Pat: Hello Brent, and welcome to 'The Keepers of the Flame.'
Mate, I want to take you back a bit to start with, so let me jog your memory a little. I first ran into you in The Royal Oak Hotel in Melbourne in 1986. I was on a national tour with Ralph McTell and Malcolm McCallum at the time. We just finished playing at the Dallas-Brooks Hall.
I was relatively unused to concert stages in those days. Most of my Sydney gigs were in pubs so I asked Malcolm if there were any singers in Melbourne who did roughly what I did in Sydney. He said "You, in particular, can't leave Melbourne until you see Brent Parlane." So he dragged us all down to this great little pub where you were in full flight.
It was a revelation. Your songs were really quirky but very incisive. And a crowd seemed to know every word. It was the closest Melbourne equivalent to my Sydney Rest Hotel gigs that I 'd seen anywhere. I don't know if you remember but I bought a whole box of The 'Brent Parlane's Greatest Hits' cassettes; took them back Sydney and flogged them off to my crowd. They loved them. A number of those songs like ' Wife of a Prisoner' 'Billy The Poet' and 'The Man Who Sold His Face' became a standard part of my performance repertoire. And it didn't escape me that so many of those songs, such as 'Babylon' on the Land Rights issue and 'Here Come the Cowboys' on the Military were overtly activist.
So tell me, how did you end up in the Melbourne pub circuit?
Brent: Well, when I came over from New Zealand I actually went to Sydney first but I got some gigs down in Melbourne so I came down here to do them. The Melbourne scene was just so different. There were all these gigs then and so many other great musicians... and so much of it was original; unlike a lot Sydney venues I'd seen, which were just covers gigs. I ran into some old mates there from home and everyone seemed to want to know me...which I thought was great. What I didn't know at the time was that, it was mainly because they thought I was some Big Shot from Sydney (laughter)
I guess I was pretty young and enthusiastic. We all remember being that. It was before old and cynical (laughter).... and the crowds were really receptive to that then. So I guess I just sort of built this little cult audience around me.
Pat: Well, it wasn't little... but I agree with you. The pub music scene was different then. Even in many Sydney gigs at the time.I used to play some of the wine bars along Oxford Street. I remember one in particular, where we had the Foreday Riders on Tuesdays, Cold Chisel on a Wednesday, I was on Thursday nights and The Oils were on every Friday. If you didn't at least play a healthy proportion of your own songs in that venue you never got another gig. These days it is very covers based.
But it wasn't all art back then, either, Mate. They were pretty wild days. One thing I've always wanted to know ... The song ' Wife of a Prisoner'.... was that based on your personal experiences in those days or was it a complete flight of Fantasy?
Brent: Well Pat.... (laughter) I'm from New Zealand and you might remember a great old Prime Minister we had over there called David Langey. He had a bit of trouble with that superpower with all those weapons of mass destruction called the United States of America. (laughter) He was always demanding to know if they had nuclear weapons aboard their ships when they visited. Their comment then was always, and mine shall be now, "neither confirm nor deny" ...That bloke might be out there still.(laughter)
Pat: Talking of the military, Brent. Quite a number of your songs like 'Here Comes The Cowboys' were about disarmament and militarism but 'Man in a Uniform' from the 'Good Man Down' album shows some real empathy. Were you ever associated with the services?
Brent: No, I've never had any military training...well...in one way that's not quite true... my father was in the New Zealand Air Force, so I guess I was an Air Force brat until the time I was 15 or 16 years old...
Pat:...so does that explain your haircut? (laughter)
Brent: Noooo. (laughter) but I guess I grew up thinking that anyone who didn't wear a uniform was some strange breed of human being in 'civvies'. 'Man in a Uniform' came about because I had this military sort of tune and I wondered how I could give a lyric. I wasn't really in the mood for a full-on anti-war song, so I just wrote a lyric about this bloke who wore a uniform because he found some sort of comfort in the regimentation. There are people like that.
When I got to the third verse I was having a little trouble figuring out where it was going to go and my son, who was sitting on the bed listening (which is unusual in itself, because he would normally be interrupting said, "Well, a guy who wears a suit to work everyday...That's a sort of a Uniform too..." And I thought "Yeah ... you can go now" (laughter) ...and I just sort of stole his idea. I think all us have a sort of bent desire to conform... to fit in.
Although I did actually write a song once which looked at conformity from the absolute flipside of that attitude. It was about one of the most individual people I've ever come across. It was called "I Am Beautiful"
Pat: Oh yes, from the "Ramblings of a Diseased Mind" album. Tell me about that.
Brent: Well, I was on a Train from Southern Thailand down to Singapore just doing a bit of holiday travelling...and on a long journey like that... you are always wondering who youare going to end up sitting next to. Because no matter who they are, it's going to be a different experience and at one of the stations right out in the countryside this person got on the train she was so extravagantly dressed. You're eyes said, "Hello, Hello. What have we got here." You couldn't help it. It was obviously a man dressed as a woman; but in a really 'over the top' sort of way; with strange matted hair and little bits of coloured paper tied into it and a big carrier bag full of junk... and lots and lots of make up on.
And I'm thinking as she came down the carriage..."Gee, I'm not really sure I want deal with this" but she sat quite close to me ...and I sort of nodded. Well, at the next stop a bunch of young blokes got on... all punching each other about... with heaps of 'attitude'... and I thought. "Oh no, here it comes".
Of Course, they noticed her straight away and started in on her. I think at that stage my attitude really changed. My heart immediately went out to her. I was thinking "Oh, God.. no ..just..leave her alone."
But although they made a lot comments to her, thankfully it didn't go past the verbal stuff; so that was alright. But the point was that, in spite of the intimidation... and this what got to me...as we drove through the countryside she opened the window and started taking out of her bag all these small pieces of tinfoil and coloured paper and she was very delicately ripping them up, holding them out the window and letting them sail away beautifully onto the breeze. It was really quite lovely. Now some people might say she was... littering (laughter) but in her mind she was doing this beautiful thing and she was sort of untouchable.
Pat: And you found a sort of strength in that?
Brent: Yes even if she was, perhaps, quite disturbed. So I just wrote this song about a person going for ride on a train singing "I am beautiful. You might not realise it but deep down in my own being I know I am." The song doesn't tell all the story but that's how it came about, so maybe it is possible to be so strong. or so deranged (laughter)that you are beyond the need to conform.
Pat: Still, I'm not sure she would have survived a New Zealand Air Force upbringing. I think, in the military, individuality of any sort; in judgment or conscience particularly, are viewed as being positively dangerous. I think that's the real message of the uniform...the obliteration of any form of individual identity. It's probably essential if you are going to engender the kind of blind obedience that the structure of military command requires. Brent, you never actually followed your father into the services, did you? Instead, you seem to have become a bit of an anti-war activist in New Zealand during the Vietnam War...well, according to Malcolm McCallum, you did anyway.
Brent: Oh...well... I sang at a couple of marches...but that was largely just to meet girls, Mate (laughter)
Pat: Well...I suppose that was part of Keeping the Flame or at least keeping the heat in it.
Brent: Well, I felt our responsibility as activists was, first and foremost, to propagate....
Pat: Seriously though, songs like 'Here Come the Cowboys' from 'The Closest' album were scathing of the military in the extreme. How did you come to write that song?
Brent: You know, I remember the day that I wrote that, very clearly. I turned on radio and found that 'Ronnie Rayguns' had just been elected President of the biggest nuclear power on earth and I remember thinking that it was like an April Fool's Day thing; it was almost as if John Wayne had been elected. "What were they thinking?" I found it frightening and I wrote the song almost immediately that day.
Pat: The really scary part is that in Feb 2003 it is still entirely current and relevant. It could have been written yesterday.
Brent: Well, the really strange part was that when I wrote it I was just about to begin a world trip in which I ended up travelling quite extensively across the United States; playing in all these little coffee houses and folk clubs to what I anticipated would be fairly 'subversive underbelly' left wing crowds.
What really amazed me though was that this song was not
well received...even by those people it was like.." Hang
on thar Buddy. Give Reagan a chance...he's alright"
That scared me even more.
It was the first time that I had been to America and, because we see so much American media, we often think, well, they're a lot like us... and we're a lot like them. But when you get there you realize... it really is a different culture. It's a foreign country and in some basic ways... they just do not see the world the way we do.
Pat: Yes, there are significant differences, as well as great commonalities there. However, what I really find interesting is the way that song focuses on the Hollywood view of the American Myth and the way it has translated into the national psyche and, in fact, into current U.S. foreign policy.
Brent: Look, I remember the first movie I ever saw...The Magnificent Seven. It was when I was about seven years of age. It was a classic and it was exactly the way a lot of Americans saw themselves.
There were all these bad guys beating up on the poor helpless little Mexicans (who of course weren't any good at fighting or defending themselves. They were only good at wearing ponchos) so all these American mercenaries came down and killed all of the bad Mexicans and generally saved the world and got a few of the women along the way.
I didn't realise till later that it really represented the way America sees itself; as the upholders of righteousness...through violence, which is justified by the fact that they are the good guys in their terms. That's scary enough... but when you wake up one day and find The Bloke in The Cowboy Hat is now the President....(laughter)
Yes, I know what you mean. A lot of people think of myths as stories
which aren't true. On the contrary, I think that they are the
stories we tell ourselves which communicate that which we often
believe to be most true.
If that really is the case, then you make a good point in the song that much of U.S global policy in the 2000s may well have been engendered by the American frontier myths repopularised and reinterpreted by the Hollywood of the1950's and 60's. And I agree, that when you couple that with real military might... it is scary!
Brent: Well George 'Dubbya' uses that language all the time. "We're gonna smoke em out.. If yer not with us yer agin us..." and let's not kid ourselves. He has a committee of 30 or 40 people going through every word we hear him say on the television. None of it is accidental...he's intensely aware of the power of those images and the resonance that they have with the American community 'Here Come The Cowboys!!!
Pat: Brent, I want to shift ground a little because I wanted to talk about the Refugee issue and Immigration in general. You have quite a number of quite touching and confronting songs on that subject. 'I'm a Fox' and 'I Turned Away' from the new 'Happy Note' album, for example. Would youlike to talk a bit about that?
Brent: Well the first song I actually wrote on that subject was 'Springvale Road' from the 'Closest' Album. The 'Springvale Road' of the song is really only a small section of what is a major highway in Melbourne. It's the part where there is a concentrated number of Asian restaurants and a large population of Vietnamese people.
You've got remember that I spent a fair bit of time with my father in South East Asia when he was stationed there. So, when I first came to Melbourne, I loved going there because it was sort like walking down the street and hey... you're in another country!...without having to pay the air fare! (laughter)
...And the smell of the food coming out of the shops even the cheap restaurants was fantastic.
Pat: So that openness to other cultures was something you picked up as a youth.
Brent: Yes, I guess so...travelling does broaden the mind as they say.. so I was amazed by all these older Australian people who were saying about the Vietnamese immigrants at the time..."They're coming here take our jobs away". Even back then, refugees was being accused of being the enemy ..they were calling them communists at that time.. which was just so ridiculous. I mean...these were the people that fled South Vietnam when the Communists took over. They were the ones the Australian Army was fighting to save, according to the rhetoric. They had been our allies and here were these people accusing them of being covert Communists. I even got a few 'vets', who should have known better, coming up at RSL where I'd play the song ...and.. I know these guys had been through hard times...but they were saying things like "What are you singing about? Have you ever been over there?" and, well at least I had.
So it was obvious that even some the vets were confused by all of Bruce Ruxton's (the former President of the RSL -ed) blustering on the issue. It was like they really believed that these were The Vietcong! That they'd won the war and now they were coming to invade Australia! It was just so illogical....
Pat: I couldn't agree more, Brent, and sadly it persists today in the way we are treating the current victims of Howard's refugee policy. There is the same proposition now, ridiculous as it seems, that people fleeing the brutal oppression of fundamentalist Islamic regimes such as the Taliban would seek to introduce such oppression in Australia. It is no more likely that such a thing would ever occur that it would have been that Jews fleeing Hitler would have opened a local chapter of the Nazi Party here.
In the 50's and 60's refugees from Eastern Bloc countries were not pro-Communist. They were fanatically anti-totalitarian and more likely to be vigilant about the erosion of democratic freedoms than their more apathetic Australian cousins.
And then there's the historically insupportable proposition that terrorists would choose too infiltrate Australia by seeking to secrete themselves amongst refugees.
No one seems to have noticed that not one of the terrorists who were involved in the New York and Washington attacks entered the US illegally. They came in on commercial flights. They all held genuine passports or visas and many of them had been living and working within the U.S. for years.
I just don't believe that Terrorist groups, particularly the kind of well organized networks capable of planning and executing such vast atrocities, are so stupid as to draw attention to their operatives by sending them into countries as illegal immigrants Yes, it's is possible; but as you say, it is pretty illogical.
Brent: Well, I think it's the 'fear' factor that the politicians work on and it was just that side of it that I wanted to have a shot at in 'I'm a Fox' on the new album.
Look, in the end, I think simple human kindness is the bottom line. It really is. If you're going to be a decent human being or a decent country, for that matter, you can't just refuse tohelp people, particularly children, who are in such need in quite the way that Howard has. I guess that's what really is at the heart of the song "I Turned Away" on 'Happy Note
Pat: You know, it's the simplicity of that particular song that touches me the most.
Brent: Well, it is simple... and I wanted that effect. I know you and I have differed on this before, but I don't think that every song has to be so intellectually convoluted. Simplicity has a real validity of it's own. So I wanted that effect .. but I think I was also trying to get across some sense of bewilderment too.
I mean it's curious how differently we have treated the
last few waves of refugees to the current lot. In the wake of
Vietnam, Malcolm Fraser, who was also a conservative politician,
handled the whole issue completely differently than Howard and
Ruddock have done now.
Who ever would have thought that Fraser of all people wouldturn into one of the good guys? (laughter)
Pat: ...And he has been quite outspoken against his own side of politics over the current policy.
While were on that issue, Brent, let me play the devil's advocate and ask how you would respond tot hose who would say that areas like Cabramatta in Sydney have experienced real cultural and crime problems arising from that particular wave of intense immigration.
Brent: Well, a lot of problems came when us 'white fellas' arrived too. The 'common cold' and rabbits just for starters (laughter) not to mention the small matter of our treatment of The Aboriginal people.
Look... there 's always going to be problems and cultural
differences. There was with the Greeks and the Italians in the40's
and 50's but where would Melbourne be now, without that heritage?
I don't hear anyone complaining about their favourite Italian and Greek Restaurants being there. The mix has made us all better. Australia's bigger and better than it was because of those influences.
Pat: I think in some strange way, Australia has a natural talent of taking the best from those cultures and losing the bits that simply don't work here.
Brent: And that's the way it should be. I mean, I'm an immigrant as well. I'm from New Zealand. There are probably people who are scared of us too! (laughter)...and if they're not....they should be!
Brent Parlane's new album 'Happy Note' is available at http://www.users.bigpond.com/bparlane
Keepers of The Flame website http://www.keepersoftheflame.net
® copyright 2003 Pat Drummond. As Printed in 'Trad and Now'
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