A Sweet and Pensive Sadness
When I was in my second year of university we studied Hotel Sorrento, a play by the Australian playwright Hannie Rayson that was later turned into a film. One of the themes running through the play – one of many – was an exploration of melancholy, and two lines in particular remained with me some fifteen years after I first read it.
The first was a female character asserting that men do not feel melancholy, that it’s a particularly female emotion. The second was the definition: a sweet and pensive sadness.
A sweet and pensive sadness.
I mean, fuck, how do you go past that, eh? It’s a beautifully expressed idea when you hear it at nineteen, and I was immediately smitten. I don’t remember how it happened, or where it happened, but I fell and I fell hard, in a very, melancholy, fuck yeah, that’s the stuff for me kind of way.
I still have my copy of the Hotel Sorrento script, long after I’ve thrown out or given away the vast majority of the play-scripts I studied at university. I haven’t read it in over a decade, but it comforts me to know it’s around.
Whose Going to Drive You Home?
When I was in my second year of university — or perhaps my third — I discovered the Paradise Motel. They’d done a cover of The Car’s Whose Going to Drive You Home, transforming a preppy pop hit into four and a half minutes of string-laden heart-ache and darkness, and it got played on the Triple J a couple of times despite the fact that the cover is one of the least radio-friendly songs I can imagine once you get past the surprise that is recognizing the song they’re covering.
Still, it was beautiful. I don’t know what I was doing the first time I heard it, but odds are I stopped. I still stop when the Paradise Motel version of Drive comes on my MP3 player, because it’s that kind of song.
It’s hard to describe the effect of the cover if you’ve never heard it. It starts with slow strings, perhaps some kind synthesizer or keyboard underscoring it. There’s nothing pop about it at all – instead it’s got the slow, aching pace associated with a sound track, the kind of thing that plays when the movie reaches its penultimate moment of profundity.
It’s twenty-five seconds into the song before you get the first line, delivered in Merida Sussex’s throaty whisper: whose going to tell you when…it’s too late…whose going to tell you things… aren’t so great…you can’t go on…thinking nothing’s wrong.
Whose going to drive you home…tonight.
I mean, Jesus. The whole damn cover captured something that’d been at the heart of the Cars hit the whole damn time: a sweet and pensive sadness.
I fell and I fell hard.
I’m not exactly sure when, or if, I’ll post this. I started writing this because I’ve blown out my internet bandwidth only two weeks into the month, dropping me down to the snail-like speed that comes from exceeding your limitations, so blogging and other internet-related activities have become somewhat untenable. I wouldn’t be writing this at all except that I’m stuck, unable to progress on the current story, and my brain is making insistent noises about the lack of blogging that’s happened in recent weeks.
Right now it’s twelve thirty at night and I’m wittering away on Fritz the Laptop, putting down words because it’s the putting-down-words time of the evening and there’s no other words coming. It’s been raining, on and off, for most of the evening. The air crisp and cold, but not in a vile and bone-chilling way, just in that pleasant late-winter way that says spring is coming but it isn’t quite here yet. I’ve turned off all the lights and dragged Fritz to bed, working by the pale glow of the screen.
The flat is still, my neighbors are blessedly quiet, and there’s a new Paradise Motel album playing. It’s titled Australian Ghost Stories and it came out in 2009, but somehow I managed to miss it until an unexpected pit-stop at the Logan JB Hi-Fi unearthed two new Paradise Motel albums that I’d never come across before.
This happened about a week ago. I was driving down to the Gold Coast and I’d forgotten to pack some CDs for the trip, which wasn’t a huge deal except for the fact that I’d lose radio reception about halfway through the hour-long trip and I’m not a fan of listening to the noises my car makes while I’m driving.
And so there was a pit-stop to pick up CDs, a rarity in my world these days, and in the back of my mind there was a nagging voice saying that a new Paradise Motel album was coming after a long, long delay.
Scenes from Movies That Never Got Made
It’s taken me seven days to get around to listening to the two albums. There’s a very simple reason for this: The Paradise Motel aren’t road-trip music. Their albums are lush soundscapes, almost cinematic in their approach. The vast majority of their songs make me imagine films that have never been made, slow-moving atmosphere pieces that are equal parts anarchy and beauty, with the Paradise Motel providing the pivotal track that appears in the penultimate moment of realization when the protagonists have lost all there is to lose.
These aren’t popular movies. They’re the awkward, under-funded pieces featuring stars like Johnny Depp who are there as a favour to the director, putting in the hours between more successful films (back before their successful films were things Chocolat rather than Pirates of the Caribbean). They aren’t films that are universally beloved, but they’re films that are fiercely loved by the small groups of people who enjoy them, inspiring the kind of passion that lasts for decades.
Every shot that the Paradise Motel is used for takes place between midnight and dawn. They are universally scenes featuring characters staring at empty beaches, or wandering drunk and lonely through empty Parisian streets, or engaging in sweet and pensive lovemaking that makes you wish you were more in love than you are right now.
There’s no way to listen to that kind of music when you’re driving down a highway at a hundred kilometers an hour. I paid ten bucks for a third CD – the Best of Roxy Music – and spent the trip singing along to Virginia Plain instead.
So me and the Paradise Motel, that was love at first sight. Or hearting, whatever, you get the picture. That doesn’t mean it was easy to become a fan of the band. This was the days before the internet had solidified into its current form, before youtube and iTunes, possibly even before Napster was a thing and record stores started going the way of the dodo.
It took over a year to track down the Flight Paths album that contained the song. For starters, I’d managed to forget the name of the band after hearing the song the first time, so it became one of those things I kept listening out for on the radio, hoping like hell I hadn’t missed the back-announce telling me who it was.
Secondly, I lived on the Gold Coast, which was hardly a Mecca for independent music stores likely to stock Paradise Motel albums. Plus I was a uni student, which automatically meant I subsisted in the wage bracket known as ‘single, broke, living on two-minute-noodles, and utterly lacking in political capital’.
I found a copy of Flight Paths in a small, second-hand record store that resided in a Southport attic. It was a pretty cool place, all things considered; the same store that eventually sold me copies of Smiths LPs, a vinyl copy of the Love Will Tear Us Apart single, and more band t-shirts than I’m really comfortable admitting too. The fact that such a thing existed on the Gold Coast probably kept me living in the city for about twelve-months longer than I would have otherwise, ’cause by twenty-two I was largely sick of the place.
My copy of Flight Paths cost me $12. I didn’t have the money the first time I saw it there, but I cut back on cask wine for a week and scrounged together enough to get it the next time payday rolled around.
Then I took it home and listened to it, repetitively, for six weeks straight. It’s still the best $12 I ever spent on a CD.