Friday, March 5, 2010


There is an old joke that if you a play a Country & Western song backwards you get your dog back, your pickup back and your girl back. The conventional wisdom regarding popular love songs is that they are all either boy meets girl, boy loses girl, or boy gets girl back again. 

As we drove up the Silver City Highway listening to vintage pop on the car CD, the succession of three songs prompted questions. The songs were the Sixties classic “1-2-3” by Len Barry, Bryan Ferry’s lounge makeover of the jazz standard “These Foolish Things”, and the Beach Boys’ “Break Away”. 

As my son and I sang along, I was thinking well, yes, “1-2-3” is a classic boy meets girl song: One and one are two/ I know you love me and oh-oh/ How I love you. Then there was Bryan Ferry crooning the opening lines of nostalgia for lost love: Oh will you never let me be?/ Oh will you never set me free?, remembering all the tiny details of the time with the departed lover, down to Gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow/ Wild strawberries only seven francs a kilo.

Those two were definitely boy meets girl, and boy loses girl. But then came “Break Away”. The Beach Boys are probably contested territory these days. They were too white bread ever to appeal to a pomo gen - although that of course does not rule out a fanatical sub-culture I have not heard of - but they did re-make popular music in the Sixties to an extent that they commanded the respect of the Beatles. They wrote infectious pop, they sang harmonies of wonder, like the Beatles they continually innovated and progressed, and unlike many acts now their innovations went far deeper than image make-overs.

More than anything else, they spoke of the good life in postwar California. There was sun, surf and fast cars, and there was plenty of love to made with the Californian Girls. Early songs like “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun Fun Fun” developed into the more complex choral orchestral “Good Vibrations”, but as the Sixties ended, so did the run of Beach Boys hits. There was one more though, “Break Away”, in 1970, and although it had their trademark sound and harmonies, it was very different in temper.

It begins: Time will not wait for me/ Time is my destiny/ Why change the part of me/ that has to be free, and while the song would appear to be about now each day/ is filled with the love/ that very same love/ that passed me by, it remains ambiguous whether the narrator has found love, or gotten over the idea of it: And here's the answer I found instead/ Found out it's in my head.

“Break Away” is a different kind of song, perhaps not about finding or losing love, but about being freed from the hold and the sadness love can bring: a freedom song. There are of course many similar songs: breathing in the freedom of release from a dead or moribund relationship is a common theme. Songs such as the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is”, Noel Coward’s “I Travel Alone”, and the Church classic “Under the Milky Way”, and many others, testify to a life after love, beyond it, and a relishing of the freedom of release from its bonds.

As our small black car sped north through the sun and barren land, a red earth of sparse scrub and stunted gums, it seemed to me that rather than three kinds of love song, there are only two: that the boy meets girl and boy loses girl and boy gets girl back again are all one kind of song, of seeking and finding and getting and re-getting the union of love; while the other, albeit rarer kind of song, is about the obverse, of freedom from love’s union, or, as Coward put it, freedom “from love’s illusion”. Given that, are there only two, not three, kinds of love song: songs of attraction, and songs of release; songs of union and of disunion; of the security of the couple and the freedom of the one; of a community of two and the individual of one. 

It might have been the outback summer heat - it probably was the heat, which worked its way into the car despite the best efforts of the air conditioning at full throttle - but I could not help but associate further on this idea, and suspect that in love songs we are looking at a classic diametric opposition, or binary, of community/individual. 

Einstein came to mind then, his lifelong attempt to formulate a Unified Field Theory, to join together the sub-atomic forces of his E=MC2 with the gravitational forces that govern the behaviour of the cosmos, into a single grand Theory of Everything. String Theory purports to do so, though no-one seems in any way sure it actually does: that’s the nature of the beast, so it seems, when you are trying for the big one, the single god-like glance that takes in all.

The conjecture came next to me that we are all walking Unified Field theories, carrying within our skins and cells and the folds of the brains that totter along atop our bones the very truths that the greatest minds have been seeking Out There. The source of this wild conjecture: the nature of the popular love song, with its diametrical opposites of love/beyond love, union/disunion, community/individual. The thesis: is not the popular love song also the grand universal force of magnetic attraction and repulsion, of coming together, and of spinning off on a lone trajectory, writ down in verse? 

And is it not entirely apposite that in the popular love song such immensities should be casually and quotidianly encoded, as they are the stories of the struggle - however facile we might often find the wording, and banal the tune - of our species to find love, and safety and comfort, and create a place between two people in which the species might reproduce itself and raise its young? Is not every love song in its own way part of the epic of finding love and making love and making a future generation; and is not the journey of love just as Odysseyan as the perilous travels of the sperm upriver to the waiting egg, or that of the child down the birth canal, a Stygian journey, and, when the child’s voice is ultimately heard, an Orphic triumph? 

Fairly wild conjecturing indeed, granted, entirely appropriate, I noted then and there in my driver’s seat, for an overheated head on a track of melting tar in a hot black car hurtling, so it felt, ever closer towards the sun. 

I had felt a bit odd all day anyway, it had to be admitted. Not so much after we began driving westward from the Country Comfort Motel in Hay, to an almost unseemly prosperous-looking Mildura, where we lunched under vines in a dandy bistro, but certainly from when we filled up at a forlorn roadhouse outside Wentworth. When I went inside to pay the woman behind the counter possessed the pathos of all human struggle in the rivulets of her face. She was about sixty, intelligent-looking but careworn, pushed out to the verge of the comfortable world by powerful forces, by destiny, fate. It wasn’t so much the lines in her face but that it seemed to be cracking apart in the heat, like a a Dutch master seen up close as little more than a yellowed shellack of a million tiny cracks.
‘Road up okay?’ I asked, taking a bottle of water from the chugging fridge.
‘Yes. You’ll be there in three or four hours.’
‘Hotter today.’ I handed her my credit card.
‘Forty later they say.’
‘We’re going on to the Flinders after Broken Hill, camping trip.’
She glanced out at the car, at my son sitting in the front seat. ‘That’s nice. It’s pretty there.’
I signed the credit card chit, and an unseen little gadget printed a tax receipt. The slip of paper hung in the air an odd half-beat between her wrinkled fingers and mine. Our single human transaction was almost complete.
‘See you later,’ I said. 
‘Yes,’ she agreed, though we wouldn’t. 

I went back outside and we drove on. For much of the trip Jack had been talking about a computer game that fascinates him, and that apparently fascinates many of the pre- and adolescent males of the developed world, called Grand Theft Auto. He had talked about it on many occasions, and knew it was not a subject that much interested me, but such was his evangelical zeal for me to share at least in a little of the spirit, that he had taken to telling me the story of each of its cast of criminal characters, and try to extract a soupcon of comic worth from them, if not morality of a sort.

The story he told as we drove away from that roadhouse was of a character called Vic Vance, born into a poor black family, who joins the army to support the family. Despite his best intentions, he is wrongly accused of possessing drugs in the barracks - left in his locker by another soldier - and dishonourably discharged. Desperate to earn money and hot with vengeance against the man who ruined his military career, he becomes a gun for hire for criminal gangs, and in the course of the various stages and levels of the game, kills other gangsters in their multitudes. According to my son, who has finely calibrated sense of right and wrong, Vic’s past makes it okay for him to be a criminal himself: he had no choice.

While replying that it is never okay to be a criminal - the stamped and approved parental response - I considered the parallel position of Michael in The Godfather film, who never wanted to join in his family’s criminal activities, but becomes drawn in nonetheless via the morally very defensible position of saving the life of his father from would-be killers. By the time that first chapter of The Godfather saga is complete, there is no prospect of Michael being able to return to any legitimate life. He shoots down in cold blood the men who plotted to murder his father, and ends up having his brother-in-law strangled for having beaten his wife - Michael’s sister - and for complicity in the machine-gun assassination of Michael’s brother Sonny.

In all of these murky moral matters, I realised, there is a duality involved, another binary opposition, between what is desired - legitimacy, the doing of the right thing by human society and its laws - and illegitimacy, the doing of the right thing by one’s criminal family, however tarnished their own story, and illegal the acts required to be done. 

This gave cause for further reflection. Was I looking here at another case of union/disunion? That is, inclusion in a relationship, this time with society in general, on the part of Vic and of Michael, and disunion, where another calling, a loyalty to family, had led to them spurning that union for the disunion of criminality, the tainted wealth and phantom freedom of the outlaw, the hunted life in the shadow of the gun?

It made me wonder about works of art, books, and whether the same principle applied, that at the centre of other human stories lay the same direct opposition of union/disunion? I scanned a mental gallery, the Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Van Gogh’s starry night sky, Warhol’s soup cans and Elvis with his six-gun, Cindy Sherman’s movie-in-a-snapshot pix and the weirds of Diane Arbus, Damien Hirst’s cut-up cadavers... could I force everything, all art, shoe-horn it into my thesis - it had already madly become that - my own Incredible String Theory?

Probably not. Just musings on the road. But curious, I thought, that this binary theory had come to me through digital music recorded to CD from my computer, another binary, this time the code, the very basis of how a computer works. And Jack’s binary of morality had come to him through a computer game - the binary code again. And of course we apprehend everything through the on-off switches of our synapses, our in-built binary system; as we are ourselves the definitive binary, with the On switch of life, the Off switch of death. 

We stopped at the one habitation on the Highway worth the word, at a place called Coombah, which might well be an indigenous word for “no shade anywhere”, and Jack nipped into the roadhouse for an ice cream.

Two hours later we were at our destination, the Silver City of Broken Hill, unique and beautiful to my eyes, of solid stone structures built by mineral wealth, of the great history of the labor struggle and the tradition of the miners, of the Social Democratic Club; of a massive plateau of slag like an altar to profit, and at its base the crosshatching of pretty tree-lined streets of miners cottages, and running away in all directions a desert of such ruddy pink beauty that it has drawn unto itself its own sect of painters, the Brushmen of the Bush. 

As Jack splashed in the motel pool in the evening and the hotted up cars of the hoons raced up and back down an endless Argent Street, I sat on a plastic chair thinking I love my son, but I do not live with him: destiny. It was destiny too, my own song’s next verse, that I should have been fortunate enough to find new love, and father a new child. Perhaps then the only real binary of love is chance: the bad luck, and the good; or is it taking your good luck, as well as your bad?

I put my head back and looked up into a dark sky where I might have seen written in the light-points of stars the words of a sublime song of destination and destiny:

And it’s something quite peculiar
Something shimmering and white,
That leads you here despite your destination
Under the Milky Way tonight.

-Larry Buttrose


  1. Hello Larry,

    Bits of this would have been great in the Broken Hill website - ( ) well done.


  2. poignant - reflective and some great images

  3. Thank you Rae - I'll offer it to them then - and thank you J.R. for your appreciative comments.