“I’m watching you watch over me / And I’ve got the greatest view from here.” Silverchair, ‘The Greatest View’.
A former musician who is also a former politician, a man orphaned in early adulthood, introduces the concert’s next performer. The crowd gives a cheer littered with distracted whistles, the kind of drawn out applause that comes from a long afternoon in front of a festival stage; or does the cheer sound tentative? A harp sounds. A man says, “Hello,” and a prodigal son is returned to Australia.
On the YouTube video, Daniel Johns is blurred through the strings of the harp when he says “Hello” to the crowd. The blur contains the five years since Silverchair’s last shows, before the band announced “an indefinite hibernation”. The harp, played by an unidentified accompanist, is in the foreground of the video. Johns is seated at a piano. He adjusts himself on the stool and looks to the audience. “Hello.” The word is playful but also alien in its form, elongated on the ‘e’ and accentuated on the ‘o’. “Heehl-OH.” It’s a greeting from someone unused to this particular greeting. A clown disguise on shyness, a fan might suggest; a microphone check, or a precursor to the song that is to follow? The video is titled: ‘Daniel Johns covers ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at triple j’s Beat The Drum.’ The nature of the “Hello” is familiar to me, I think because I spent some time in my teen years hanging around my older sister and her musician friends, for whom speaking came second to playing, but possibly only because I spent enough time in those years watching Daniel Johns and Silverchair. Whatever the reason, my response to Johns’s “Hello” is the same: There you are. I know you.
From where does the “Hello” come? From whence? From Daniel Johns’s mouth. From an outdoor concert at The Domain in Sydney to mark the fortieth anniversary of a radio station. From January 16, 2015, but also from my childhood. (A seventh-grade bully stands at the front of the classroom during a round-robin trivia game. “What’s the first song on Silverchair’s Frogstomp?” he asks. I raise my hand. He scoffs, “How do you know that?”) From Johns’s childhood: Johns was twelve when Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was released, and when it topped Triple J’s third annual Hottest 100 listener poll, in 1991. From grunge, which allowed Silverchair (then: silverchair) to win a competition held by Triple J and SBS in 1994. From a frontman whose band was labelled “Nirvana in pyjamas” by Australian media and appeared to spend some effort distancing itself from blinding stars. (“But when we are compared to Nirvana, it really fucking pisses me off, because none of us even own Nirvana records,” Johns said in an interview with UK magazine Metal Hammer in May 1997.)
From the seat of a piano beside a harp, instruments opposed to the thrashed guitars and untrained voices of grunge, a cousin genre of punk. Johns’s version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is slow and the emphasis of his piano chords are on the second and fourth beats of the bar, a style that brings to mind the swelling rhythms of The Beach Boys’ baroque-pop, drawn from the to-and-fro of medieval folk music. There’s a held pause between the first bridge and chorus, and one between the first chorus and second verse, in the style of musical theatre that wants its audience to clap or laugh at a punch line. Johns sings in the ornate style of 1990s R&B, moving from a quavering chest voice to a strong head voice, to use the terms of vocal training. Many influences that might suggest an embrace of history instead of punk’s rejection of it. He embellishes that iconic bridge – “Hello, hello, hello, how low?” – with many more “Hello”s, a somersault of “Hello”s. Or is he singing, “How low?” And then a pause for the punch line to hit home.
Johns says “Hello” from a castle on a cliff, his home. I don’t remember where I first heard or read about Johns’s house on a cliff in Newcastle, also his childhood hometown. It was likely around the time of Silverchair’s fourth album, Diorama, in 2002. He wrote the songs for that album during a period in which he didn’t leave the house due to depression and anxiety, I heard. I dreamed up a lone mansion on a hill. Footage of an at-home interview with a German MTV host to promote Diorama reveals the inside of Johns’s house and a view over Newcastle, out to the ocean. The house looks too plain but also familiar: there is a grand piano in the corner of a large open lounge room with peach-coloured carpet. No spiral staircase, no looming darkness. The colours of Johns’s house in my mind were set by the colours of Silverchair’s music videos of the 1990s: black, shimmering blue and green, the deep red of his guitar.
In the video for the 1997 single ‘Cemetery’, the first of Silverchair’s singles to feature a string section (or any instrument other than guitars and drums), Johns and his band-mates perform inside a partially demolished apartment block, lit in tones of blue, violet and amber. Johns looks over the edge of the third-storey compartment he inhabits, down into the blackness below. He sings: “I need a change, not to imitate but to irritate.” In the video for ‘Ana’s Song (Open Fire)’, a single from 1999’s Neon Ballroom, Johns crouches on a rock at the edge of the ocean, the waves licking the rocks below. The rock on which Johns stands is a ledge, the ocean a long way down. This is the cliff of my imagining. In that video, Johns is pale and thin, recovering from anorexia. In an interview for the 2007 SBS series Great Australian Albums, produced by Mushroom Films, Johns said of his experience with anorexia: “It cultivates itself and grows and grows and grows. And before you know it, it’s not about that any more, it’s about… you’ve got it. You’ve got anorexia and you can’t stop it.”
I was sixteen when the story of Johns’s eating disorder was told in the media. That year I lost ten kilos my body didn’t really have to lose and began a lengthy course of antidepressants. I went to see Silverchair play at the Brisbane Convention Centre with a group of friends, including my girlfriend. I let go of her hand to move further into the crowd alone. Daniel Johns wore a glittering silver shirt and spat on the stage between songs; his thin face was beaded with sweat. He gave me no answers.
I once was told a rumour in which Johns gave an interview about his eating disorder to a major newspaper in exchange for the paper burying another story about Johns and his friend and song-writing collaborator, the producer Paul Mac. What was that supposedly buried story? Does it matter? Does it matter if the rumour was false? What mattered most was what the man telling me the rumour, a magazine editor some twenty years my senior, wanted to be true. His eyes were hungry for it; I was mostly indifferent at the time, though I suppose I’ve remembered it. In the world of band interviews and magazine gossip, music videos and stage shows, there is no truth. Not really. A man says “Hello” on a stage and already a lie has been told, and one heard. Or perhaps that should be: a truth has been told and a separate truth heard. Amongst my high school friends around the time of Neon Ballroom, Silverchair’s queerness was asserted by Johns’s emotional and therefore feminine displays, and ridiculed. It didn’t matter that Johns didn’t openly identify as queer, but of course that isn’t the whole picture of the outcomes of queer visibility. I sat with my friends and ate nothing for lunch. The truths are ours and ours alone.
The man who introduces Johns to the stage at the Triple J concert is Peter Garrett, former singer for Midnight Oil and former Australian Labor Party member of the House of Representatives. Garrett stands between the foldback speakers, without his old band or any elected officials behind him. His attire is casual: not the suits of his political days but blue jeans and a black and white satin shirt, an outfit he might have worn on stage at some point in the three decades his band was active. He might have worn this while peering fiercely at a festival audience, while shouting and dancing wildly. But now he smiles and says: “Happy birthday, Triple J. Please welcome Daniel Johns.”
It is perhaps most significant to the choice of Garrett for this role at the concert that in 2007, while promoting Silverchair’s last album Young Modern, Johns mentioned in an interview on Triple J that he and Garrett (and U2’s Bono, and Johns’s wife at the time, the singer Natalie Imbruglia) smoked a joint together. Garrett was in office in 2007 and media picked up the story. Johns issued a statement later the same day of the radio interview: “I made a stupid joke. It’s just been brought to my attention that some people in the media have taken my dumb joke seriously so I want to set the record straight.” Et cetera. News reports suggested that Garrett’s office had moved to separate the politician from the drug reference. But now Garrett smiles, his satin shirt flowing in the festival breeze. Have his agendas and allegiances fallen away? Are his artistic and career transformations behind him, his monomyth at the end of its cycle, and now he is this: a master of all worlds, civilian or rock star or leader at his whim, at one with himself and therefore able to be our trusted guide and advisor?
I mentioned earlier that Garrett was orphaned in early adulthood and I’d thought to make some statement about hero journeys. Heroes are often orphans: Oliver Twist, Bruce Wayne, Clarice Starling. The careers of rock stars, and indeed the makings of albums, are often relayed as monomyths: a call to action is heard, difficulties are overcome, battles are won and our heroes returned to us wiser and with their battle winnings (their music) in pocket. And every rock star is an orphan, are they not? Born at the point of ‘discovery’ with a past that drops away (unless it’s useful to the hero narrative), allowing the rock star to become a child of the world. In a preview for a new HBO documentary about Kurt Cobain, titled Montage Of Heck and produced by Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain, a cartoon Kurt with a bag slung over his shoulder leaves a house as an unidentified female interviewee states: “I don’t know how anybody deals with having your whole family reject you.” In this narrative, Kurt Cobain became an orphan even though his parents were alive. He was orphaned by rejection and thus he became ours. But now I have conflicting thoughts about making such statements:
It’s unfair on Garrett and any other person who has lost a parent.
Such statements have merit. Didn’t Daniel Johns become Australia’s child when Silverchair won that competition in 1994? He became my child.
When Daniel Johns says “Hello” he says it also to his biological family, his real living parents and two younger siblings. But no. No.
A family member is a part of you. When Daniel Johns says “Hello” on a stage, having overcome anorexia and depression and any number of battles real and imagined, a part of me also says “Hello”. A part of me overcomes, a part of me triumphs.
Daniel Johns says “Hello” two weeks before the release of a new single. He says “Hello” to promotion. The single, ‘Aerial Love’, was played for the first time publically on Triple J and added sparse electronic beats and clicks to Johns’s new R&B singing style, making his performance at the Triple J concert also a kind of musical stepping stone between old and new: grunge’s most famous song played in a style befitting Silverchair’s middle years with a new way of hearing Johns’s voice. A soft greeting of sorts. Or a firm greeting: not to imitate but to irritate.
In the video for ‘Aerial Love’, heterosexual couples are seen lying on desert sand from an elevated position (drone cameras were reportedly used to achieve this). Johns wanders the desert alone as he sings the chorus: “We’ve got this aerial love.” An aerial love: one that watches over those who own it, stationary and secure as its owners wander; one that hovers over the love others experience; one that is detached from its participants? The latter interpretation is closest to how I feel about Daniel Johns’s return to the radio, and how I remember him, and maybe how I remember parts of my own life. How I remember myself. Something personal yet not mine. Something that starts out as one thing and grows and grows, and before you know it, it’s not about that any more. You’ve just got it.
I watch Daniel Johns say “Hello” three days after Triple J’s birthday concert takes place, on the screen of my laptop in my Melbourne apartment over breakfast. I’m three days late to it, somewhere else. Daniel Johns does not say “Hello” to me, at least not really. But still I think: There you are. I know you.