At a time when the program for the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival has just been released and, groan, it’s pretty much more of the same-old middlebrow same-old as usual, it’s great to be able to report that Australia’s first ever Rock & Roll Writers Festival at the Brightside in Brisbane over the weekend of April 2/3 – which was conceived in the first place because this significant sector of the book market gets short shrift from the typical run of snooty writers festivals – was a raging success. Well, it was from my perspective, and I’ve no doubt it was equally so from the perspective of everybody else that was there too, whether as a participant and panelist, or reader and audience-member. And if, as a bold inaugural event, it was less successful financially as such inaugural events tend to be, hopefully its flying start has to portend well that that momentum is sufficient to propel it into becoming an annual event…
In the lead-up to the weekend, having survived co-organiser Leanne de Souza casting me in this interview here as a septuagenerian sex symbol (when asked, “What kind of people should come along? Is it just for music fans? Should we bring our grandma?” she replied, “I don’t know your grandma, but mine would probably get a crush on Clinton Walker”!!), I was wont to invoke the legendary 1973 rock writers convention in Memphis, which was the first of its type held anywhere, ever. The tall stories that surround this event are legion (read about it here), or at least the writers are: legends like Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe, Lenny Kaye, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Greg Shaw and Stanley Booth. This was the dawn of rock criticism, and all on the tab of Stax Records, with a special showcase gig by Big Star; or maybe it was just a clever way to launch the band, who were signed to Stax subsidiary label Ardent.
I’d like to think that more than forty years later and half a world away in Brisbane in 2016, we did alright, and certainly, as opposed to the all-male line-up in Memphis in ’73, it was refreshing to have such a female-skew. There was a lot of laughs, a bit of serious stuff, a few tears, a lot of boozing, a lot more boozing and – well – even more boozing.
Brisbane itself was wonderful, the city has a real buzz about it, of people going out, experiencing music and having a good time, which is something that Sydney could learn a real lesson from. Or rather let’s hope that the lock-out laws that Brisbane too is about to adopt won’t destroy it the way Sydney is now a ghost town.
It was great to catch up with old friends and to make new friends, and to be turned on to writing I hadn’t read and to celebrate and investigate writing that warrants it. It was great to meet Chris Salewicz, the festival’s sole international visitor and a great writer and top fella with a seemingly bottomless store of yarns about the golden age of the NME in the 70s, Jamaica and Bob Marley, the Clash and so much else. It was great to catch up with Brisbane natives and long-standing friends and colleagues like Andrew Stafford, Ritchie Yorke and Noel Mengel, and others I know in Brisbane like John Busby and Andrew McMillen, and some I hadn’t met before like Sam Wagan Watson, Leanne Kelly and Bec Mac. It was great to meet the two wild women from the Gold Coast who give Bec Mac a run for her money, Sally Breen and Nikki McWatters; and to see young ones and especially younger women like Jenny Valentish, Kate Hennessy and Jess Ribeiro shifting things up a bit. I might not have got to break bread with Lester Bangs, or see Big Star in their prime, but I was pretty happy anyway, and to anyone whose panel I missed or who I didn’t get the opportunity to get to know better, well, that just leaves us something to look forward to next time…
Stand-out line/anecdote of the weekend for me was from Ritchie Yorke, who recalled how as a young DJ on Brisbane radio in the early 60s, he was told, after spinning a black American soul side, not to play that ’nigger shit’ any more, and how that was what made his mind up to get outta town: it resonated for me since it was a similar if more politely/covertly-put sentiment that drove me out of the mainstream press as recently as the early 1990s.
Total props to Leanne de Souza and Joe Woolley for making it all happen. Read more post-mortems here, here, here and here.