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Artful Living

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How do writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians get by in other cities of the world? Asprey and his partner, priced out of Sydney, hoist their backpacks and set off for a trip around the world -- on an artist's budget — to find out.

It’s 10:30pm on a warm and gusty night in November 2010. I’m sitting in the Rowda Ya-Habibi Lebanese take-away on King Street, Newtown, in Sydney’s Inner West. I order a vegan falafel roll and a ginger beer. The Lebanese lady behind the counter looks at my hands with a motherly frown. I nod and go wash up with soap. My fingertips are black after two hours in Bob Gould’s bookshop, that notorious dust jungle of a million volumes. I’ve just bought The Portable Conrad, Donald E. Westlake’s Kahawa, Clive Sinclair’s Blood Libels, and Flashman in the Great Game. The bookshop has been my late night lurk for years, a place to zone out after writing fiction, but tonight’s visit was a farewell. These paperbacks are for travelling. After five years in Sydney’s Inner West, as rents climb, my girlfriend and I are putting everything into storage and preparing to go backpacking on a global prowl.

I look out the take-away door and spot Mitch Tucker, a young Sydney composer. I haven’t seen him for a few years. We used to work together as waiters with an agency. Mitch is probably 30, but has a slight physique which makes him look 18. The street wind has made a mess of his thin brown hair. I call him into the take-away and ask him what he’s doing.

“I’m unemployed,” he says. “It’s been two months. For a while I was working in telemarketing as what they call a ‘fulfillment enabler.’ Guess what? It was unfulfilling. Now I’m growing my own veggies. Tomatoes. Aiming for self-sufficiency.”

“You surviving financially?”

“Hmmm. I’m living in the arse-end of Marrickville. Things are okay for now. It’s funny running into you,” says Mitch, “because I just saw our old mate Patrick in Enmore.”

I ask him which Patrick he means. We’d worked with two of them in the waitering game.

“The actor.”

“They’re both actors.”

“The tall one.”

Both Patricks are pretty tall, but I figure he means the redheaded Irishman who wears the black sailor cap.

“He’s in a new TV ad for something,” says Mitch. “Burgers, I think. He still won’t act gratis. He’s principled. He’s still waitering.”

Mitch stares at the mountains of baklava and halva and almond rolls under the display glass. The Rowda Ya-Habibi has faux-marble Formica tabletops, a blasting air conditioner, and a framed poster depicting the espresso exhibition at the 1906 Esposizione Internazionale di Milano. The take-away fronts a classier ‘cushion room’ with belly dancing every night, but by 10.30pm the cushion room has closed. Mitch asks for a baklava daisy with black coffee. A pretty undergraduate with a silky black Louise Brooks bob comes in for a $2 spinach roll, smiles at Mitch and me, then vanishes forever into the warm night.

"It's a city of dreams," Mitch says sadly.

“Been composing?” I say.

“Mainly gardening,” says Mitch. “Tonight I did a course in worm farming. It doesn’t feel real these days unless I’m in the mud.”

I suggest he finds a way to combine his gardening with his music.

“Amazing! I was thinking exactly the same thing today. And if there wasn’t already a boring band called Sound Garden that’s what I’d call the project.”

In our waitering days we’d kill time on the job arguing about music. Mitch is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium with a major in composition. He performs aleatorically, with prepared piano and rocks and buckets of water. He idolises John Cage. Me? I like jazz, hot and cool. Mitch used to call jazz “ego music”, but tonight he tells me I should feel victorious because he’s been turned on to Thelonious Monk.

“Somebody dumped 500 gigabytes of jazz onto my external hard drive. My five hundred favourite pieces got lost in the crowd. Tell me – do I really need every note Grant Green ever recorded?”

“Probably not. But you need every note of Monk,” I say. “I was at a gig earlier tonight at the Con coffee shop. My mate Warwick Alder playing with the Craig Scott Quintet. Recording session.”

Let me flashback three hours. The Sydney Conservatorium’s café has reverb-absorbing carpets and plush blue curtains. About 30 people turn up to listen, mostly greying musos or students in their early 20s, including a couple of girls who can’t resist fiddling with an iPad during the session. Two student engineers monitor the live mix.

Craig Scott, the bassist and leader, has been gigging and teaching in Sydney for decades. He’s short, bald, and soft-spoken. He introduces his new tunes with their temporary titles: ‘New Waltz Thingy’, ‘New Four-Four Thing', etc. He asks the audience to stay silent during the performance. No clapping or hooting after solos. No applause after the tune until ten seconds have elapsed.

“The new tunes are great,” a smoker says outside the Con during the break, “but it’s not exactly Night of the Cookers in there, is it? Seems a bit institutional.”

There’s an evening breeze. The white shells of the Sydney Opera House are a few hundred metres down Macquarie Street.

“What you need for this kind of gig,” I say, “is a Pee Wee Marquette to warm up the crowd.”

“The dwarf M.C. from Birdland?”

“Lester Young called him half a motherfucker. If the musos didn’t tip him Pee Wee would mispronounce their names.”

The smokers start talking about the HBO show Treme. It’s the real shit. I leave the Con in the company of a trombone player named Pietro. We walk through Hyde Park. Pietro has been playing jazz in Sydney for 20 years. Like me, he’s been doing postgraduate study to finance his work. A place in a postgraduate program can keep you temporarily afloat. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford to write and live in Sydney in the long term.

“It’s impossible to make music here, too, but somehow people manage,” says Pietro. “They teach part-time or repair instruments.”

We talk about the incredible young players who have graduated from the Con in the last ten years. There’s the alto saxophonist Dave Jackson from Trio Apoplectic, the drummer Evan Mannell, the Waples brothers...

“But they’ve got nowhere to play,” says Pietro. “The state entertainment licensing laws killed the scene years ago. The Hotels Association prefers poker machines to live music. But now the government has relaxed the laws maybe it’s starting up again.”

There are not a lot of gigs to go around. The Sound Lounge, for a few years the only dedicated (and legal) jazz club in Sydney, is a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of the Seymour theatre complex. It’s about a kilometre northeast of Gould’s Books in the vicinity of Sydney University. I always turn up whenever Bernie McGann, Australia’s greatest living sax player, performs with his pianoless quartet.

The most exciting new jazz club is Venue 505 on Cleveland Street in Surry Hills. Until recently 505 operated illegally out of a loft on grim windy Elizabeth Street. You’d pay ten bucks to sit, drink beer, listen to all kinds of experimental music. In the new location, which used to be a brothel, they’re hosting gigs six nights a week. I held my 30th birthday party at 505 a few months ago.

“It’s the venue that creates the scene, not the other way round,” says Pietro. We shake hands. He heads up Oxford Street and I catch a train to Newtown.

King Street in Newtown, Sydney - Photo Credit: Matthew Asprey

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