LIFE:

Locked away read­ing clas­sics of queer lit­er­a­ture, and writ­ing the lyric for a new al­bum, mu­si­cian Adam Cur­ley found you are most free when you re­move what keeps you hid­den.

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Adam Cur­ley

On­stage reveries.

My mind went briefly to an early mem­ory. I stood alone in a field on my fam­ily’s mango farm in north Queens­land, aged maybe four or five. I’d run from the house, although I don’t re­mem­ber why or the where­abouts of my older sib­lings or par­ents. Some­thing had un­set­tled me. Per­haps it was the stir­ring of this thought: there in the field, I had a dis­tinct re­al­i­sa­tion that my fu­ture was un­known. I was sin­gu­lar and tiny in the ex­panse of dirt, the hot smells of dust and ocean in my nos­trils. I was ter­ri­fied and thrilled.

On a stage in Barcelona, this mem­ory came back into fo­cus. As I sang, I dis­cerned the nar­row­ness of my bare shoul­ders, my band mates me­tres away on ei­ther side. All around me was a gi­ant steel struc­ture and in front a thou­sand pairs of eyes to tell me how in­con­sid­er­able my body was out of its cloth­ing.

Then, maybe after the show, maybe after some gin, a mem­ory of a beau­ti­ful scene: a baby-faced per­son, vogue­ing to an au­di­ence of three. That au­di­ence was me and two others, work­ing at a bar in Fitzroy. It was late on a week­night, when the peo­ple who came in of­ten did so alone. We stood at the back of the band room and watched as this per­son threw their body around to the house mu­sic, with an ex­pres­sion, part-smile, part-gri­mace, as if at once re­lieved and re­pulsed by our bear­ing wit­ness. I sensed that they danced to re­mem­ber and to doc­u­ment that they were alive.

Not many months later, the dancer was dead. Sui­cide, I was told. I cried in the keg room.

The week my band started writ­ing our sec­ond al­bum, my re­la­tion­ship ended and I was left alone to see out a house-sit­ting ten­ancy in north­ern Mel­bourne – the large sub­ur­ban house of a friend of a friend. I’d moved around from sub­lets to house-sits for eight or nine months, in part be­cause of tour­ing com­mit­ments and fi­nances and in part be­cause of the un­sta­ble state of my re­la­tion­ship. I couldn’t find my foot­ing.

It was win­ter and only the liv­ing room in the house was prop­erly heated, so I spent most days on the chair next to the iron stove. I looked for my next crash pad; I stared out at the yard. Lis­ten­ing back to be­gin­nings of songs recorded on my phone, I scratched out lyrics.

I read Le Livre Blanc, the novella pub­lished anony­mously in France in 1928 and later at­trib­uted to Jean Cocteau, con­sid­ered semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. In it, the book’s queer nar­ra­tor retells a se­ries of re­la­tion­ships and sex­ual ad­ven­tures. All are hid­den from out­side eyes. Each re­la­tion­ship ends in silent aban­don­ment, vi­o­lence or death.

In one en­counter, with a sailor whose tat­too reads “Out of luck”, the nar­ra­tor senses that the night to­gether is one more in­ti­mate than his lover has ex­pe­ri­enced. Fig­ur­ing the des­per­a­tion of “an un­lucky boy who could feel a lifebelt com­ing close to him on the open sea”, the nar­ra­tor slips out qui­etly in the morn­ing. “My eyes avoided his,” he writes, “which were full of all the hope which he felt but could not ex­press.”

I re­vis­ited Gio­vanni’s Room, James Bald­win’s claus­tro­pho­bic novel of 1956, in which a white Amer­i­can man es­capes him­self by tak­ing a boat to France, only to be­gin a re­la­tion­ship with an Ital­ian man equally un­able to face him­self. Re­count­ing his child­hood, the Amer­i­can, David, re­calls a de­ci­sion to close him­self off after an in­ti­mate night with a male friend led to self­de­struc­tive drink­ing and his father’s re­jec­tion. David suc­ceeds in not re­turn­ing to the feel­ings that fright­ened him, “by not look­ing at my­self, by re­main­ing, in ef­fect, in con­stant mo­tion”.

Si­lence and eva­sion re­peat through queer lit­er­a­ture – and in real lives, too. In so many sto­ries, queer bodies trip over them­selves to avoid stand­ing still, to avoid the pres­ence of their own de­sires, their own pres­ence in the world. In both these books is some­thing far greater than the char­ac­ters them­selves: the sus­pi­cion un­der which their lives play out. This is the smirk that tells Cocteau’s char­ac­ter his dif­fer­ence is seen and he is un­safe. It’s the dis­ap­point­ment in the voice of David’s father in Gio­vanni’s Room, the way the char­ac­ters’ fears turn in­ward, be­come a fes­ter­ing quiet. But the char­ac­ters do find mo­ments of joy, sex, sol­i­dar­ity – small trans­gres­sions in the smog of shame; mo­ments of re­sis­tance, like wild dancing in a quiet bar.

These ideas were cir­cling my own postre­la­tion­ship feel­ings as I wrote lyrics. I doc­u­mented my eva­sions and trans­gres­sions. I won­dered how these re­lated to other things hap­pen­ing in the world. All over, the idea of re­sis­tance is be­ing talked about and de­bated against that of as­sim­i­la­tion – as­sim­i­la­tion into sys­tems that seek to use our bodies for money-mak­ing and then throw them away, or deem cer­tain bodies worth­less to their end goals and dis­pose of them more quickly, put them out of sight, lock them up, mur­der them. My mind turned to great po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance, and the smaller, more personal mo­ments of re­sis­tance in­side these sys­tems, ways to be, and the fight to be, the au­thors of our own fu­tures.

After the al­bum was recorded, we toured Bri­tain and Europe, a show a day for three weeks, end­ing at the Pri­mav­era Sound fes­ti­val in Barcelona. The band had writ­ten a set of songs that al­lowed me to feel out the long­ing, anger, smart-ar­sed­ness and ex­hil­a­ra­tion I had wanted to write into the lyrics. Play­ing most of the songs live for the first time on the tour, though, I be­gan to dread hav­ing to go on­stage. I moved around con­stantly dur­ing the shows, barely fac­ing the au­di­ence. I blew my voice out most nights, shout­ing into the mi­cro­phone, not know­ing how or when to pull back. I looked at the pho­tos of us play­ing, posted on the in­ter­net by Euro­pean strangers, and I saw a per­son in pants and a T-shirt per­form­ing the role of a man on stage, tak­ing cover in the pro­vi­sions of the role.

At Pri­mav­era Sound, I sat back­stage be­fore our mid­night set. I took off my jacket and my shirt and went out to play the show. It was an ac­tion many singers had taken be­fore me, and as a white cis-male I was un­der far less threat of vi­o­lence than others. But on that ex­pan­sive stage in the Cat­alo­nian breeze, singing about si­lence and de­fi­ance, I felt more ex­posed than I ever had. In­signif­i­cant and seen. I arched my shoul­ders in the light. I stood still and looked out to the front rows of peo­ple singing my words back to me. I doc­u­mented and re­mem­bered that I was alive.

Now, I think of an­other thing I read in those quiet house-sit hours: a Holly Hughes piece ti­tled “Break­ing the Fourth Wall”, from the New York per­for­mance artist’s 1996 show, Clit Notes. It’s one of the most alive and funny pieces of writ­ing I’ve read. In the first-per­son story, a teenage girl kisses her mother good­night, only to be told that she is kiss­ing “all wrong, hon” and that she should open her mouth wider. The nar­ra­tor goes on: “As I made out with Mom, I heard a small sound. Like a door clos­ing and lock­ing be­hind me. I knew I would never get back to that place where I imag­ined I was safe.”

Although Cocteau’s nar­ra­tor in Le Livre Blanc with­draws en­tirely from so­ci­ety fol­low­ing the sui­cides of his lovers and so much aban­don­ment and fear, he comes to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion: “I will not agree to be tol­er­ated. This dam­ages my love of love and of lib­erty.”

I can’t pre­tend I haven’t re­treated on stage again since that night in Barcelona, from anx­i­ety or the ex­haus­tion of ex­po­sure, or that I know ex­actly where to go with these ideas drawn from my own ex­pe­ri­ences and the ex­pe­ri­ences of others. Some, if not most, days I still feel like a child in a field, although per­haps now one clutch­ing a fist­ful of strings, on the ends of which are bulging, bright bal­loons. What to do with them? Tie them down? Let them go?

All fu­tures are un­known. Maybe we find our way by re­mov­ing the things that keep us hid­den from each other, by ex­pos­ing the es­sen­tial parts of our­selves and bear­ing wit­ness to the es­sen­tial parts of others. Maybe that’s

• when we are free.

Life­line 13 11 14

Adam Cur­ley, per­form­ing with his band Gold Class.

ADAM CUR­LEY is the front­man of Gold Class. The band’s sec­ond al­bum is Drum.

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