May 2012

Arts & Letters

'Save What You Can: The Day of The Triffids' by Bleddyn Butcher

By John Kinsella
'Save What You Can: The Day of The Triffids' by Bleddyn Butcher, Treadwater Press; $60.00

Since the broader recognition of Born Sandy Devotional as one of the great Australian albums, there have been several publications relating to the definitively Western Australian band The Triffids and their singer–songwriter Dave McComb.

This new addition allows us insight into the often tormented creativity of the band’s leader. The Triffids was a band formed out of school friendships and family before settling into its core identity, and was often spoken of as a close-knit group of friends. But there’s a telling moment Butcher documents in the recording of the album Calenture, the band’s first with a major label, when the original (failed) producer replaced band members with session musicians to little opposition from McComb, who for the time being put personal vision and ambition ahead of the band’s collective interest.

McComb is certainly a figure worthy of biography. A superb songwriter, musician and poet, he is especially interesting in terms of how and why his work uses, differs from and interacts with other songwriters and poets of his time (and places). Inevitably Butcher illustrates substance issues as they relate to McComb’s daily creative life, but as this book finishes with the breakup of the McComb version of The Triffids in 1989, we don’t follow the full horrific road to his death in 1999 – drugs are not the prime focus, for which I felt grateful.

In some ways, Butcher comes across as the invisible member of the band. He is silently omnipresent: in the band’s bedrooms and digs, at every performance. His magnificent photographs do capture a curious intimacy, but also seem – or are – clinical, staged and distant. This paradox is at the core of the Butcher–Triffids interaction as manifested in Save What You Can.

Butcher is likely one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Australian music scene of the 1980s. We get insights into the great Go-Betweens and many Perth musicians (such as the Snarski brothers). We see McComb trying to lift himself out of the penumbra of Nick Cave, and inevitably enjoying an eclectic and ever-widening list of musical influences, from Bruce Springsteen to Prince.

Yet the biography frequently risks overindulgence of subject and language. In the effort to capture a zeitgeist – a feeling of the talk, the chat, the life conditions of the band (mainly McComb) in the musical ecology of Western Australia, Australia and, later, Britain and Europe – we become part of a performance, an in situ witnessing that doesn’t always convince.

One man might be at the centre of this book, but all songs are the result of many. The book makes this point, even if at times we get lost in the Dave McComb swirl.

John Kinsella
John Kinsella is a poet, novelist, critic and editor.

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