Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
“I live in an apartment on the 99th floor of my block / And I sit at home looking out the window imagining the world has stopped.” These are the words of a young man from Dartford, England, in 1965, but I’m appropriating them because I’m a 41 year old lying on my floor in St Kilda and I’ve lost my zest. As a man proud of his girlish enthusiasm, this is devastating.
It’s nearly Christmas and there is a familiar dull anxiety brewing, shared, I’m sure, by others from broken homes, living abroad, incarcerated or under strict dietary regimes. But when my shoulders collapse and the black dog comes lapping, I rifle through songs and scenes, to position myself somewhere other than here.
“Get off my cloud,” I snap, and head over to the starboard window. It’s dusk, I’m staring unfocused, then my eyes deepen in my head, and a surge of exquisite sorrow rises. The folk in the apartment across from mine have hung Christmas lights. Bulbs of red, green and yellow grace their windows, and to me they look like a madonna’s hands cupping a child’s face: proud and affectionate, strong but tender. I bend wistfully.
Just the day before, the good people of SBS’s RocKwiz asked me to participate in their annual Christmas show at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre. I shirked, mumbling, “I’m just really not … into it … I mean, I love the time I spend with my daughter on the day, but I don’t look good in red and green.” But as I shovelled myself into a pair of ridiculous trousers for a show that night, the truth hit me. I play in a rock ’n’ roll band: it is my responsibility to push any cynicism or disenchantment to the corner of my plate.
Each year a friend, the songwriter Scott Spark of Brisbane, writes a song of Christmas. He explains why: “There’s so much to love about Christmas from a songwriting perspective. Very few things in this world mean something to everybody. Even if you want to spit in the face of Christmas and curse its grandchildren, it’s almost impossible to avoid. More than anything, it’s an almighty reminder: of haves and have-nots, friends and family who are both near and gone, company and loneliness, stress and idleness, simplicity and tedium, sobriety and addiction, childhood and old age, good health and sickness. And it’s also that intersection of our public and private selves, with the universal and personal duking it out.”
On receiving his letter I grasped the Armagnac and went to the starboard window again. What stirred me upon seeing a stranger’s decorative bulbs was possibility. Possibility: “the intersection of our public and private selves”. You could, in those final weeks of December, pass a stranger and demand their gaze. “Merry Christmas,” you could say. There aren’t many other opportunities to engage with strangers. Hugging a fellow supporter at a footy game? Grappling a sweaty neck in the mosh pit at a show by your new favourite hardcore band? It’s giving yourself the opportunity to be outside your own little pestilence of vapours and open yourself to possibilities. That’s why I’m in a rock ’n’-freakin’-roll band, right? I’m not a self-disposing, rueful, elegiac tramp. Christmas is not solely a grinding reminder of the more contrite aspects of filial arrangements. It’s looking at someone singing to themselves in a car and smiling. It’s a solemn and spiritual time for some, and it’s plain goofy for others. I’m feeling both. Scott sent me a tape with Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘The Secret of Christmas’: “It’s not the glow you feel when snow appears / It’s not the Christmas card you’ve sent for years / … But the Christmas things you do all year through.” Dammit, I’m this country’s 274th most in-demand performer. I’m in the industry of human happiness. Scruff your hair up, Rogers, and get out there.
I agreed to sing for the show. RocKwiz’s co-creator, Brian Nankervis, unearthed an astonishing number of great Christmas tunes, in wildly oscillating styles and sentiments and, surprisingly to me, all tremblingly tender to sing – because I was, for once, singing of an experience that many millions share. The universal and the personal were duking it out. I was to open the show with my friend Tex Perkins. We were positioned in opposing corners of the stage, high up in royal ‘boxes’ that, judging from the detritus at my feet, had been unused for decades. We were dueting on ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Phone calls in the days before found us debating the worth of Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s version as against Bob Dylan’s recent attempt. As the opening timpani march began, I peered over the parapet to see an audience adorned with seasonal accessories: Santa hats, tinsel, bloody reindeer antlers. The scene was … joyful. Goofy, and joyful.
For The Who’s blistering ‘Christmas’, I donned the bovver boots, swung my arm around and sang, just a little flatly but with all I could muster. Playing for the pain of being separated from family at times like this, and for the joy on my daughter’s face. For gravy recipes and cold ham sandwiches for a month. It was festive. It was bewildering. It was why I walked home after the show delivering Christmas bon mots to strangers, and hung some underwhelming yet well-intentioned lights around my starboard window for the neighbours. I owe them at least that.
My favourite Christmas songs: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘The Secret of Christmas’; Loudon Wainwright III, ‘Christmas Morning’; Bob Seger, ‘Sock it to me Santa’; Donny Hathaway, ‘This Christmas’; Eartha Kitt, ‘Santa Baby’; Big Star, ‘Jesus Christ’; Low, ‘Just Like Christmas’; CW Stoneking, ‘On a Christmas Day’; The BellRays, ‘All I Want to do is Shag for Christmas’; Paul Kelly, ‘How to Make Gravy’; Tom Waits, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’.