The Birthday Party

1 February 2018

I was obsessed with The Birthday Party in the late eighties. If only I could have applied that kind of focus and energy to anything else in the last thirty years.

I’m not entirely sure my childhood was as Gothic as it now seems; no one will ever know. It may have been more so. The family home was dark and cold in every sense. My parents fought constantly, as did my sisters, and I locked myself in my room with The Birthday Party. Their sound reflected the chaos and conflict surrounding me, at the same time as it offered a bohemian alternative to the stifling grimness.

I got into punk music when I was about thirteen. I particularly liked British punk. The Birthday Party pushed my taste, and I liked the fact that their music was artier than that of their bolshie British cousins. That they came from Melbourne was very exciting for me. I had grown up looking across vast oceans for cultural inspiration, so to find such innovative music made not so not far from my suburban home was a revelation. I would think, travelling through Melbourne on a rattling old W-class tram, Maybe in the late seventies Nick or Rowland or Tracy was on this tram, the exact same tram. The Birthday Party gave me a sense of hope that I might be able to participate in culture, and that being at the arse-end of the world wasn’t an artistic death sentence. My obsession with The Birthday Party would propel me to art school and the rest of my life.

I look back to that time knowing that I was about to be immersed in Melbourne’s dynamic art and music scenes, but from my bedroom in the suburbs it seemed as though everything had already been done. And this was before I encountered postmodern theory or was entrenched in the cultural malaise of Gen X. I’d first noticed punks in the streets of Melbourne in the early eighties, and at the age of eight had decided that when I grew up I would be a punk. By the time I was listening to punk music as a teenager, I knew that punk’s moment had passed and I was not at all tempted to adopt its tropes.

But once I became obsessed with The Birthday Party, my punk envy evolved into frustration that I never got to see them play at The Crystal Ballroom. The scene around that enchantingly named venue in the faded beach town of St Kilda was already legendary. I’d missed them by less than ten years, but at sixteen this was a lifetime – and no matter how you look at it, I couldn’t have been there aged eight.

I yearned for time travel. The tyranny of distance became a tyranny of time. I was soaked in melancholy, obsessing about a past that was geographically close but entirely lost to me. Although I was on the edge of adulthood and a hopeful future, I was absolutely preoccupied by a past I had missed. It felt like a great injustice that I never saw The Birthday Party play live.

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