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Des Cowley writes: There was a time when I used to run into Steve Cummings all the time in Melbourne and though I didn't really know him, it gave me the illusion of knowing him. That is, until I read this book, and then I realised I didn't know him at all. In the face of the evidence before me, I am forced to acknowledge that Steve is far weirder and more interesting than I'd ever given him credit for. Like a Morrissey or Elvis Costello, Cummings has always been a bit of a wordsmith, whether in song or the two previous novels he's published. So it comes as no real surprise to discover that this autobiography - subtitled 'Misadventures In Music' - is a rollicking good read. Without wanting to elevate Cummings beyond his station, there's a touch of Bob Dylan's Chronicles about the way he approaches his life and career. Like Bob, Cummings sidesteps the more usual chronological fare, choosing instead to focus intensely upon certain moments to the exclusion of others. At first glance, this approach can look arbitrary; but make no mistake, there's serious art going on here behind the artifice. From an early age, music was everything to Cummings.He was right there when Melbourne's burgeoning music scene took off in 1970s, playing firstly with The Pelaco Brothers, and then with the mighty Sports.
Cummings rightly believes the Sports should have conquered the world, but his self-confessed control-freak personality, combined with head-on clashes with Mushroom chief Michael Gudinski, ended that dream once and for all. But along the way there were recordings in London for Stiff Records, tours with Graham Parker and the Rumour,and the almost obligatory disastrous tour of the US. Years later, there would be the Countdown reunion tour, an event that brings to mind Karl Marx's famous quote about history repeating itself. What is most likely to take the reader aback is Cummings' outspoken and judgmental attitude to fellow musicians. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his bizarre chapter on Nick Cave, a curious mix of sarcasm and spite. But Cummings eventually turns it back on himself, using his rancour to expose his own feeble jealousies: "Do you know what I can't get my head around? The idea that he sells millions of albums and I don't." If Cummings is hard on those around him, he reserves his harshest judgments for himself.
I wondered whether this book shouldn't come with a warning sticker, something along the lines of "spending too much time inside Stephen Cummings' head may not be good for your health". So sensitive is he to nuance, to the fraught vagaries of everyday social interaction, that I found myself having mild anxiety attacks on his behalf while reading the book. But in the end,Cummings finds his own consolation, feeling "lucky that I get to make my music, spend time at home and read."I could think of worse ways to spend my time. Cummings has written a book that is honest, amusing and at times a little sad. And next time I run into him in some deserted Melbourne back street, just the two of us, I'll damn well tell him so.
Once upon a time, Robert Moore, lead singer with the legendary Honey's, was front page news. Then when the band couldn't cut it in America, he faded into the kind of celebrity people recognise but can't put a name to. And now, having just been struck by a bolt of lightning meant for someone else, he's plain old dead. But if he can explain his life to Maigret, the Camel smoking, whisky drinking divine umpire of the afterlife... if he can explain about lightning girl and her sexy drugged-up sister, about love and failure and hurt and fear, and about a talking dog called Biscuit... if he can only tell the story of a heart in conflict with itself, he might just be allowed to return to the sweet melancholy that is life.
Disorient Express review by Jon Casimir - The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1996. Rock star writes novel. It's not exactly the kind of thought that makes you want to rush out to the bookstore but, like life, Wonderboy has a rather splendid habit of confounding expectations. Despite Cummings's other career - for 20 years he has been one of Australian pop's most lustrous voices - Wonderboy, his first novel, is not vanity publishing. It's not a half-hearted foray by a mind overly convinced of its own artistry. It's not the usual slim volume of awkward poetry that lyricists present us with. It's not a cocaine-snorting, groupie-shagging, rear-seat-of-the-limo rock memoir.
And in a shocking divergence from recent Australian literary tradition, it's not an example of the Urban Brutalist school of writing. It's not, to paraphrase Ben Elton: "Hi, I'm at this inner-city dive watching kiddies do heroin because that's what this novel is all about...Shock!"
With Wonderboy, Cummings has actually set out to conjure a novel from his imagination. You know, like writers used to. He has set out to explore words and meanings. His novel is a journey of discovery, the story of a grown man trying to grow up. And the good news is that it's not half bad.
Charles Mann lives with his 10-year-old son Max in Lovetown, a less than glamorous bayside suburb in south-east Melbourne. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, and unable to make his own marriage work, the wraithlike Charles has spiralled further and further into himself. His heart is like the surface of the moon: cratered, silent, seemingly dead.
But the spirits, mercifully, have other ideas for him. The raucous ghost of his grandmother, in cahoots with his long-estranged father, ignites a plan to lure Charles back into the realm of his senses.
In the middle of the night, in a place that is neither sleep nor wakefulness, a mystery train arrives and magically transports father and son, the latter still in shortie pyjamas, to Vietnam. On a pilgrimage to a dying man's bedside, they wander a part of the world that used to be the Orient, but is here more like the Disorient.
Confusing, busy, shrill, full of strange sights, smells and behaviours, the otherness of the setting heightens the dreamlike nature of the book. It is a place of angels and demons, omens and miracles, faith, love and the everyday joys of a good meal or a cold beer.
Cummings breaks the surly bonds of reality early on in Wonderboy. Charles and Max ask no questions about the impossible events and visions that confront them - they sense that answers will come.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Charles's matchmaking nanna sets him up with another angel, Caitlin. This heavenly figure, however, is real. Flesh and blood and spit and salvation. As the path winds on, it slowly dawns on all of the Mann clan, in various ways, that life is a tale best told in the living. The book is either magical realism or a subtle retake on the classic horror is-it-a-dream-or-not structures of films such as Nightmare on Elm Street (OK, I'm stretching). Either way, its sense of unreality brings the themes and ideas of the book into clearer focus.
With tongue in cheek, Cummings regularly punctures the pretentiousness of the fantasy, mostly through the laconic grandmother but also, once, through Charles, who proclaims his father's habit of delivering Polaroids of himself, through the oddest and most enchanted of means, to be a gag wearing somewhat thin.
Pop trainspotters will be curious to know that Wonderboy intersects only tangentially with Cummings's body of lyrics. Lovetown has appeared regularly before in his writing, as have references to film stars whose ghostly presences wander the back streets of this novel: Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly and Anita Ekberg all drift by at some stage.
But of Cummings's previous work, only Sliding Across A Blue Highway, from the 1994 Falling Swinger album, really hints at the subject matter. A series of almost disconnected images of a Vietnam car trip, it appears in longer form as a chapter here.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wonderboy is of his lyrical style rather than a simple reiteration of previous words and themes. As a writer, Cummings is most at home with the fantastic aspects of the imagery and the documentation of minor detail. He steers his ship on a gently humorous, charming course towards a limited enlightenment.
The editing could have been a little more careful in places and there is the occasional lapse of momentum, but Wonderboy, a novel which suggests we stop and sniff a rose occasionally, is a perfectly good way to do just that.
© Jon Casimir - reprinted with permission