Published in Kill Your Darlings, October 2015.
Jarrod Quarrell folds his thin arms, lifting himself into a state of amused arousal in the recording studio’s control room. His tattooed fingers turn over a cigarette rolled some time ago between trips to the microphone in the live room from the desk of producer John Lee, a composed, almost bookish man with thick-rimmed Wayfarer glasses and a pressed shirt.
‘I want it to sound like the guys in the movies who get shot on the train. You know: Ahhhhh. Or a guy falling off a building,’ Quarrell describes, mostly to me but also to Lee, who has been recording and sorting through assorted ‘Ahhhhhs’ on a flatscreen. Some Ahhhhhs have been more like prehistoric birdcalls, some like retellings of waking cries. As in: You woke up making the strangest sounds last night…
It isn’t apparent why Lee keeps the Ahhhhhs he keeps and discards others, working quickly with Quarrell’s takes. Nor is there any distinguishable pattern to the cries. At the microphone, Quarrell listens through headphones to the song he’s working on, haphazardly punctuating electronic beats and the existing vocal track with his falling-man calls like a tic, curling his hands in front of himself.
Am I equipped to handle my future? / Ahhhhh / It’s hard to know / Living in fair weather never messes with your flow.
The vocal recording is just a guide, I’ve been told. The lyrics will probably change. The vocal track in one part of the song – what I’m guessing is the chorus – has been layered over numerous takes. ‘I’m seeing what it would sound like with a choir singing it,’ Quarrell says, trying to keep me in the loop. ‘We’ll get four or five girls and guys in later to do that.’ The beats might change, too.
I’m in the dust between hired guns and a ‘Goon #5’ credit.
I want crimes solved, mysteries uncovered. To gain access to Quarrell’s recording of his second album under the name Lost Animal, I’ve reasoned and coerced and sent messages that have at times seemed, even when writing them, passively indignant. I’ve proposed dropping into the studio a number of times over the planned weeks of recording, to which Quarrell has replied: ‘We’re writing as we go and that’s a new way of doing things for me, letting others contribute ideas etc. Let me think about it. I really need to focus. Yeah, let me think it over.’ Me: ‘That’s fine, think it over. I don’t want you to feel like my presence is a distraction. For me it’s important to have a fair bit of access – I’m interested in telling real stories…’
Real stories. Like the time Quarrell’s first band New Season became the subject of a documentary that resulted in a lawsuit to make it disappear? Or Quarrell’s drug (heroin?) use? Or his disappearance from another band, St Helens, to get clean? Or his privileged childhood in…Papua New Guinea or Geelong? These are half-stories that have been told to me in passing, sometimes as defences of Quarrell’s artistic sensibilities (more shadowy figures) and sometimes as dismissals. The heights of these tales may have attracted me to Quarrell, but that’s the thing about tall tales: there’s no measuring stick to gauge exactly how high they go.
All I really know is that Lost Animal’s first album, Ex Tropical, has become something of a uniting force in the Fitzroy bar I manage part-time. It can be played to rock-and-roll crowds and backpackers and the last of the Arts students hanging around Brunswick Street; either everyone knows and likes it well enough or no one bats an eyelid because the beats are mostly swallowed by keyboards and the rhythms aren’t too jarring, Quarrell’s malnourished-poet drawl is keen and intriguing but masculine enough to get a pass from those who have masculinity on their radars, and in that bar there are many who do, and the radars are top-notch. It makes a long shift easier. It’s a certain kind of artist who can enter and exit freely the various spheres of prejudice people inhabit, who can go virtually unseen yet be permitted to stand amongst us in all their absurdity.
Quarrell returns from a cigarette break, his Ray-Bans still on under a black bandana tied around his head. Lee has been playing me another song recorded in the weeks he and Quarrell have worked together (along with Quarrell’s stage and now songwriting partner, Shags Chamberlain, who has absconded to California to make more mythologies, though none I’ve heard involve trains or guns or junk). The song is called ‘Prisoner’s Island’ and is adorned with a golden guitar riff, spiriting away.
Lee pauses the track to make an edit, apologises and plays it again. ‘It’s still very rudimentary,’ he says. ‘We’re still figuring out whether the album will be more mellow with some punchier songs as well, or whether it will move in the opposite direction.’ In another conversation about the album, Quarrell mentions that, ‘Everyone thought Ex Tropical was a dark album’, and he wants to show how a dark album really sounds. ‘That album wasn’t dark,’ he says, ‘at least not making it. Making it was celebratory. On this one, I want to be dark.’
Quarrell has Lee run the song they’re working on through the control room speakers, the song with all the Ahhhhhs. He picks up a notebook and sits on a lounge chair to my left, his blue-jean knees held together, and scribbles words as the song plays. ‘OK, stop, John,’ he says, partway through the track. The three of us sit in silence, Quarrell writing lyrics, me making notes, only the sound of our pens on paper in the room. My notes are premeditated and embarrassing: ‘Construction and observation? Construction and construction? Observation and observation? Myth, truth, report, myth.’
‘Yeah, dawg,’ Quarrell drawls and goes back to stand in front of the microphone in the live room. The microphone is one covered in black foam, like the microphones in eighties pop videos, and the size of it makes Quarrell look small, though I’ve spent enough time watching musicians record to know that everyone looks small through a studio window, hunched to channel their music into God’s spongy mouth.
I was told of gold in my future / So I gave my soul again.
Quarrell records the lines in different octaves, the higher takes in a thin voice, and again and again. Goon #6, #7, #8. ‘These are all going to be replaced, right?’ Lee asks Quarrell through the control room microphone. Yes: Quarrell is testing how a choir might sound.
‘It’s a strange song,’ Quarrell enthuses when he comes back to Lee.
‘I think you’re really turning it around today, though,’ Lee says.
I’ve stopped taking notes; my notebook is closed in my lap. It’s my fourth hour in the studio. Lee asks me what will happen to my story and I tell him I don’t really have a plan for it. In a week I’ll ask Quarrell for some interview time and it will fall through, partly I think because he’s reluctant to be interviewed but also because I won’t know what to ask, or if I should ask anything at all. I’ll read an interview with Quarrell in a new book about Australian underground musicians and, in it, he’ll say: ‘That reputation, though, is ridiculous. I am not like that.’ In October, Quarrell will perform two retrospective shows, one in Melbourne and one in Castlemaine (where he was born, he tells me), playing songs from New Season and St Helens as well as Lost Animal, but I won’t be able to afford a night off the bar to go. Besides, I will have felt guilty about the lapsed time and Quarrell won’t have asked me along.
Lee wants to know my impressions of the recordings. I tell him I’m still getting my head around the way he and Quarrell write and work together, that it’s difficult to understand at what point of the process the recording is at because the elements of the songs are circling each other, waiting to know what the others look like before themselves settling on a form. The process is nonlinear and hard to wrangle, I say. Lee says he and Quarrell will take a couple of weeks off recording so that Quarrell can refine the vocal melodies and the lyrics. When that’s done, everything will fit together more easily. Almost everything depends on the vocals. ‘It’s like you’re creating a world,’ Lee says.
They’ve painted the cement wall that borders the vacated hardware store’s car park. They’ve painted it green. The hardware store wasn’t exactly vacated; it was sold to developers who plan to knock the building down and sculpt a six-storey apartment block on top of its land-ghost. The Yarra City website features an architect’s statement and an artist’s depiction of the block. It is – or will be – a cement fortress that slopes inward from varying heights at each corner, of which there are more than four, maybe five or six. It’s a geometric rendering of an Alpine mountain, a real wonder of contemporary minimalist compartment living.
I can’t quite figure out my gut’s rejection of this development. As if it’s the first of its kind in the area. I’ve arrived long after the money.
The wall borders the car park only on one side. The car park is bordered also by the store and on the remaining sides by Gertrude and George Street, which is where I live. That is to say I rent a studio apartment on George Street, three doors from the address that will soon be a CGI mountain. The wall is actually the side of the neighbouring building, a Victorian-era terrace that has for a long time been the Home of Mercy – a soup kitchen and night shelter for homeless men. When it belonged to Manfax Hardware & Paint, the wall looked like a paint sample board, covered in squares of colours that might suit a certain lounge interior: earthy orange and red, cedar green and teal.
Below the multi-coloured chequerboard was the store’s logo, inspired by (or copied from, really) the June 1950 cover of Vogue magazine, a painting of a woman in a fishnet face veil and wide-brim saucer hat. In the Manfax logo, the woman held a tin of paint in one gloved hand and a paintbrush in the other. It was as if the store’s owners predicted the street’s future as a fashion strip. More likely it was a whimsical touch to a plain, single-storey shop with a corrugated awning, across the street from the Nindeebiya arts and crafts workshop and the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sports and Recreation Co-operative – one gone and one fundraising to continue.
I called my father in Brisbane and told him about the hardware store’s closure. I didn’t call him to talk about the hardware store only because I spent my teenage years avoiding or mumbling through shifts at the strip-mall store he owned and still haven’t recovered from the guilt and his interference in my misery regime. But I knew he’d muster the outrage (disappointment?) I couldn’t seem to get into any sensible order. ‘Yep,’ I said, ‘they’re knocking the whole thing down. I think there’s going to be a big café on the ground floor.’
I remember the nights Dad spent delivering orders, the fights my parents had weekly about bills and intentions and pipe dreams; the resignation and relief that came with selling the business for less than my father thought it was worth.
Another family business in the can.
‘They’ll be getting a fortune for the land,’ is what someone, maybe a customer at the bar, told me, adding that the tenants owned the property. I relayed this information to Dad when I felt bad for rubbing in the loss, along with the fact that the business had moved just around the corner to a smaller shop on Smith Street. I’ve been burying that fact in my own reasoning. Thankfully the injustice wasn’t lessened in my father’s eyes.
Young silver-dollar gums were planted in the garden beds that divide the car park and the footpath, and the shop’s awning and gutters were painted black. On the roller door of the shop’s garage they stencilled a bold ‘K’ inside a white circle.
I found the website for Kalex, a local developer. The page features a far more lifelike picture of the apartment block. It looks to be a photograph, as if the apartments have already been built. On the left side of the picture are the buildings directly across from my place. Slender women mill about the café on the ground floor of the block in twos and threes. Warm, welcoming lights inside the apartments make the fortress glow in a pink dusk. Above the photo is the company’s brief for the site: ‘Contemporary yet classic. Confident, unapologetic yet respectful. Architecture of future heritage value.’
I want to curl up in the words. I want to be confident and unapologetic. I want to laze in my underwear on bespoke furniture and drink good wine at a great height, and I want to move far, far away.
They painted the cement wall green, the green of wild grass at the cusp of autumn. The whole lot of it, all green right up to where the wall meets the Home of Mercy’s red tiled roof. At the foot of the wall, a slope of turf appeared, at first the wooden structure and then the rolls of grass laid overtop. It’s a hill emerging from the wall, from a suggestion of endless green hills that suddenly erased everything beyond the car park.
‘I guess it’s going to be like a display office to sell the apartments before they build them,’ I said to a woman who had also stopped to take in the wall. She said, ‘Right,’ as if she hadn’t been following the site’s transformation, though I couldn’t know.
How could I know? A wall is no longer a wall and I live in an imagined wilderness.
I’ve become fascinated by the House of Mercy. Indecently so, I think. I’ve also been stuck on the idea of subletting my apartment while I’m back north over Christmas. I use the word ‘stuck’ because I’m not confident my apartment is the kind anyone wants to sublet. It inspires my mother, when she and Dad bring their caravan down to visit, to say things like: ‘I wish I could live in such a Spartan way.’ A friend has suggested I advertise it as a ‘monastic writing retreat’ and, if he was kidding, the joke was fair and on me.
The apartment was the cheapest studio I could find in a dull mania. I’d been from one bum share-house to the next; the last was a sliver of a townhouse with paper-thin walls and housemates who held down respectable nine-to-fives. I’d get home from the bar at four in the morning and be woken at seven by heels on floorboards and the grinding of coffee beans. It wasn’t their fault, but my Epstein-Barr returned and I couldn’t concentrate enough to write. I was still taking on assignments, sitting in on a local musician’s recording session and jotting down scraps of ideas, but I couldn’t find a story to save myself. By the time I moved into the studio, I had a shingles rash like a snake along a nerve line on my left side and was awaiting test results for everything under the sun.
The studio is a 1970s bedsit in a block of sixteen; a single room split in half by two exposed brick archways. The ceiling is brown stucco, the colour and integrity of a hornet’s nest, mirrored by brown pile carpet. The brick walls have been lathered in a textured white paint and the kitchenette, if it can be called that, has a sink and space for a bar fridge but no stove or oven. (An electrical stovetop the age of the apartment was left out on the laminate bench but I had premonitions of explosive fires and stored it away. I cook on a sandwich press and an electric wok my sister gave me for a birthday.) It’s because of these flaws that the rent on the studio is so low, given the location, but the shower is good and the walls are thick and so it’s relatively quiet and I’m a ten-minute walk to the bar and many other bars, and I like for there to be people around, if not inside then out.
Why I’ve become interested in the Home of Mercy, I don’t really know. It started, I think, when a surveyor had his tripod set up at the Home’s doorstep, the front door open and his level pointed inside towards a wooden staircase. I stopped and clocked the scene: the staircase led to a hall in which there was some movement; on the ground floor, another hall offered a glimpse of a room I knew to be the dining room because it faces the street and the two front windows are often partway open. ‘Is something happening to this building?’ I asked the surveyor, who smiled tightly to convey that I was not the first person to enquire. ‘No, don’t worry, it’s staying as it is,’ he said.
Maybe I’ve been looking for a story to tell. I’ve considered asking if I can sit in on suppertime at the Home, but the thought of sitting there with a notebook in hand, or even without one, as men eat their dinner shames me. Besides, whom would I ask? The Home is run by the Missionaries of Charity, an order of sisters founded by the big one, Mother Theresa. Nuns in white and blue saris appear occasionally on the step of the Home to collect shopping bags from cars that pull up: vans containing school kids or youth groups but also Pathfinders and Audis. The nuns make low chatter with their visitors and promptly retreat to the house. The front screen door is heavily barred and always closed; the windows have a reflective tint on them so that, when they haven’t been lifted thirty or so centimetres for the duration of dinner, nothing inside can be seen. I catch myself in the silver panes as I walk past. There’s no story here.
The roundabout contents of my apartment: a queen-sized bed that was my sister’s as a teenager, a chest of drawers and two bedside tables (one used for kitchen stuff), a bar fridge and various appliances, a bookshelf, an old school desk, the heaviest coffee table in the world, a busted leather footstool and a red vinyl lounge chair I picked up at a seconds market. I think the chair was made for a patio or restaurant entrance room because the backrest is framed by wide timber slats and the seat is low and barely cushioned. I can only blame the shingles fever for this purchase, as well as some delusion that a level of discomfort is good for the soul, which is discomforting to put into writing. Is a monastic existence my intention? It shames me also to list my belongings.
There are rows and rows of online advertisements for Fitzroy apartments available for sublet. Their photos are torn from magazines. Light-filled spaces decorated with terrariums and ferns in macramé hangers and floor lamps, stainless steel knife sets and oak bread boards, white quilt covers and white pillows and soft leather armchairs that invite long afternoon reading sessions. The headlines for these ads suggest satisfaction: ‘Artist’s warehouse conversion’; ‘Private garden studio’; ‘Beswicke rooftop penthouse’. I’ve studied the listings, spied on the manicured interiors of my neighbours’ houses; imagined stories for their owners. Careers, pets, hobbies, families.
Through the House of Mercy’s open front windows, the ends of trestle tables can be seen, laid with plastic tablecloths that look like abstract paintings, all swirls and stripes. Sometimes there are elbows resting on a table, or the back of a shirt pressed against the windowsill, but more often the figures are seated at the far end of the room, away from the evening light. Twice in the last month there have been men standing in the entranceway as I’ve walked past. One, in his twenties, I think, held a backpack against his legs and searched the bars on the screen door, or was reading the sign that gives the opening hours and informs: ‘Attention No Breakfast Served Here’. The other was smoking a cigarette, casually pacing the landing behind the iron picket fence. He was dressed fairly smartly in jeans and a tucked plaid shirt. I took him for a volunteer and thought to approach him with some imbecilic question about the purpose of the Home, but my presumption made itself known in time. He glanced at me but wasn’t interested. There’s no story here.
I’ve bought throw pillows and stationery for the desk and a toaster that is gloss black and chrome and much larger than any toaster needs to be. I went to the seconds market and found an old bar stool for the kitchen bench. I bought faux-crystal drinking glasses from Dimmey’s and cut succulents from a garden further down the street to grow in them. I made the tram trip to IKEA and bought two short pine stools, which I assembled and arranged around the bookshelf, as well as a matching soap dispenser, toothbrush holder and bathmat. I’ve borrowed a camera from a friend and have taken photos of the apartment with these items arranged in the manner of other sublet ads: cushions propped on the lounge chair from a viewpoint behind the succulents on the kitchen bench; the pine stools and bookshelf with the succulents (moved from the kitchen bench to the shelf) just inside the tight frame. I’ve made a listing for my apartment, my copywriting cues taken from the real estate sign that appeared not long ago on my block’s front fence, marketing the empty apartment down the hall from mine: ‘Urban New York Style…!’
Is that the story that allowed me to live here? And how many more myths involving trains and guns and junk?
And what more to say about the Home of Mercy? That I’ve called the Catholic Archdiocese to request historical information on the Home? I exchanged a series of voicemail messages with a man from the media enquiries desk before giving up. At one point I called the Home’s own landline, the number listed on the Archdiocese’s website, and breathed out when no one answered. I already had the information I wanted. I’d found an item about the Missionaries of Charity published in an Archdiocese newsletter: ‘Therefore, Mother Teresa decided that the poorest of the poor in Melbourne were alcoholic men and instructed the sisters to seek out and help them. Often, however, the sisters did not have to go looking because destitute men found them and, consequently, their reputation grew by word-of-mouth.’
That I sometimes lie in bed wondering what the interior of the Home looks like? I imagine small rooms and single beds fitted with worn sheets and rough blankets; dark cream walls and rough hands washed in freestanding basins; men eating together but alone at the tables in the dining room. I had no idea what I was going to say if someone answered the phone at the Home. What could I have asked? Who are these destitute men and what has happened to their lives? What will happen to them?
And, anyway, tomorrow I fly north. I’ve just returned from swimming laps at the Fitzroy pool to clean my apartment for the morning’s guests, a young Scottish couple who’ve been backpacking for months and sounded happy enough to have a cheap room of their own over Christmas.
As I walked past the alley behind George Street on my way back just now, I heard a motley choir of voices singing ‘Away in a Manger’. One of the nuns was standing with two men at the back gate of the Home, laughing and talking with them. I dropped my bag at my front door and went out to the back car park to listen for the voices. Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, they sang. I climbed on top of the brick fence between the car park and the alley and stood to see the yards of the neighbouring buildings. In the courtyard of the Home, nuns in saris as well as women in regular dress were leading fifteen or so men in the carol. They were gathered around to face each other. A couple of the more bearded men wore red Santa hats. Some held open hymnbooks out in front of themselves. When ‘Away in a Manger’ ended, they started on ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’.
‘Big voices, now,’ one of the nuns instructed. ‘Come on, big voices.’
They’re filling the neighbourhood, these songs.
I’ll vacuum and scrub the shower with bleach and wash my sheets. I’ll write a list of instructions for the laundry downstairs and buy a loaf of bread from the bakery to leave on the bench. I’ll make myself a bed on the lounge chair for when I get home from work, laying the hard seat with a picnic blanket I had uncovered while I was making space in my drawers for the couple to use. In the morning, all I’ll need to do is pack up the blanket and grab my bag; leave my keys in the letterbox and go.