Rock singer lends voice to Whiteley’s world
Brett Whiteley hated working in silence. He called it “criminal darkness”, and much preferred to have music blaring in the background, particularly Bob Dylan and Dire Straits. He also liked to have people read books to him. Often that task fell to his wife, Wendy, but it was just as likely to be one of his poet friends such as Robert Adamson or Michael Driscoll. Whiteley was never a big student of words on the page — all that restless energy made it hard to sit still for long — but he loved the contest of language and ideas in literature, so that’s where those readers came in.
What would he have made of my book, Brett Whiteley: Art, Life and the Other Thing? Who knows, but he may well have appreciated its existence in audio form. And considering the company he kept, it seems fitting that the person recruited to record it for Audible just happened to be a rock singer — Mark Seymour, best known as the frontman of Hunters and Collectors — even if the two of them had never met.
The recording begins, after the details of the book itself, with Seymour reading the dedication to my partner and son. Then, as he goes on, a strange combination of familiarity and distance sets in. Maybe composers feel a similar sensation while listening to an orchestra playing their work, when they no longer control the precise articulation of the notes and the rests on the page. The obvious difference, of course, is that their work is written to be performed while mine is set to the rhythm of some faint inner-voice that sounds a little like mine and yet always remains obedient and silent. I imagine it’s even stranger for novelists and poets.
Audible consulted me during the selection process, but beyond that I had no involvement. I didn’t hear from Seymour and still haven’t. But he did a remarkable job, and that warm, deep voice conveys just the right tone: authoritative, playful when needed, sometimes solemn, sceptical, ironic, portentous, excitable, pensive and so on. In an ideal world, we would hear Whiteley himself, since he spoke with such “tremendous vigour [and] a rapid flow of quick incessant words packed with energy and ideas”, as Donald Friend once put it.
But Seymour doesn’t go in for cheap impersonation, which is probably for the best. He also navigates with ease the letters and diaries in Whiteley’s hand, where words are misspelled and thoughts often run together. Of course there are parts that sounded different in my head, but it would probably be strange if this wasn’t the case.
Most impressive must be Seymour’s endurance during the recording process. The book spans 451 pages, and the audio version lasts for 13 hours and 29 minutes. I’ve got it on my phone, and the pace seems about right for a long drive, maybe the train to work, maybe a background soundtrack during the painting of a bird or a domestic interior or Sydney Harbour in all its brilliant ultramarine blue.
Mark Seymour in the studio reading the Brett Whiteley biography