Gareth Liddiard is known as singer and guitarist for Melbourne-based rock band The Drones. In 2010, he put out a solo record, Strange Tourist. Ben Gook’s review of Strange Tourist appears in Kill Your Darlings Issue Four. For Killings, Ben reflects on Liddiard’s haunting ‘The Radicalisation of D’.
Here are The Drones playing a fierce cover of Kev Carmody’s ‘River of Tears’.
In 2009, I lived overseas. Seeing Melbourne-based band The Drones play a version of this was one of the most memorable experiences of that year. I stood absolutely still as a chill ran up along my neck. I began to shiver. The moment was particularly striking because it happened at a club in Berlin – a city where, for one, The Drones lived for a time, but, more importantly, a place where history comes to weigh on both visitor and resident alike. The version of ‘River of Tears’ they did that night was even longer and more confrontational than this YouTube version. A few thousand kilometres from Australia and a few months from my last time on Australian soil, this shot of my country’s colonial history was a potent reminder of the nature of both the nation’s founding and its continuation. Caught in my incessant consideration of Europe’s Holocaust, hearing ‘River of Tears’ reminded me of a genocide that was, at that moment, both closer and further away. For many Germans, as for many Australians, the past is a burden that they long to be rid of – but it just keeps returning. Liddiard, for one, is a songwriter and musician who is intent on reminding his listeners of the way history presses on into today.
On Strange Tourist, Liddiard’s debut solo album from last year, he introduces an Indigenous character in ‘The Radicalisation of D’. This is the sprawling 16-minute song that closes the album. It’s a song – if not a novella – of suburban anomie and angst, of David Hicks and others, of an underclass of neo-Nazis and Indigenous Australians. The first half of the song is related in a sing-song lilt, half-spoken as the guitar pulses in the background. The song is a kind of realism laden with horror, a phantasmagoria of the lumpenproletariat. The repetitive cycling of notes captures a ‘stuckness’ that we register in D’s life. Shitty flats. Bust ups with friends. Mates leaving for elsewhere. Nights and nights in front of the telly. Then D, the protagonist, comes to an even lower ebb.
Soon after that the work dries up
And D starts drinking hard
Starts drinking cheap cask wine with old blackfellas
Living in the park
One has a tattoo of a swastika made with a candle,
Soap and spoons
Says he’s half caste and that full bloods prefer
Petrol over goon
Says he was brought up on a mission,
Then became a Viet Vet
Ain’t got a single tooth to chew
So D gives him a bayonet
He has white scars between his knuckles,
Or what’s left of them and says
‘See I’m white too,
I just cannot drink inside the way you like to’
The Indigenous character is here not as a token but as a live presence, a guy going through the same muck as whitey: conscription, cheap booze, backyard tatts. Only, it’s worse if you’re a blackfella from a mission. This blackfella splits himself off from others, not a ‘full blood’ but a ‘half caste’, not petrol but goon. But he’s also not one of them lonely white blokes smashing a slab watching V8 Supercars.
What both songs share is an emphasis on the snaking of history through to the present. History isn’t a picturesque past here, of puffed-up colonial buffoonery and noble savages. The colonial violence back then has long been aestheticised and discussed in public culture: from the Bulletin to The Fatal Shore, The Proposition and The Drones’ own Gala Mill album. But too rarely do we get alerted to the ongoing violence towards Indigenous people in 2011. Rarer still is a forthright connection made between the two: then and now, there and here.
The noise and violence of The Drones’ cover of Carmody’s song, and the yielding of the pulsing notes to unhinged noise in Liddiard’s solo number are absolutely essential to the stories they tell. The noise rears up, a kind of unbidden presence – a history of realising again and again that you’re black: ‘Running from two centuries/oppression’s loaded gun’. A history of being reminded that you live in a country with a violent, nasty foundation.
And yet. My sketchy memoir of Berlin and bands repeats something that Chris Healy analyses in his book Forgetting Aborigines. This is what he calls, following others, the ‘will to forget’ – a postcolonial amnesia. White Australians are always ‘forgetting’ and then performing their profound remembering of Indigenous history in Australia, as if they never knew. A coming to consciousness. A jolt, a shock. We were never told. Rubbish – you knew all along.
When past and present are brought together, though, that forgetting is made difficult. I think Carmody does well in his ‘River of Tears’ to recall the past and present of oppression by situating the story in suburban Marrickville. For here is another common oversight that’s not overlooked in ‘Radicalisation of D’ – Indigenous Australians largely live in urban areas, although those that do are not thought of as the ‘real’ native population of Australia. The ‘Aborigines’ are in the outback. The ‘Indigenous’ are in the cities. These two terms stand on either side of a conception of modernity – the rural, the urban, the country, the city. But Carmody, The Drones and Liddiard won’t let the categories be divided. The river of tears flows in two directions.
In 2010, I was in audiences seeing The Drones play ‘River of Tears’ and Gareth Liddiard play ‘The Radicalisation of D’ in Melbourne. Home again, I shivered again.
Ben Gook is a Melbourne-based writer whose music criticism has been published by Mess+Noise, Rolling Stone, The Vine and The Big Issue.