The girl is back in town and she can’t listen to the music

After almost two years of silence on this blog, how do I write something that might be music to your ears – or reading eyes?

This won’t be the most conventional way back to writing about music in my life but that’s me, unconventional at best. This is not a story about a Thin Lizzy concert, either, despite the photo above. This is just a story about me and music, a relationship that does not feel as it should right now.

I was sitting on the beach a couple of weekends ago, a rare sunshine-filled weekend in a city that has become one of the wettest places on earth, and I was thinking about how little music there is in my life at present.

If you’ve visited this site enough to know where I’ve been writing from previously, you might think, what is she talking about, isn’t she based in Southern California where, as the song goes, it never rains and where, at least pre-pandemic, she always seems to be at another gig? Well, no, not right now. Right now I am in Sydney, Australia where a year ago I returned, after seven years in LA. It’s been a year of rain in Sydney. Rain on my umbrellas (there’s one I bought at Prince’s Paisley Park in Minneapolis that turns purple in the rain), rain on my parade, rain on my heart. Early last year in the midst of pandemic insanity, I thought I wanted to be back permanently in my home city. I thought I had thought it through very comprehensively and that I was making the right decision, and I am very good at convincing myself that I am making the right decisions even when a voice inside of my head says “Are you crazy?” I belong in LA where the sun almost always shines and the music almost never stops, but I left.

So what is there for me here in Sydney, this place I feel so nostalgic about when I am absent but that I feel constrained by when I am here?

I talked about this with the great film director Peter Weir recently, and he said, “Ah. The curse of the expat.”

It is a time of deep grief in my life. Some people have certain artists, albums or songs to play when they are sad. I don’t. I generally can’t listen to music when I am sad. Unless it’s a situation like, say, Glenn Frey dies and I can’t play anything but Frey and the Eagles for a year. If the sadness is something that is more conceptual, I just can’t listen to anything much, because listening to music is not a passive act for me, it is a deliberate conscious thing, and my head and heart aren’t in it when I am sad. I’d forgotten, for example, that shortly after my mother died 15 years ago, I went to an Elton John concert. I had a really good seat near the front apparently. I remember almost nothing of that show. It was maybe only a week or two after Mum’s death. I’d bought the ticket a long time earlier so along I went. I completely forgot about it for years until I was looking through concert tickets and I found it and was surprised by it. Most concerts have stayed with me but that one was a blur. I was too deep in the immediate grief. I didn’t even take photos.

Now it’s 15 years on, the anniversary of Mum’s death is this week, and I am thinking about how I miss her more than ever and about other losses I have had this year, from people dying, to relationships I have relied upon also dying. A relationship that dies can sometimes be worse than a very sick person finally passing on. Because if the relationship has been fundamental, and that person no longer wants to be a significant part of my life, then knowing they are still around but inaccessible can be more devastating.

I’m also deeply grieving having left my LA life, making myself displaced and disjointed, a prolonged and self-inflicted grief that certain friends, especially in Australia, have no great empathy for and are fairly intolerant of. Which then in turn causes more grief, as I don’t feel understood, or my feelings appreciated. It’s a deep well of sorrow and regret in which music sometimes feels intrusive, not comforting.

So sitting on the beach I wasn’t listening to music. I was listening to talk. A podcast about grief, in fact. (Anderson Cooper’s “All There Is”. Profound stuff.) And I was thinking Anderson really should talk to Barry Gibb about this subject. Which was the closest I got to music over that weekend.

Well, that’s not entirely true, as the previous Friday afternoon I was visiting an old high school friend who absolutely loves music and all afternoon, into the evening, he played different songs from his favourite playlists, from Harry Chapin to Arielle Dombasie & The Hillbilly Moon Explosion and much in between. We sang along in wine-inspired earnestness, and when the Bee Gees came on, his wife and I danced our butts off, and that was fun. Recently I watched the excellent documentary Mr. Saturday Night about Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and how Saturday Night Fever came to be. Music in the context of its history is palatable to me right now; I even enjoyed the new Sinead O’Connor documentary and I’m not a fan of hers. Music films that go even deeper, like the new Selena Gomez documentary about her mental health challenges, which I watched last night, stir up a lot of confronting emotions in me, but I have never listened to her music.

But speaking of music history, a few months ago I was interviewed for a one-hour feature on ABC Radio’s popular Overnights show, about songs from 1973 based on one of my blog posts. And just a week ago I was interviewed for an upcoming online documentary series called House Vault, comprising short reminiscences of significant performances at the Sydney Opera House, for the House’s 50th anniversary next year. Ten years ago I was involved in an online documentary for its 40th anniversary, called The Opera House Project. I am sought out for commentary on the big outdoor free concerts that took place there, as I’m a historian of the 1970s era of radio station 2SM, which produced those epic events. The Thin Lizzy/Wha Koo/Jon English/Sports show from Rocktober 1978 was the focus of the new interview. The photo atop this post is Bob King’s crowd shot from that day, featuring me in my trademark black floppy hat looking a bit witchy woman-ish. (My hero shot for this whole music blog is another of Bob’s shots from that gig.) I explained in the interview that I wasn’t there as a big Thin Lizzy fan; many other people there probably weren’t either. The band was fine, but we were all there because it was a 2SM free concert, and those concerts were everything. 1978 was everything. My last blog post before this one, nearly two years ago, was about a favourite album from 1978, which features a song called “Reminiscing”.

And just to note, in 1978 you could pretty much guarantee that if you were going to an outdoor concert during the warmer months, it would a) be warm and b) be dry. I began writing this on a very cold spring day, the coldest November morning since records began, according to the TV weather woman. I might as well be in the northern hemisphere getting excited about Thanksgiving.

Weather aside (although as Neil Finn wrote, I always take the weather with me), the point of these digressions is that the past is a special time that I can speak about quite joyfully, but the dearth of good music experiences today feeds into my grief, and it hit me when I was sitting there at the Opera House with the camera rolling and I was talking about being there 44 years before, in that iconic spot, experiencing great music. My best music moments haven’t all been in the long ago past; this blog testifies to wonderful music in recent years. Just one year ago, before leaving the US, I saw Brandi Carlile, the Doobie Brothers, Eagles (twice) and the Rolling Stones, all in the space of a few weeks. But the only concert I have attended in 2022 has been one in LA, when I popped back there in August for my birthday. The concert scene has been frenetic in the US, my friends there have been to one show after the next all through the long hot summer and beyond. There has just been nothing going on in Sydney worth going to, or that I could score a ticket for if it was worth going to.

(The Doobies are playing in Sydney next April; if I am still here, I will be there to listen to the music.)

When I was convinced of my conviction that moving back to Australia was the best thing for me, I told myself and all who listened that I had had more than my fair share of great concerts, that I could live without the Hollywood Bowl and the Eagles and even the lovely Brandi Carlile, (a post on her is well overdue), as going “home” was going to feel safe and healthy for me. I would be content with my collection of recorded music and the company of my friends. And live happily ever after.

But other than being subjected to someone else’s playlist – and a great playlist it was that day at my friend Rob’s house – the act of listening for myself by myself, just putting on music and listening, has been hard. I will say, and I probably will write separately about this, that the new Chicago album has had a lot of play time in my car lately, and that is something I had not expected when that faded old band released its umpteenth album. And on a good day I might switch on my VPN and stream something from SiriusXM, perhaps Carlile’s “Somewhere Over The Radio” monthly show that highlights LGBTQ+ artists, or just whatever is on the 70s on 7 channel. But more than music radio, I am tending to listen to KCRW, my trusty Santa Monica NPR station. It makes me feel like I am back in LA. “Live from Culver City, California, I’m Dwane Browwwwn…” That is actually music to my ears.

I’m digressing yet again. My high school history teacher, GG O’Brien, an octogenarian with a refined, sharp wit and tongue, told me recently that I over-write. “You go on and on and on and on. It’s good, but it just goes on.”

This is an exercise in just getting back into it, and being open and honest. Do you listen to music when you’re sad or do you prefer silence, so you can dwell on your sorrow without distraction? Is that a self-torture of my own invention? Am I a prisoner of my own device? Sad people that have written their best songs, painted their best art (starry starry night…), in the depths of despair, they are heroes. I find it very difficult to write creatively or even focus on reading a good book when I am sad and anxious.

But I do have a long, long list of subjects I have been intending to write about here. Some that I planned to write during the Covid insanity and stay-at-home times but felt too much insanity to focus on. Some that I have been mentally writing more recently since I made this epic, crazy, rain-sodden return to the homeland. Before leaving LA, I spent half of last year driving solo around the United States and a few ideas for stories about music came out of that. (Road trip songs? After 15,000 miles, I have a few.) My precious Sony Cyber Shot camera has fallen apart and I am waiting to find out if it can be repaired so that I might be able to take concert photos again some day, but there are still hundreds of good photos from concerts I have not written about that I want to, experiences I need to commit to prose.

So this is my first step. I’ll be back soon. Maybe even less sadly.

Postscript 1: I am posting this at the end of a good Sydney day. Sunshine, sculptures, ocean, and more. I thought about what a good theme song might be for a good Sydney day, but there still wasn’t a connection to music for me today.

Postscript 2: I just noticed my WordPress account is still set on LA time. I’ll leave it there.

5 thoughts on “The girl is back in town and she can’t listen to the music

  1. It’s definitely more difficult for me to write when I’m depressed, but listening to music — certain music, certain songs — tends to help me process what I’m feeling. A long time ago, I used to have a cassette tape that started off with all my favorite wallow-y/in my feelings songs but ending with more upbeat and you can do it, girl type songs that helped me move past what I was wallowing over. I hope you can hear the music again, soon, Debbie.


  2. Thanks Debbie! Enjoyed your writing as always! Reading the Hotel CA book and saw you got credit for going through Henry’s photos! Nice work!
    Hope you can listen to music soon! 😊


    • Yes I did the photo research for that book for Barney Hoskyns, seems like forever ago now! And then a few years later Barney and I sat next to each other in the front row of the London press conference for the Eagles and he took my first pic with Henley… And a few years after that, I was alone with DH in his dressing room after the Linda Ronstadt tribute concert and I mentioned Barney, and our Don started on one of his derogatory rants about my friend. Always a story or two to tell about every moment and memory in my musical life. Thanks for reading! x


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