Anyone who had a harp

Custom harp
Custom six-tone harmonica Photo Jorge Royan

We’re back in the studio after our three-month road trip, trying to pick up the threads of what was as an intensive three-week recording session back in June. The last thing I did in the studio before we left was to re-record harmonica tracks with a new, $55 Hohner E harp. I use harmonicas a lot when we perform live, playing the instrument with a rack around my neck. The cheap harps I normally use did not stand up to scrutiny in the confines of a studio.

The humble mouth harp was given credence 84 years ago when a fellow called Larry Adler saw an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun for a mouth organ band. Adler went to the audition and a grand career was born. He worked with the likes of Fred Astaire, Dizzie Gillespie and George Gershwin. Vaughan Williams composed music for him. A jazz musician from the same era, Max Geldray, was a pivotal part of The Goon Show. He provided musical interludes and the closing music for at least 160 episodes of that madcap radio programme.

I was thinking about Max, who died in 2004 and Larry (in 2001), as they were without a doubt the people who helped me overcome shyness and make use of my natural musical ear to embark on a journey which, 55 years on, is still bringing me joy, even if my neighbour’s dog howls when I play harmonica.

I’m a lazy player, quickly inventing instrumentals to add colour to my songs and I clearly don’t practice as much as some of the people in the videos at the end of this essay. But I’m happy to report that my harmonica tracks survived the cut. I did my three tracks in a couple of takes. We got it done quickly because I know the stuff backwards, but also with my new hearing aids, I can hear snails sliding across the studio’s tin roof.

My laziness extends to the maintenance of my harps. When a great blues harp player, Matt Moline, came to the studio to add harmonica to one track on our first CD, he had a very large number of instruments encased in a soft travel pack.
We got on to the subject of cleaning them and I confessed I had never done that. Matt got that look on his face that you see when nurses are gowning up to go into the infectious diseases ward.

The author

It was all Santa’s fault
I sometimes wonder just how many children, apart from me, found a harmonica in their Christmas stocking when they were six or seven. It used to be a good way to assess if your child had any latent musicality. (I suspect a large number of said harmonicas were “lost” sometime on Boxing Day.)
The radio was our only entertainment in those days, so there was lots of time to learn things that require hours of practice, like knitting, embroidery, 1,000-piece jigsaws or learning to play the spoons. I was always coming second in talent quests, usually to a comely lass with a guitar and a sweet smile.

Once shunned as a toy instrument for the poor, the humble 10-hole diatonic harmonica has progressed to become a mainstay of contemporary rock, folk and blues music.
There are great players who have gone on to play harp in the choir invisible (Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Big Mama Thornton), and a good few who are still with us, including Australian players Chris Wilson, Doc Span and Jim Conway. Charlie Musselwhite is lauded by some, as are Charlie McCoy, Christelle Berthon and Stevie Wonder. Stevie learned to play when he was five and invented a completely distinctive style.

And (OMG I didn’t know this), Billy Joel played harmonica on “Piano Man”, inspired by Bob Dylan using a rack to play guitar and harmonica at the same time. The less said about “Piano Man” the better. I prefer Weird Al Yankovitch’s “Sling us a web; you’re the Spider-Man”.
You can spend $250+ on a chromatic harmonica (it has a slide which enables you to play sharps and flats). You need two, in different keys, to cover the complete range of anything you might like to play (William Tell Overture, Night and Day, Clare De Lune).
But most players today use diatonic, 10-hole blues harmonicas. They have a small range of notes and lack of sharps and flats, so in theory there is a limit to what you can play. I use a cheap set of seven Hohner harmonicas bought from the Internet for $99. They are what you think they might be! I have some old harmonicas I paid a lot of money for (Lee Oskars) and they are still better than the new ones in the box set.
You can pay upwards of $85 for a quality Lee Oskar, although you’ll find them cheaper on the Internet. Those of you obsessed with music trivia already knew this, but Lee Oskar is a Danish musician and harmonica manufacturer who featured in Eric Burden’s band War and performed in Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke”.

People who don’t know how to do it think that being able to play guitar, sing and play harmonica at the same time is one of the dark arts. All you need to do is put a rack around your neck, insert the instrument (the right way up), keep a steady tempo going on the guitar, and save some breath for singing.
Kath Tait, a Kiwi who lives in London, has a special way of playing the concertina and a harmonica in a rack while singing. The harmonica bits happen in the instrumentals, but I guess you’ll figure that out.

Kiwi expat Brendan Power, now domiciled in the UK, is a harmonica virtuoso who manufactures, repairs and tunes harmonicas. He uses a loop pedal and other gadgets to put on a one-man show, but is still heard to best effect jamming with other musicians.
If you had no idea how versatile the harmonica can be, check out at least one of these videos. I especially like the fan comment (sic) at the end of M-S Blues: “I dont no who let you off the chain but you shore can play that thang.”

When Gough turned his back

Life’s most embarrassing moments. It is sometime in 1996 and I am attending a corporate function as a business reporter for The Courier-Mail. I am about as excited as I get, because for the first time I have the prospect of meeting the great Gough Whitlam. He has been invited to the conference to engage in a debate with Sir James Killen. Firebrands of the left and right; true intellectual discourse, brimful of wit and rhetoric and demonstrating a transparent fondness for one another.

I spot the man in the lunch break standing by himself near a platter of fruit, cheese and crackers. I approach, shake his hand and offer my business card. I look up (Gough was very tall), as he inspects the card.
“Oh, The Courier-Mail!” (an orator’s voice, laced with gathering opprobrium). “That’s what’shisname, that crank who keeps going on about Manning Clark.” And with that he turned and walked away.

He was referring to a series of articles in The Courier-Mail in 1996 that claimed the late historian Manning Clark was an “agent of influence” of the Soviet Union. I returned to work that day and confided the story to a few of my colleagues. We agreed it indicated a degree of haughty arrogance, but given the long friendship between Gough and Manning Clark, it was an understandable reaction. Crikey, I didn’t want an interview, I just wanted to shake his hand.

The series of articles mentioned above caused a great fuss at the time. Later that year, the Press Council upheld a complaint by 15 prominent Australians, saying the newspaper had insufficient evidence to claim Professor Clark was an agent of the Soviet Union or that he was awarded the Order of Lenin. But, as is the case with all daily newspapers, the content has long been forgotten, the paper recycled as garbage wrap or garden mulch.

That’s the problem when great men or women die – their lives get picked over by journalists, each as keen as the next to find that little untold vignette. I was not even in Australia when Gough was sacked in 1975 by the then Governor-General John Kerr.
I remember reading coverage in the UK newspapers and wondering if there would be a revolution in Australia as a result. Gough would probably find it amusing that his passing alone was the news event that pushed Tony Abbott off social media. Most of the FB tributes to Gough were touching, some even overly-emotional. I posted a link to the Whitlam Institute and a summary of the Whitlam Government’s achievements. It is almost 40 years ago, so for those not even born then, here’s a summary:

“The Whitlam Government brought about a vast range of reforms in the 1071 days it held office between December 5, 1972 and November 11, 1975. In its first year alone, it passed 203 bills – more legislation than any other federal government had passed in a single year.”

Under Whitlam, women trapped in loveless, abusive marriages were able to escape and apply for the Supporting Mothers’ Pension (or men for the lesser known Lone Parent Pension). Pregnant women without a partner were able to keep their babies instead of adopting them out. Under Whitlam, bright children from poor families were given a free university education (this continued until HECs was introduced in 1989).

Medibank, Medicare and Medibank Private

In 1974, Whitlam created Medibank, a national health insurance system providing free access to hospitals and other medical services. Medibank (re-named ‘Medicare’ in 1984) provided health coverage for the 17% of Australians who then could not afford private insurance. A year later, Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser introduced the government- owned Medibank Private, with the aim of providing competition in the insurance sector.
Labor governments opposed any notion of Medibank Private being sold/privatised/floated, just as Liberal politicians, starting with John Howard, swore that if elected they would sell off Medibank Private.
Medibank was a national public authority until PM John Howard made legal and accounting changes in 1997.
These changes made it easier for Tony Abbott to appoint agents of private enterprise as Joint Lead Managers (ie float promoters) to run a public float. The heavy irony is that the prospectus for Medibank Private, which is going public this year, emerged the day before Gough passed on.

It is an expensive business. If you delve into the 204-page prospectus you will find that $17.5 million has already been set aside for fees paid to accountants, auditors, lawyers and business and capital market advisors. The float promoters, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Macquarie Bank, will collect a $5 million fee and up to $5 million in incentive management fees if the float goes well (plus commissions).
You will hear a lot about Medibank Private now that the prospectus is out and about. A 2012 Harvard University survey found that two-thirds of investors do not read a prospectus before applying for shares. They rely on people like me, sifting out a few key points.

• There is a restriction on any one shareholder (or its nominees) holding more than 15% of Medibank Private. This ensures that a predator cannot build a 20% stake, which triggers a takeover;
• Unhappily for some, this provision will lapse after five years;
• The government is selling 100% of Medibank Private – in previous privatisations the government has usually kept an interest;
• The nominal share price is between $1.55 and $2.00; but you have to send your cheque before you find out the final price;
• The dividend yield of between 4.2% and 5.2% is not generous. Retail punters and SMSFs could leave their $20,000 in a fixed term deposit at 3.5% without any risk at all;
• Medibank’s four million policyholders will be able to buy more shares, and earlier, but otherwise derive no bonus from the float.

There is a lot more in this document as the promoters cover all the bases by making sure you know about the risks and the competitive pressures in the health insurance business. The Abbott government says it will spend the proceeds of the float (up to $5.5 billion), on its Asset Recycling Initiative, providing payments to States and Territories that sell assets

and re-invest in Australian infrastructure.
I am aware there are people out there who think Medibank Private should remain a government asset. In 2013 it paid the government a dividend of $450 million, so it’s a handy investment.
There are also people who say all health care should be free. Or at the very least, a poor person needing elective surgery should not have to wait two or three years when those with private insurance can have it done next week.

In his 1972 election campaign speech, Whitlam outlined his reasons for introducing universal health insurance.
“I personally find quite unacceptable a system (ie in which private medical insurance was tax deductible) whereby the man who drives my Commonwealth car in Sydney pays twice as much for the same family (medical insurance) cover as I have, not despite the fact that my income is 4 or 5 times higher than his, but precisely because of my higher income.”
Hear, hear, Sir.

Short little span of attention

the-easybeats-friday-on-my-mind-1967-68This week I choose to quote Paul Simon out of context for my own purposes. I’m sure he won’t mind. The short/little tautology aside, this is one of the hookiest lines from “You Can Call Me Al” where a man (probably), questions his mid-life existence – “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard? Every songwriter on the planet yearns for just one of the multiple hooks residing in Call Me Al, from the bouncy, repetitive brass intro to the impossible bass solo (which much later I found out was just a normal jazz bass run played backwards).
This is not about Call Me Al, but it is a little bit about the “hooks” songwriters use to grab our attention, in much the same way newspapers use shock horror headlines. If you’ve never heard of a “hook” in the pop song genre, here’s a classic example. Think of that well-known song by Australian 60s band, The Easybeats, its title appropriated by yours truly. Venerable English songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson tipped his hat to songwriters Vanda and Young when he included Friday on My Mind as one of the 22 songs he chose to represent 1,000 years of popular music.

When it comes to analysing what Vanda and Young were up to in the composition of their 1966 hit, I defer to learned US professor Paul Smith who dissects the song in his blog, appropriately enough called Hooks. You have to acknowledge the master songwriters of the 1960s as the experts at gaining people’s attention.
George Young and Harry Vanda penned Friday on My Mind in 1966, three years before the UCLA issued a press release introducing the public to “the Internet”.
In just 222 words and 2 minutes 37 seconds, employing one of the most recognisable riffs in the world of contemporary music, Vanda and Young created a worldwide hit. It was No 1 in Australia and Holland (The Easybeats had two Dutch band members), No. 6 in the UK and No.16 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. And they didn’t have to crowdsource, tweet or annoy people on Facebook to do that.

The Internet and our attention span
There is quite a discussion online about how the Internet has destroyed people’s span of attention. According to <>, our attention span has more than halved in 10 years from 12 minutes to five. I would really like to know the concentration span of the “always on” generation.
You know them – the not always young people with smart phones, tablets and laptops who are always connected. They’re the ones you invite over for dinner who furtively glance down into their laps every few minutes while their fingers and thumbs dance across the keyboard. Or they chime into a conversation with “I’ll just google that” and flop their Ipad out on the table to regale you with Wikipedia’s version of events.
A reader suggested I join Twitter, because apparently, that is where all the intellectuals, journalists, activists and commentators hang out. Well, OK, I’m there, but now what? Mr Shiraz advised: “say something brief and bright”.
As the length of a tweet is limited to 140 characters, by definition it has to be pithy. I haven’t tweeted much (said reader has promised me a tutorial later this month). I did find out via twitter that a former colleague of my vintage had died. I was also able to send a tweet to Guardian online columnist Van Badham saying how much I admired her rare, first-person account of a depressive episode.

The short span of attention is the biggest obstacle to building an online audience, we’re told. FastCompany says the ideal Facebook post is just 40 characters. Forty characters – about this much, give or take.
It is clear that a lot of my Facebook friends do not know this. All the same, 40 characters is a bit drastic. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” would fail this test. So would “Well may they say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”
When I started writing Friday on My Mind in May this year, the question of word length was uppermost in my mind. I sent a 1,750-word draft of the first one to Mr Shiraz who replied, “Very good, but I’d like to see that cut by a third.”
So perhaps we have him to thank for today’s 1,190-word essay. As it turns out, 1100 words is the optimum length for a blog. There are those who say blogs running to 2,650 words or more are likely to be taken seriously, as the word-length indicates a degree of research has been done. The problem with longer articles is that today’s student (anyone aged between 5 and 35) will lose concentration and not finish reading.
A Pew Internet study found that while students hooked up to the connected world system have instant access to an infinite body of wisdom, their attention span and hunger for in-depth analysis is diminished.
“The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of ‘instant gratification and quick fixes’ which leads to a loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking,” says a Pew analyst. The Pew study also found that while websites and blogs use videos, images and sound clips to capture that short little span of attention, videos disrupt concentration abilities. (Sorry about that).

I was browsing a list of the world’s longest books last night. Every one of you will jump to the wrong conclusion, as I did. War and Peace isn’t even on the list. No, the privilege goes to Artamène/Cyrus the Great, a 17th century novel of 2.1 million words spread over ten volumes. The work is credited to Georges de Scudéry and/or his sister Madeleine. According to <>, it is a romantic novel, with endless twists to keep the suspense, and the action, going.
While popular in its time, Cyrus the Great was not re-published until a (French) academic project was launched to make it available on the internet.
I provide the link because intensive research of my readership suggests that for some, a 2.1 million word book in French would be une promenade de santé.
I set about this week’s musings with three goals in mind. After banishing the black dog to the shed, I agreed to my friend Little Bird’s request to “write something happy”. I wanted to turn my head towards music, as (a) it gets me out of a funk and (b) we are going back into the studio soon to finish the new album. I also thought it was time to look at FOMM and see if it is doing what columns of this nature are meant to do (entertain, inform and amuse).

According to in-depth research carried out between 6.55am and 7.03am today, Friday on My Mind (the column) meets all the criteria of a successful blog. It can be read in less than seven minutes, its headline is six words or less, it uses sub-headings and it is free. All else, apparently, is irrelevant.

Who me, depressed?

This black dog alleviates depression
Photo by Dennis Vogelsang



What timing! It is Mental Health Awareness Week and I am slowly, slowly sinking into the mire. She Who Hates Acronyms (SWHA) gently chides me: “Don’t be depressed – it’s boring.” Maybe, but it’s not like I can duck down to the Co-op and buy a happy mood.
The Black Dog* started sniffing around my door a fortnight ago, after we arrived home from a three-month road adventure. Aaah, I hear you say. It’s inevitable that you will go into a slump after a big, carefree colourful adventure, driving around the wondrous continent of Australia. (Theatre people report the same big mood swing when the performance finishes and the cast and crew “strike” the set.)
If I knew why my mood switched from carefree and energetic to pulling the blankets over my head and saying “no” to just about every encouragement to go and do something, then I wouldn’t be like this.
But let’s steer the conversation away from me and look at the numbers on depression in Australia. Beyond Blue is an organisation started to create awareness of depression and anxiety and the tendency of the average male to throw another beer down his throat and ignore his deepening mood.
Beyond Blue reckons that 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. There is a tendency among men and women to self-medicate by drinking alcohol and/or smoking marijuana. Neither of these activities eases the blues nor makes one feel less anxious.
Both drugs tend to make the user feel as if he is happy and carefree again, but it is like throwing a doona over you in the nippy dawn – it will slide off and you will feel cold again.
Women often experience depression after childbirth and both sexes can be tipped into the blues after a bad bout of ‘flu’ or similar illness. Depression can be situational – it’s hard to stay upbeat when your partner is physically or emotionally abusive. Unemployment can bring on the blues, and, once entrenched, can cause an endless cycle of despair. Or, as in my case, it can be a biological imbalance.
The politicians who came up with the (now lapsed) plan that the unemployed have to make 40 job applications a month or lose the dole manifestly never suffered from depression or anxiety.
The key solution to combatting depression, I have found, is to get busy. First, make sure you are getting a good night’s sleep, even if it comes to taking sleeping pills. Next, review your diet. Skipping breakfast are we? Working right through lunch? Eat red meat at least twice a week, avoid or cut down on coffee and sugar and drink lots of water.
Exercise is a key tool. Just put on your walking shoes and go for a walk somewhere, preferably at first light. Then find at least one thing you do that brings you optimism and fulfilment (this could be anything from painting or knitting to singing in a community choir, playing guitar or the bagpipes, gardening or tackling all of those long-neglected handyperson chores). Get up on the roof and clean the gutters and the solar panels. If you don’t like heights or don’t trust yourself up there, get stuck into the garden. Bag all those weeds and take them to the dump. You are bound to meet other people there who are also “battling depression” by keeping busy.
Did I mention taking medication? It works for me, but even if you don’t trust anti-depressants and the tendency by GPs to over-prescribe, you can work on alternatives – yoga, meditation, vitamins, herbal remedies and, best of all, spend time with ebullient, optimistic people who don’t suffer from depression. They might not want to hang out with you in your current state of mind, but if you make the effort to be sociable, being around upbeat people can be therapeutic.
Blame the media – why not?
Moreover (archaic word used for effect to show I went to university), the media must take its share of the blame for the nation’s mood.
We have introduced a media ban in this house. After three months on the road and not watching the TV news, mostly not listening to radio news and only occasionally reading newspapers, we deduced that the media in general is to blame for keeping the population in a constant state of high anxiety and dread.
I asked my research assistant Little Brother to have a look at media coverage of terrorism in the past two weeks. He grizzled for a while as he’s not had much to do in the past three months. But as one of my old bosses used to say: “If you want something done, give it to an obsessive.”
LB came back from the local library, his pale English cheeks aflame.
“No wonder we’re all feeling anxious and depressed,” he said. It transpired that The Australian has published 84 items about terrorism and terrorists in just 12 days.
He says the preoccupation with Muslims under the bed is no less intense in the tabloid world, the Fairfax media or on TV or talkback radio. That’s the problem with the 24/7 news cycle – it forces media outlets to follow the herd. The haste with which news is published can force some horrible mistakes – eg Fairfax Media publishing the photo of an innocent party, claiming him to be the unfortunate teenager gunned down in Melbourne.
Little wonder there is an unquantifiable drift to what I call “Fair Trade” media – The Monthly, The Quarterly Essay, the Guardian online, Crikey, The Big Issue, The Epoch Times, The Conversation and the New Internationalist.
What messes with your head is radio and TV news (updates every hour). The nature of the beast demands attention-grabbing headlines. The print media uses the same tactics, either through its online pages or the posters outside newsagencies.
Little Brother told me there was a bit of a stir this week over a headline (“Monster Chef and the She Male”), used to describe a gruesome murder-suicide. “Don’t go there, mate,” he warned.
“Don’t they ever consider those poor people have Mums and Dads somewhere?”
He has a theory that the media is revisiting the era of Yellow journalism in a bid to shore up circulation. Yellow Journalism (using lurid headlines, exaggerations and sensationalism to sell more newspapers) was a technique used in a circulation battle in the late 1880s between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Sigh. Time to take the dog for a walk (or do some housework – it’s a lot easier now that there isn’t a pile of newspapers to tidy up.)

*this black dog alleviates depression