If I had to name the best rock ’n’ roll memoir ever written, I’d say, after some deliberation, that Patti Smith’s meticulously crafted Just Kids takes the top slot; its National Book Award is well-deserved. But if I had to name my favorite rock ‘n’ roll memoir, well, that’s easy: Steve Kilbey’s Something Quite Peculiar wins handily.
Here’s where you ask, Who the hell is Steve Kilbey? That’s tricky to answer in so short a space, but I’ll give it a try. Steve Kilbey is best known, if known at all, as the singer, bassist, and primary lyricist for the Australian rock band The Church, an ever-evolving collective whose hypnotic 1988 hit “Under the Milky Way” became a staple of the mid-to-late ‘80s genre known as college rock.
That song remains a faint memory to many Americans—the brief flash of a “one hit wonder” at best—but in the band’s home country it has taken on an iconic status. In 2008, readers of The Australian voted it the best Aussie song of the previous 20 years. In 2011 it was featured on the prestigious Great Australian Songbook compilation, a curated collection that spans several generations of the country’s best music.
“Under the Milky Way,” as one might suspect, is merely the recognizable tip of a very large iceberg; in 35 years of recording and performing, The Church has acquired a cult following matching the Grateful Dead’s in fervor if not size. And there’s a lot of material for those fans to sift through: if we count all the solo albums and side projects, we’re looking at thousands of hours of music. To discover their catalog is to discover a new world.
Thinking back to the dawn of my own obsession with The Church nearly 30 years ago, I believe I initially connected with two aspects of Kilbey’s work. First, his lyrics articulate the daydreamer’s desire to transcend material reality by any means necessary. (Drugs, spirituality, and surrealism have all served as Kilbey’s transports away from the mundane). The accompanying music is rich, expansive, almost cinematic in quality.
But a melancholy undercurrent flows beneath all the high-minded sonic mysticism, and this is the part that I probably did not pick up on consciously during my teens. Dreamers often have a difficult time reconciling their flights of fancy with the responsibilities of day-to-day life, and Kilbey does not shy away from addressing that chasm; his part-wistful, part-ominous couplet “Wish I knew what you were looking for / Might have known what you would find” (from “Under the Milky Way”) seems to speak to both the dreamer and the crestfallen realist in all of us.
It’s hard to pin down just what makes “Under the Milky Way” so great. Close examination reveals it to be a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated phrases strung together over a psychedelic Nelson Riddle-style arrangement. But with The Church the sum almost always transcends the parts. It’s never down to just the lyrics; indeed, the quality of Kilbey’s verse can vary greatly, even within a single song. One gets the sense that he approaches writing as if he were flying a rickety aircraft through a heavy storm. The plane buckles, dips, and dives, always in imminent danger of going down. But then our pilot punches through a wall of clouds, and we find ourselves gliding through clear blue sky.
This sort of thing is unsustainable, but Kilbey pulls off the trick often enough to keep his listeners coming back for more. And Church fans are willing to forgive all manner of fumbles, misfires, and excess in exchange for these brief moments of honest-to-God magic.
A Unique Perspective
Considering that I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the publication of Kilbey’s memoir was a major event in my world. And yet the excitement carried with it some trepidation. Having authored a Kilbey biography of my own a few years back (No Certainty Attached, 2009), I harbored the biographer’s typical mix of curiosity and dread at the imminent arrival of a competing volume, in this case one penned by the subject himself. Much of this anxiety was born of insecurity: Would Something Quite Peculiar expose glaring inaccuracies in my own account? And, now that we’d have the story from the horse’s mouth, would my effort be rendered obsolete?
It’s a testament both to Kilbey’s talent as a writer and to the engrossing story he tells that I largely forgot such concerns as I flew through his marvelous book. In many respects I needn’t have worried. I came across only one major detail that I got wrong (I seem to have attributed the loss of Steve’s virginity to the wrong woman. Oops.) and a few other areas where the truth remains uncertain. (There are at least three contradictory stories floating around of how The Church first came to the attention of Australian impresario Chris Gilbey, for example.) I have no doubt that I made other mistakes in my telling, but Kilbey’s book does not highlight them.
As for whether Kilbey’s effort makes mine redundant, that’s not really my call to make. At the very least, the two books seem to have different concerns and different agendas. Back when I interviewed Kilbey for No Certainty Attached, he talked expansively about his creative process but remained tightlipped regarding his romantic history. Thus my book was weighted more toward his development as an artist and dealt only sparingly with his love life. In Something Quite Peculiar it is almost the opposite: Kilbey holds his creative cards close and doesn’t reveal too much about what the songs mean. In place of that we get a rollicking tale of loves won and lost; of wives, groupies, and muses all vying for attention; of friendships forged and destroyed; of cocaine, cocaine, and … cocaine.
Life From the Back of the Bus
This should all be boring, right? How many episodes of VH1: Behind The Music have we seen by this point? What could Steve Kilbey possibly contribute to the literature of hedonism that hasn’t already been covered by Casanova, De Sade, De Quincey, Crowley, and, in more recent times, Bill Wyman, Greg Allman, and Keith Richards?
A lot, as it turn out. Not in terms of documented excess—Kilbey is almost a lightweight compared to the characters above. But his book does something that I have never really encountered before: it paints a convincing picture of how it might feel if you—the reader—were to say “yes” to everything the rock and roll buffet has to offer: yes to the drugs, to the sex, to a life of creative freedom and perpetual motion. He describes the phenomenon of “the back of the bus,” which I find to be a useful metaphor:
There were two places to travel on the tour bus: up the front or down the back. Everyone knows that down the back is where all the action happens; it was where people were taking serious drugs or seriously plotting or seriously listening to music. I spent many afternoons of my life driving through darkening suburbs and hurtling down highways in dark green beltways. And I sat down the back and smoked the dope that people gave us at almost every show.
Having spent most of my life “up the front,” I appreciate the window Kilbey provides to that shadowy, smoke-filled area at the other end. The view is not always what you’d expect. He gives us neither the handwringing “hell-and-back” confession of an Augustine nor a Steven Tyler-esque celebration of stupid behavior. Instead his account feels very much like the truth, and a lot of that is down to his conversational, matter-of-fact writing style, so different from his metaphor-drenched lyrics.
Here is one of the many surprises: at one point Kilbey writes of the emotional impasse he found himself in when his affair with an American musician named Donnette Thayer bumped up against his unraveling relationship with his longtime partner, Karin Jansson. The participants in the triangle came up with the charmingly bohemian solution of moving in together. But the resulting situation only brought further emotional ruin.
“Wow, it looked good on paper,” he writes. “I was a proper paid-up pop star now and I was going to have my own ménage à trois. [But] it proved nothing and merely added a new bitterness to my various personal dealings. I was not cut out to flout social mores; all the jokes and derision and sheer envy during those troubled times did my tiny head in. Yeah, I had two girlfriends at once for a while; you try it and see how happy it makes you.”
Pop Star as Working Man
Kilbey never became famous enough to fully insulate himself from those social mores, which I believe is a major reason why the book is so effective. It would be difficult for most readers to imagine the success of the Beatles or David Bowie or Lady Gaga, with their catered dressing rooms, personal jets, and chartered yachts, but just about anyone can relate to the day-in, day-out grind that Kilbey describes in Something Quite Peculiar. Like so many of us in our various endeavors, The Church have put in a lot of sweat, toil, and heartbreak just to stay in the black. And half the time they can’t even manage that. So in that context, the drugs and sex make a certain sense: they’re the road-warrior equivalent of the pint at the corner bar after work.
And when the Church do occasionally nudge awkwardly into the world of luxury, whether via star treatment from Arista Records or the largesse of a wealthy patron in California, we share in Kilbey’s bemusement and uncertainty as he describes these strange turns of fate.
Around the midpoint of the book, Kilbey uses the format of a prose poem to sum up life in a working band, and, once again, the pop life functions as a mirror for the reader’s own experience:
I crawl into bed and i dream that same old nightmare where everything is going wrong / I’m standing onstage and it’s all a mess, i can’t remember the words or the music / even in sleep I am pursued by myself / some part of my mind can’t leave itself alone and invents another thing to worry about
It’s worth noting that the Church probably could have become a major band, which would have resulted in a very different, and probably less interesting, memoir from Mr. Kilbey. If that sounds like the fanciful ravings of a besotted fan, consider for a moment the career of R.E.M. The last couple years of the ’80s found both R.E.M. and The Church in similar positions with overlapping audiences. Both bands had released critically praised albums—Document and Starfish, respectively—that were starting to generate a buzz on radio. If anything, Document was the more “difficult” of the two. But due to tremendous discipline and shrewd management, R.E.M built on every gain and, in short order, became one of the biggest bands in the world, while The Church floundered and eventually faded from the public eye.
Kilbey is brutally honest about his own role in that situation. He recounts how he routinely alienated the press, poured his energy into side projects when he should have been focusing on the follow-up to Starfish, chronically ignored the business side of his career, and quite consciously entered into a heroin addiction at 35—the very age at which many drug-addled rock stars start thinking about cleaning up. Kilbey’s account of his self-inflicted downward spiral is tough going, yet there is some measure of emotional payoff in a scene that occurs near his rock-bottom point:
Sitting there I decided I’d had more than any person could possibly deal with. There was no refuge left to me but God. Instinctively I assumed the position known in yoga as the child pose: my face on my knees, I crouched down flat on the floor symbolically showing the universe that I’d run out of ideas for myself and was surrendering totally and unequivocally to whatever was out there. Not a single shred of me remained that wasn’t part of that surrender. It was mental, spiritual, and physical. It was a 100 per cent unconditional scream for help—that or let me die. Instantly it filled me—warm, sweet and healing, and I immediately understood that it’d always been there and was always there all the time. It hadn’t come to me; rather, I’d let it in. It was more real than anything else. It completely blotted out the horror of the withdrawals, the squalid little cubicle where I currently resided. I was connected, it was mainline deep and it extended unlimited grace and mercy to me.
If this were a Behind the Music special, we’d be led to believe that this was the artist’s big epiphany, the cleansing moment when he put all that bad stuff behind him and became a truly spiritual being. It would certainly be tempting for any writer to take that shortcut. But Kilbey remains honest. He admits that his addiction continued on for another decade. And to the moment of grace described above, he adds this caveat:
God has never returned to me since, despite much chanting, a bit of meditating, and a fair bit of yoga. That’s because I’ve never been able to summon the surrender necessary to open up to it. My surrenders since then have always been accompanied by the doubting voice of the devil.
For someone who has made spirituality a central theme of his music for decades, that is an astonishing admission.
I do not doubt that many of Kilbey’s fans will find fault with the pacing of his book. He all but ignores the last twenty years of his life and career, a span that includes quite a bit of essential music that it would have been nice to read about. But from a dramatic standpoint Kilbey’s decision to focus mainly on his career up to 1994 makes a lot of sense: the rise-dip-rise-fall arc of that first period repeated itself at least twice in the subsequent years, though never again on the level of the first go-round, and I wonder how interesting each iteration of that story would have been. Even the recent departure of longtime guitarist Marty Willson-Piper, arguably the band’s co-frontman at certain points, is neatly foreshadowed, and perhaps even explained, in Kilbey’s description of Willson-Piper’s first departure back in 1986.
Raunch and Whimsy
I realize that I’ve mainly been dwelling here on the weighty stuff when, in fact, much of Something Quite Peculiar is laugh-out-loud funny. Kilbey’s humor is a beguiling mix of erudition and raunchiness, of whimsy and bluntness, and even his throwaway lines tend to leave an impression. “Peter and I went to meet [the record company executives] in the famous Capitol building,” he writes. “They were f*ck-knuckles to a man.” Elsewhere, he writes, “I was becoming the aloof, disdainful pop star as epitomised by Peter Cook in Bedazzled. The distant, cold star in a bubble of narcissism that is fascinating as all get out. Here is the point where I started to become the angular fey ninny that would slay Australia for four minutes.”
And although every previous rock and roll book has contained the requisite tales of groupie encounters, only Steve’s tale can boast the sentence, “Back in my hotel room she applied herself to the rites of Eros with impressive physicality.”
This is, quite simply, a wonderful, raucous whirlwind of a book, soulful and alive, cooked up with the same homemade energy that Kilbey puts into his artwork and his solo albums. It feels like a private conversation between the artist and you. Would that they were all so good.
The Church are currently touring the United States.