Sunday, January 9, 2011

Smog, Rock Bottom Risers and opportunities for us all. - Repost of a piece originally posted 23/04/2007

For some reason this old blog piece came to mind this morning and wouldn't leave. I was reminded about some intimate conversations that came out of it, friends sharing their own stories, some tearfully. I was reminded of how much I also loved Smog's album "A river ain't too much to love". It was constantly on the cd player and it now also sits amongst other records in my vinyl collection .
I thought that now would be an appropriate time to revisit this piece. Part love letter to the album, part recollection of my past and part comment on the responsibilities attached to education. It personally reads as a little disjointed in parts, but out of respect to the piece and the time it was written, I will leave it intact albeit with a few very minor changes.


Sometimes I think of where I came from and where I am now, and I don't know whether to feel pride or awkwardness. I started with nothing and now I have something, but what does that all mean? Have I left behind all I know and all I was, only to arrive someplace else, someplace full of strangers? Has my life become something better, or just something different?

Bill Callahan (also known as Smog), seems to understand. He talks of those close to him helping him transcend who he was and then leaving them behind: 'I left my mother, I left my father, I left my sisters too. I left them standing on the banks …they pulled me out of this mighty, mighty river' (from 'Rock bottom riser'). The track 'rock bottom riser' is an acknowledgement and an ode - 'I brought this guitar to pledge my love, to pledge my love to you. I am a rock bottom riser and I owe it all to you.' Unfortunately sometimes when we change and rise above, not everybody understands and Bill knows this: 'Why is everybody looking at me, like there is something fundamentally wrong? Like I'm a southern bird, that stayed north too long' (from 'Palimpsest'). He seems to understand my dilemma.

The album is called 'a river ain't too much to love' by Smog. It is sparse and warm. When you listen to it, you feel like a friend is confiding in you. It makes you feel special and connected. Every time I listen to it, I tend to reflect on my life and myself. I have always felt different, like I was meant for something more, something better and bigger. Arrogance at any early age?, I don't know.

I grew up in Collingwood, an inner city suburb of Melbourne. Unlike now, then it was full of factories, migrants and the poor. I lived on a housing commission estate and like many others, had to deal with the general issues around growing up and going to school, as well as issues all to common in environments such as ours;  families struggling to deal with feelings of disappointment, helplessness, poverty, failure, bullying, anger, abuse and alcoholism. I left school at 16, part way through year 10. I worked in a shoe factory for a year and a half and then started an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker. After six months into the apprenticeship I realised that this was not the life for me and I decided to go back to school, despite pressure from some family members not to. It was not long after I returned to school that we were taken on an excursion to a local textile factory. We were given a tour and told how the textile industry had changed over time. We were also told how much money we could make a week working there. For 16 year old's (I was a bit older), who mostly came from families living on unemployment/sickness benefits or low working wages, it was impressive amount. I recall many eyes ablaze at the thought of all of that money, and on a weekly basis! We were told that we were at, or approaching the age where we could leave school and enter the workforce if we wanted to. Any interested people, and there were a few, could speak to our tour guide after the tour (who also happened to be the foreman).    

I remember feeling angry at this, outrage in fact! This wasn't an educational outing, it was a recruitment drive. It was the academic establishment offering us up as factory fodder, because they felt that it was all we could ever be. They didn't seem to have the inkling to push us further academically, or perhaps the ability or funding to do so. In my experience in the factory environment I found it repetitive, monotonous, the pay terrible, and on only a very few occasions did I have any feelings of worth or accomplishment. I realise that this is not the same for all, but surely the education system shouldn't just give up. Or worse, make a judgement that this should be the calling of some students, and then whitewash it as an educational field trip.

Children in low socio-economic areas already have so much stacked against them, that we can't just give up on them because we lack vision. Sure it can be tough for all involved, some kids manifest their home frustrations through aggression at school, some have been convinced by parents that they won't amount to much anyway and are wasting time at school when they could be out 'there' earning a wage. The education system has a responsibility to reach out and ensure all receive a chance in life to be the best they can, to realise their potential. We need to ensure that we are creating equal opportunity for all to succeed. Especially in times like these where IR laws are disadvantaging workers even more, with lower wages and conditions. Historically the poor always come off the worse for wear. We need special programs not only for the academically challenged, but also for those who have challenging home lives that may affect their ability to concentrate and achieve their full potential, we need to reach those that do not believe that they can achieve or even deserve to. We need to inspire and raise up the hearts and hopes of those around us. As members of a 'civilised society', don't we have a responsibility to each other to support, love and encourage? Education is fundamentally important in life. Programs that assist the disadvantaged to reach their potential may exist out there, I hope so, I just know that I didn't see or experience them myself when I was at school. 

I stop typing and turn my head toward the stereo. The song 'say valley maker' is playing. The lyrics resonate with me; 'bury me in water, and I will geyser, bury me in fire and I'm gonna phoenix'. I understand the sentiment. I will be all I can no matter what you try to do to stop me. I will succeed because I am strong of will and mind, I am focused and I am driven to do so and above all I am stubborn. I let my thoughts return to the music that is playing. The simpleness of the words contrast with the richness and depth of their meaning. I smile. The track 'Let me see the colts' starts with 'Knocked on your door at dawn, with a spark in my heart'. What wonderful imagery. I love Bill Callahan's use of language. It's the language of the everyday person. He sometimes repeats phrases and ideas to stress their importance or the person's inability to express themselves any other way. Just like real life, just like myself at times. He casually mentions religion, and in a few simple lines reduces the arguments around it to a basic and honest level: '… god is a word, and the argument ends there.' (from 'I feel like the mother of the world').

These are but some of many the moments of beauty that the album is infused with. One of the most enduring aspects of 'a river ain't too much to love' is the ability it gives listeners to explore the layers of meaning and sound over repeated listens. I personally thank Smog/ Bill Callahan for the hope he provides in the lyric 'no matter how far wrong you've gone, you can always turn around' (from 'I'm new here'). I guess I could turn around and return to whence I came… but would I fit back in? do I want to? No. I have become a different person, a better person than the one I was and I am closer in becoming the person I have wanted to be for so long. Albums like this give me cause for reflection and in doing so allow me to realise just how far I have come on my journey and just how much I have achieved. They remind me to celebrate. They also provide comfort in letting me know that while I may feel isolated at times I am not alone. As for the sadness I sometimes feel during remembrance of what I have left behind, I have learnt that we can't take it all with us and somethings are better left behind. I have made sure that the things most important to me aren't left behind, like the ones I love, my mother, my father, my sisters, my brother and my friends too. As for my transformation, I owe it all to us.

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