When Jeff Buckley was sucked into a Mississippi slack-water channel and drowned, the masses mourned, sparrows spontaneously fell from the sky, bells in the church tower chimed and Richard Kingsmill wept into his microphone. Me? I’d never heard of the guy. At that stage, the sophistication of my music knowledge was summed up by my CD collection: my most recent purchases were that Chumbawamba single and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. But the cool kids had started listening to Triple J, and now, lemming-like, I had started to tune in, too.
What they played was ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, a traditional song that Buckley sang sweetly like a goddamned hymn. At first, I thought he sounded like a goddamned homo, but by the end of the song I’d decided it was haunting and weird and sad and interesting. I’d never heard anything like it, and something in my brain adjusted. When I went to school the next day and spoke about Buckley, it turned out all my friends were already fans, and were all glassy-eyed and shocked over the news of his death. I was also upset – not because Buckley was dead, but because everyone already knew about this guy before me. How had this happened? What else was I missing out on? It horrified me to think that now Buckley was dead, I couldn’t claim him as my own discovery. (I was sort of possessive as a teenager.)
From then on I became a music nerd. I switched radio stations from Sea FM to Triple J, tore through issues of Rolling Stone and Juice, and was the first to buy copies of Q, Spin and Mojo from my local newsagency – all titles imported from the US or UK, which arrived months after the original date on the cover. Those years exposed me to artists I still love, most of them women (Kate Bush, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, PJ Harvey, Courtney Love, Björk, Tori Amos, Patti Smith, Cat Power, Dusty Springfield, Fiona Apple), or men who sounded like women (Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Thom Yorke).
Since I didn’t have any rock-star ambitions, I decided I wanted to be a rock journalist. I’d bathe myself in music interviews and profiles by Rolling Stone’s Chris Heath, and imagine hanging out in tour vans with bands after the show, or helping singer-songwriters through their nervous breakdowns in hotel rooms, while I furiously took notes. Of course, being a rock journalist meant having to become someone who accessed music first. I started work experience at a Brisbane street press, where I sometimes got to review advance copies of CDs I loved, though most of the time I was made to review Dannii Minogue and the subsequent Chumbawamba singles that failed to chart. Two stars! I told the world. Two stars! I prided myself on getting to everything first, before spreading the news promiscuously.
The way I spoke began to change. ‘I was listening to Rufus Wainwright before he got big,’ I’d say. ‘People only started liking him after Poses, but no one talks about his self-titled debut produced by Jon Brion, which is much superior to anything else he’s done.’ Or: ‘I saw that Wim Wenders movie weeks ago at a media screening. What a yawn-fest.’ And: ‘I was reading Dave Eggers when he was editing Might and way before AHWOSG came out.’ The last statement was a lie, of course, but that didn’t bother me. This was the type of person I was becoming: wholly nauseating. It’s not like I recorded the albums or wrote the books myself, but making sure people knew I knew about them first sure felt like it.
As I got older, I began to care less. This wasn’t because I became a better person; it was because I got lazy. For whatever reason – most likely the profound poverty we all experience in our twenties – I started to read fewer music magazines. I discovered bands and artists months after they released their records. And after hundreds of interviews with musicians, I was starting to get the sense that these people were exciting in melody and song, but dull in real life. By the time I was interviewing Cat Power over the phone, wincing through her awkward silences, non sequiturs and non-answers, the idea crossed my mind that writing about everyday, ordinary people might be more interesting.
Throughout this period, I’d been teaching writing classes at my local university. Recently, one of the weekly topics was music journalism, and the piece everyone was told to read was a gigantic six-page Rolling Stone profile on Bruce Springsteen.
‘So, how many of you guys were Springsteen fans coming into the reading?’ I asked.
Only a handful of people put up their hands. This didn’t surprise me: most of them were seventeen years old.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Well, I’m curious about the rest of you. Because it was such a long piece, was there anything about the article that maintained your interest? Was that the readership?’
Members of the class started to discuss the piece’s merits – it was pretty good, they said, if a little too long. Then I noticed two of my male students at the back of the room, hunched over a laptop, looking at a website and whispering loudly.
‘Guys, what are you doing back there?’ I asked.
‘Sorry,’ one of them said, sheepishly. ‘It’s just that he’s never heard of Bruce Springsteen.’
Before I could say anything, the other guy in spectacles nodded. ‘It’s true,’ he said, turning to the rest of the class. ‘I mean, have any of you guys ever heard of Bruce Springsteen?’
For a split second I was mortified, thinking the class would erupt in laughter at him. But my horror came a few seconds later, when I saw roughly half the class – about fifteen students – all murmuring and agreeing with him.
‘Seriously, I’ve never heard of the guy!’
‘Who is he?’ one of the girls asked. The guys at the laptop then showed them the Wikipedia entry. It was mind-boggling.
But who am I to judge? Most of us are so desperate to keep our fingers on the pulse, we often forget about the magic of discovering the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds at the local library decades after it was released, or the simple joy of ripping Joni Mitchell’s Blue to your laptop for the first time. For all I knew, these teenagers would go back home and listen to ‘Nebraska’ for the first time and have a sonic aneurism.
Coming to things late can be a thrilling experience, whether it’s music, literature, art, whatever. Hell, some people only discover their homosexuality in their thirties, forties or fifties, and I can only imagine what a horrific adolescent thrill that must be. I came to one of my newest favourite bands late: the New York four-piece Grizzly Bear, who create some of the most memorable and dizzying harmonies I’ve heard. The Dirty Projectors is another band I’m only discovering now, even though my friends have adored them for the past year. This doesn’t bother me nowadays. In fact, most of my music knowledge now comes from ‘Best Songs of the Year’ lists. I read through them, pick out what I like, and slowly, slowly, slowly, I begin to backtrack, happy in the knowledge that I’m the last one to make the discovery.