*The Melbourne Identity

Listening to the car radio at various times of the day led recently to a maelstrom of emotion for me. First, there was frustration when Gold FM played Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’ (‘I’m sorry that the chairs are all worn/I left them here I could have sworn’, a lyric that I unfailingly think I must have misheard) and I arrived at my destination before I could hear the announcer say, ‘That was “Gold” on Gold.’ Then there was the question of whether anyone in the history of the world has ever taken advantage of a radio station’s Saturday-night offering of a ‘party mix’, by which you are apparently supposed just to leave the dial in one place for many hours, in order to get guests in the mood with songs, such as ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ by the Fine Young Cannibals, to which even nostalgia cannot lend a rosy glow. Hearing Pseudo Echo twice within twenty-four hours, though – ‘Listening’ and then ‘Funky Town’, naturally – made me think about Melbourne. This is because of what I call the ‘hometown effect’, whereby I always feel excited at hearing a tune when I’m in the city from which the band in question has hailed. I’m still hoping to encounter Little Heroes’ trenchantly observed ‘Melbourne’s Just Not New York’ while I’m out and about. If ever you are low in spirits and live in this city, I recommend that you have someone drive you fast around Southbank while blaring The Essential Boom Crash Opera.

I first visited Melbourne in 1976 and considered it to be a terrifying place. My family stayed at a St Kilda hotel, which was a Victorian structure possessed of a certain seedy grandeur. The towel rail in the bathroom fell off. My mother’s travel diary noted a ‘contretemps with the manageress regarding a heater’ and that we were warned not to tell the boarders in the hotel of the ‘special breakfast’ to which we, unlike they, were privy, because we were paying slightly more money than they were. At night, a television flickered in a common room, for the entertainment of these boarders, some of whom were no doubt people I would now recognise as having an addiction to, what an Internet Drug Slang Dictionary informs me, is known as ‘brother’, ‘chick’, ‘Harry Jones’, ‘Judas’, ‘Mister Brownstone’, ‘Nixon’, ‘Aunt Hazel’, ‘birdie powder’, ‘jive do jee’ and ‘reindeer dust’, but I have more generally heard referred to as ‘heroin’. Then, as I have addressed elsewhere, there was the Luna Park problem. I loved to visit Sydney’s Luna Park, back in the days before the Ghost Train fire and a well-publicised accident with the roller coaster, and I’d be beside myself with excitement as we queued in the shelter of the amusement park’s demented, yet inviting, countenance. However, the Melbourne Luna Park face frightened me so much that I found myself unable to enter and avail myself of the pleasures within. With its feverish bright red smile and sallow complexion, it resembles a cross between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and a member of Skyhooks.

Then, when I was a teenager, I was glued to the evening drama Sons and Daughters, which was unusual in having an ongoing ‘bicoastal’ setting; in fact, I don’t believe I can think of another such program that regularly straddled two states. The thing was, though, that it made no bones about Sydney being the home of the glitz and the glamour. The wealthy family, the Hamiltons, lived in the ‘Harbour City’, even though, mystifyingly, their house was in an outer suburb called Dural, a place I would associate most with seeing horses transported; while the poor family, the Palmers, lived in humble old Melbourne, which involved many establishing shots of trams. I will never forget Wayne Hamilton, the clan’s evil scion, taking Katie, a relatively minor member of the Palmer family, to what looked to me to be a milk bar somewhere in the environs of Channel Seven’s Epping studios, and the overwhelmed Katie exclaiming, ‘It’s so Sydney!’

On New Year’s Day 1987, however, Melbourne established itself for me as perhaps the most desirable place on the face of the earth, thanks to the fact that I attended a showing of Richard Lowenstein’s Dogs in Space. Fittingly, it was playing at the old Hoyts multiplex in George Street, Sydney, a place where, it was rumoured, if you sat in an aisle seat, heroin dealers would shoot you up, in order to ‘get you addicted’. No one ever seemed to consider, first, how these dealers could tie a person off without their knowledge and, second, how they would locate their victims again in order to ply their wicked trade, but this particular urban myth always gave a visit to this cinema an enjoyable frisson. Then Dogs began, and I was enraptured right from its opening minutes, in which Hugo Race is thrown from the front of a car.

I hasten to add that I am well aware that only someone as dweeby as I was could have been so overwhelmed by this flick and its portrayal of ‘alternative’ types in inner Melbourne in the late nineteen seventies. I was living with my parents at the time and didn’t take drugs. The people I knew who really did live in boho inner-city sharehouses and take drugs had an attitude of blistering contempt towards the film, if only because Mr Michael Hutchence played the principal role, of grimily elegant, if generally useless, Sam, lead singer of the band that gives the film its name. And the heaping of scorn on Dogs continues to this day. Not so long ago, I told Scrivener’s Fancy coeditor Tony Martin that I owned a copy of the soundtrack album, and that it was the one with the black cover, which was the one with all the swearing, and that it was a collectors’ item, and he replied, ‘A collectors’ item at the insane asylum.’ Nonetheless, I still love the film, with its negligible plotting; its incessant crowd scenes of people either having or going to parties, or seeing bands, or having or going to parties at which bands are playing; the gorgeous Saskia Post’s affecting performance as Sam’s unfortunate girlfriend, Anna; the obligatory presence of Nique Needles in a major role; and the way in which practically every part seemed to be played by a member of quintessential misery-guts-troubadours The Wreckery (see Hugo Race, above), the men behind the side-splittingly titled album Here at Pain’s Insistence.

Part of the reason the film is so mocked is its inauthenticity, in the sense that it is set in 1978 but may be the most violently nineteen eighties-looking film of all time, having the same estranged relationship with the nineteen seventies as Bonnie and Clyde has with the nineteen thirties. When you look at actual footage of Melbourne ‘punks’ lethargically drinking beer at the Crystal Ballroom back in the day, it is a whirl of blonde feathercuts that are reminiscent of Georgie Saint from The Young Doctors, bad skin and worse jackets, unlike all the Dogs beauties with their artfully teased manes, adorable dresses, beaded cardigans and flattering overcoats. But, be fair, Dogs was made only eight years after the original ‘action’ and who ever remembers what people looked like eight years before the present day? Two thousand and three seems to me to have no identifiable aspects at all in terms of its look but no doubt all will be clear twenty-five years from now. Dogs functions superbly as a time machine, it just malfunctions slightly, given that it takes the audience to a different decade from the one to which it was supposed to deliver us. To my mind, the movie will always hold up as a good-humoured portrait of youthful vigour and pretension. And, anyway, it seems to me impossible not to revere a work that once gave rise to the headline ‘In the wake of Beargarden’s declining fortunes, singer Sam Sejavka finds little consolation in seeing his life portrayed on the big screen.’

Certainly, one of the things I relish most about living in Melbourne is that I can, whenever I wish, go and look at the Richmond house in which Dogs in Space was filmed and at which most of the events on which the movie was based actually took place. I enjoy being driven by it in a car, or going there on foot and being able just to stand and look at it for a while. However, should the present-day owners of the house happen to read this, I petition them humbly for an invitation to their fine-looking residence. I’ll bring along a box of After Dinner Mints and my Dogs soundtrack album, I promise.

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