the questions are answered. The one that I don't get is how McComb got so low so young. Yes, he and the band travelled constantly and probably lived in less than genteel poverty a lot of the time. So did a lot of people. But nobody wants to talk about the alcohol with any candour. What part did that play in his life and in his death? I lack the imagination to understand why someone as gifted could be so apparently self-destructive. His death was sad, is sad. But so were, it seems to me, the later years of his life.

But still that needs to be weighed with what David McComb and The Triffids did, and what they aspired to do. And that was, at times, heroic: to create this enduring sonic template of a young man at the edge of the world at the end of the 20th century.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

< enduring sonic template of a young man at the edge of the world at the end of the 20th century>

how beautifully said. yes, exactly.