Tote recall

21 January 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Imagine this nightmare scenario: you’re at a franchise pub, with all the wood panelled trimmings and remnants of the Old World jammed onto the walls, willy-nilly.  You know you’re there against your better judgement, thanks to a friends’ birthday, but endure it because she is a mate.  Then you play that little game with yourself; how long is long enough before I can leave and head down the road to a real pub that plays great live music?

Three soul-sinking hours later, you are teetering on the border of third-pint-blindness and silently screaming to get out of there.  The band then starts.  You hope in vain that this might provide some entertaining distraction, but it is all wishful thinking.  The band, a bunch of thinning but still long-haired, slightly paunchy 45 year-olds who won’t give up the Right To Rock, rip into it.  You’re dragged to the middle of the dance floor surrounded by drunken yobs who all start singing along to perennial favourites Fall Out Boy and Matchbox 20.  Then Bon Jovi.  Then you wish you had a gun.

If you think you’re night out can’t get any worse, it does.  Spectacularly.  You recognise with a sharp stab of horror, the opening lines to “We Built This City” by Jefferson Starship.  Yes, I’m afraid.  That. Very. Song.  While your skin crawls and re-crawls back over you again and again and you’re mortified, mortified just by the thought that you are standing there listening to this Paean of Bad. We have to ask ourselves, when did this bad, bad, bad song become ‘popular’ again and who had the gall to declare it as such?  Who made a pact with The Devil who in turn put the hex on all franchise pub cover band playlists…..wait a sec, maybe the forces of evil are a necessary evil after all.

How you wish to be woken up from this night terror.  Only this isn’t a nightmare.  This is a true-life event that occurred a couple of months ago at foresaid, unnamed but take-a-good-guess-which franchise pub.  Real life people.   Or more like Reality Live Music.  Coming to a pub near you.  Stay tuned.

As one wise wag put it, franchise pub cover bands are the telemarketers of the live music industry.  Or was that parking inspectors?

Fast forward to very recently, and another part of live music culture atoned for its sins and restored faith in music.  Imagine this: you’re standing in a crowd at a one-off, very popular venue, with posters of musos who played there plastered to the walls, willy-nilly.  It is a one of a kind venue dedicated to musicians who take the time and effort to produce something original.  However, the crowd will turn a blind eye on the occasional cover during a set for the sake of the collective spirit.  You’re standing there, pot in hand, not quite knowing what to expect.  You’ve heard rave reviews about this little heard-of act, and friends have highly recommended them.  So you stand there, wildly curious.  What you witness is one of the most original acts to brace these shores.  You watch, you listen and you can’t help but nod and move to the music. All the while you can’t keep your eyes off the mohawked, topless, rubber pants clad front man with a white geisha made-up face which is also splattered in red, and ripped pink lycra over his black rubber pants.  The front woman sings operetta, in a blonde wig and glam make up.  There is a cello player, an organist, a violinist, an electic guitar player, a bald buy in a suit and a drummer who could rival Keith Moon’s talent.  This is a big call and you’re willing to back it up.  They are a ten-piece band that could be described as punk opera, or orchestral psychedelia, or something that is altogether unidentifiable.  Yet their sound is so distinct.  This is Artistry with a capital A and it is what real musicians sound like.  Everyone around you feels the same way and at the end of the set, you yell out and clap wildly, appreciatively and happily.  You are enthralled that you are discovering a great new piece of music, with all the things that it is supposed to do.  Make you feel alive.  Not make your skin crawl.

This wasn’t a dream, fortunately.  That was a true-life event that happened at foresaid, unnamed and very popular live music venue.  It is a venue that nurtured its musicians and punters. Luckily for us, it still continues to do so.

Unlike The Tote.  That great venue, possibly the greatest live music venue in Melbourne, was forced to close its doors against its’ will, along with that great live sound and atmosphere that will now be lost forever.  Then, to put another nail in the coffin, the Arthouse told the world that they would meet their maker under the same circumstances as The Tote did.  Those great live music venues that foster and nurture originality, true and authentic musicianship had the sticky carpet pulled out from under them because they can’t pay bureaucratically excused, bumped up liquor licensing fees.  As a consequence, they now sleep with the fishes.

There is a moral to this story, and it all boils down to this: it is about your right to choose the music, and it’s medium and how you live with it.  Music is such a personal choice.  Don’t you define yourself, or at least a part of yourself, by music?  Have you ever stopped to think about how music is linked to the way you live? Does music live large or small in your daily life?  Are you one of those people who is woken up by the radio setting in your alarm clock or to that really annoying buzzing sound that fills you with real dread?  Does your social life evolve around going to live gigs?  Or do you make it a point to go out every so often and enjoy a few drinks, get down and get funky?  Where would you be if you didn’t?  Do you drive your car in total silence?  Do you get excited by discovering a brand new sound?  Discovering that great new band?

Imagine if you didn’t have those choices.  What would life be like for you then, hey?

You have to admit, you have a musical life.  At one point in your musical life, you wanted to be a rock star, didn’t you?  You can all name at least one favourite venue, or favourite DJ, or a favourite song, a favourite line from a song, or a favourite gig.  What is frightening is that the range of options for listening to live music, and any other forms of music, are being withdrawn thanks to a governing body who don’t understand just how pivotal, how important and how diverse music is, in all its’ genres, mediums, venues, cultures, purposes and reasons.

The only way that the long arm of bureaucracy will understand the importance of small and independent live venues is for us to educate them.  It shouldn’t have to be the case, but we are forced to defend a way of life that is now under serious threat.  Live music is a life force and music in general is as much a part of a person as, well, your hair, your speech, your indivisible self.  Speak up or forever hold your peace, people.  Or you’ll be condemned to a lifetime of Jefferson Starship.  Trust me, it’s on its way.

I will leave you on this note.  If the worst case scenario happens, and we are denied a way of listening to and developimg music, there is hope.  Punk was born out of deprivation, remember?

Kim Hellard is a Bachelor of Arts student at La Trobe University.