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Sound as ever

Growing up and growing old with the music and words of Tim Rogers

Tim Rogers in full flight with You Am I in mid-2021.

I’VE lost count of the number of gigs I’ve seen Tim Rogers perform live, either with You Am I or solo, but I clearly remember the first time. It was the 1995 Big Day Out at the Melbourne Showgrounds. Sound As Ever had been out for a while and Russell Hopkinson had recently replaced Mark Tunaley on the drums, but they were yet to release Hi Fi Way. It was mid-afternoon on the main stage, a prestigious slot for a relatively new and unknown band from Sydney.

I’d already been playing Sound As Ever to death. The three piece’s grungey sound caught the zeitgeist, but there was something extra about Tim Rogers’ lyrics — an ever-present yearning and a hint of nostalgia — that made me prick up my ears. Then I read in a magazine that his major influences included the Rolling Stones and the Replacements. Here was someone the same age as me, with similar experiences and inspirations writing about the same angst and insecurities that I felt every day.

On stage that day, You Am I blew me away. Rogers was a whirling dervish, leaping into the air and windmilling his guitar a la Pete Townshend. There and then I decided this would be a band I would follow the rest of my life.

I must have seen him at least once a year since then, which means many dozens of times. I’ve seen him on big stages with You Am I, performing solo in small inner city pubs, on rainy afternoons in record stores, in theatres as an actor, and most recently, at the newly opened Brunswick Ballroom, the first gig I’d been to in 12 months because of COVID-19.

I’ve seen him at his best and his worse. Gigs that have been ragged and gigs that have been sublime. I’ve watched him growing greyhaired and craggy-featured, and at times I’ve genuinely feared for his health and wellbeing. But he’s still here, still making music and insanely creative as he dabbles in acting, poetry and memoir in addition to songwriting.

I once had a heated argument with a friend about the relative importance of Tim Rogers and Nick Cave. My friend insisted that his global standing as an artiste made Cave far more important, while I rebutted that Rogers had made a bigger contribution to Australian music by staying here.

There’s no doubt that any new release by Nick Cave is a major event. By contrast, Tim Rogers is such a fixture of the local scene — you’re as likely to bump into him at an AFL reserves match or propping up the bar at your favourite pub, or hear him filling in as host on a community radio station — that we take him for granted. Just the other day, I heard him call into Triple R for a casual yarn with Nicole Tadpole about his bizarre new project fronting the Hard Ons, and it was like eavesdropping on an unvarnished conversation between two old friends as they shared lockdown experiences as if no-one else was listening. Yet it’s this sheer ubiquity and familiarity that makes Tim Rogers so precious.

As for the art, Tim Rogers’ canon of songs is as good as anyone this country has produced.

There’s nothing pretentious about his music. His voice has always been fragile and his songs follow a traditional rock formula. Lyrically, he is on the same pedestal as Paul Kelly and Don Walker. In his own idiosyncratic way, he has excavated ever aspect of the Aussie male psyche and put his own faults and flaws on display for all to see. He’s held little back over the years, and his memoir Detours was remarkable for its sheer honesty about his mistakes, regrets, foibles and anxieties.

You Am I’s newest album, The Lives of Others, came out just before the mid-winter lockdowns in Sydney and Melbourne, and was recorded remotely during the 2020 lockdown. Until now, I’d thought the band would never be able to recapture the magic of its incredible run of four albums in the ’90s which began with Sound As Ever and finished with #4 Record. They are still a force to be reckoned with in a live setting, and have managed some memorable releases since then — particularly Convicts — but it really did seem their best was past them.

But The Lives of Others shows there’s still life in the old dog yet, showcasing some of Rogers’ best lyrics for years backed by a band that when they are on their game, are second to none. Sadly, I missed the album launch, expecting to see them hit the stage again later in the year, but then of course, COVID got in the way …

So here’s to the joy and solace, often in equal measure, that Tim Rogers has brought me over the years. I love him like a slightly eccentric, sometimes shambolic and unreliable, brother. Long may he continue to cause trouble.

The Last Thing You Can Depend On

An epic dirge which apart from Tim’s Australian accent sounded as if it could have come directly from Seattle in 1993. The multi-layered guitars and stoner beat weren’t the only things borrowed from the home of grunge; the lyrics are replete with self-loathing and angst so typical of the era. Recorded by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo for the Coprolalia EP which was released six months ahead of their debut album, ‘The Last Thing You Can Depend On’ also yielded a video which captured the dynamism of early You Am I performances along with Tim Rogers’ sartorial elegance, in this case matching a hippie tunic with maroon bell bottoms.

Jaimme’s Got a Gal

Amid the filth and fury of You Am I’s debut was this gem of a ballad, namechecking Tim Rogers’ older brother with whom he had started the band several years earlier. A coming of age story over simple guitar chords and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Evan Dando at his best, it’s a lament about how our priorities change as we grow older (“Jaimme’s got a girl/Don’t think things are gonna be the same/He ain’t coming out and drinking tonight/Think he’s gonna change his name”). This was Tim Rogers delivering on his promise as an heir to one of his musical heroes, the great bard of Minneapolis, Paul Westerberg.

How Much is Enough

Hi Fi Way announced You Am I as a great Australian band. Produced again by Lee Ranaldo, every song was a killer, including ‘Cathy’s Clown’, ‘Jewels and Bullets’ and the classic ‘Purple Sneakers’. But ‘How Much Is Enough’, the album closer, has proved to be the most enduring, regularly providing the finale for You Am I’s live shows. Seemingly Tim Rogers’ early reflections on pop stardom, it starts off tentative and nervous, but quickly builds into a crescendo, peaking with a wailing guitar solo that continues until the song ends. Perhaps it was never single material, but along with ‘Berlin Chair’ it remains one of the band’s hallmarks.

Tuesday

Hourly, Daily was another great leap forward for both Tim Rogers and his bandmates, a concept album of sorts of a day in the life of mundane Australian suburbia. The arrangements and lyrics are the most sophisticated the band has produced; arguably, their later meat ’n’ potatoes rock albums have been a reaction to the broad sonic pallette of their third major release. Tim Rogers was listening to a lot of ’60s British music at the time, particularly the Kinks, and ‘Tuesday’ was an album highlight, Rogers exploring alienation, isolation and mental illness in a masterpiece of observation and reportage that is up there with the very best of Ray Davies’ output. Echoey production lends the melody a particularly melancholic feel which is broken about halfway through with the first of two trumpet solos over swelling strings heavily influenced by The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ before concluding with an outro stolen from ‘I Am The Walrus’. As both a showcase of Roger’s clever wordplay and an homage to some of his musical influences, it more than stands the test of time a quarter of a century later.

Heavy Heart

‘Been watching so much TV/I’m thinner than I should be/I’m like a waterlogged ball that no-one wants to kick around any more’. In the hands of a lesser songwriter it could have been mawkish, and although Rogers almost pushes the self-pity too far, his fragile sincerity gets it over the line. With its spare acoustic guitar backing, you can feel the loneliness and despair of life on the road and the impact it has on maintaining relationships, issues Tim Rogers would write about further in his fantastic memoir, Detours.

Kick A Hole In The Sky

The penultimate track on You Am I’s patchy fifth album, Dress Me Slowly, makes the list if only for its opening lines: “Walks like a crooked tooth/And sleeps with a dexedrine smile”. But in truth, it’s a gem, beginning with atmospheric twin electric and acoustic guitars before the entire band kicks in and swimming on glorious harmonies with a powerful chorus: “I think I’m gonna die/from trying to kick a hole in the sky”. Dress Me Slowly was the first You Am I album to feature the band’s new permanent guitarist, the sartorially elegant Davey Lane, who was a decade younger than the rest of his bandmates, and his presence added new texture and sophistication to songs like ‘Kick A Hole In The Sky’ just when You Am I was in danger of repeating itself by going over the same ground again and again as a three-piece.

Trike

A long time live favourite, and who could resist this footstomper with its bluesy harmonica and singalong chorus? In many respects, You Am I as a three-piece were a more powerful combination than the later four-piece incarnation, and there is no better demonstration of the synchronicity between Messrs Rogers, Kent and Hopkinson than this out-take (yes, you read it right) from the Hourly, Daily sessions.

Gasoline for Two

Idiot Box was a passable mid-90s Australian film starring Ben Mendelhson and Jeremy Sims, but it had a killer soundtrack thanks to the inspired decision to put the music in the hands of You Am I. The band contributed three instrumentals, two original songs and one cover version of the Victims’ ‘Television Addict’, while other great indie bands of the era including Magic Dirt, Hoss, Snout and Mark of Cain also covered Australian punk and rock classics from the late-70s and early-80s. Perhaps overshadowed by the rockier ‘Cats and Dogs’, ‘Gasoline For Two’ is a simple ballad about hitting the road to escape the town you where grew up and is still a semi-regular inclusion in the band’s live set today.

Thank God I’ve Hit The Bottom

By the time You Am I recorded Convicts in 2006, Tim Rogers really had hit the bottom. His marriage had broken up, the band’s previous album, Deliverance, had been an artistic and commercial flop, and he had become tabloid fodder after a series of drug and alcohol fuelled escapades, reaching a nadir when he punched out Missy Higgins at the Falls Festival. The band responded with one of their rockiest albums, leading off with this frenetic diatribe about everything that had gone wrong in Rogers’ life. This was dirty, powerful garage-punk which showed that even after a decade and a half, there was still plenty of life left in the old rocker yet.

The Songs They Played As I Drove Away

Tim Rogers’ debut solo album, What Rhymes With Cars and Girls, released in 1999, was a pleasant surprise, a poetic set of country and folk influenced, mostly acoustic songs with a pick up band of Melbourne musicians, including violinist Jen Anderson. ‘The Songs They Played As I Drove Away’ was the closing track, a sad and semi-autobiographical tale of a lonely drive from Sydney to Melbourne after the end of a relationship. In 2017, playwright Aidan Fennessy adapted the album for the theatre in a production which gave Rogers a nightly cameo to perform his songs with a small band to accompany the play’s words.

The Waterboy

Dropped on us without any warning at the end of February 2021, the opening track and first single from You Am I’s 11th album is Tim Rogers at his best. Written and recorded (remotely) during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, ‘The Waterboy’ recounts the lifelong inspirations that continue to guide Tim Rogers as a musician into his sixth decade of life, including the 1980s folk-rock band The Waterboys, fronted by enigmatic Scotsman Mike Scott, and a certain singer from Tupelo, Mississippi. An earworm that kicks like a mule while reeking of nostalgic memories of the songs that change our lives and stick by us as we grow older. The new album, The Lives of Others, is a welcome return to form and the band’s best for a decade.

Berlin Chair

Leaving the best to last, ‘Berlin Chair’ is simply one of the greatest bursts of rock music ever to have been recorded in Australia. What makes some songs magical is impossible to define and beyond description. They just are. ‘Berlin Chair’ is one of those songs: it hits you in the gut and the groin at the same time, angry, furious and powerful, the timeless story of a relationship gone wrong. The kind of song that never fails to leave you wanting more, that’s over too soon but finishes at the perfect time, and just gets better with repeated listens. No You Am I show is complete without it.

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