808s and Sadness

heartbreakYou take the highs and the lows with Kanye West. But I’ve always looked at this album from 2008 and believed that it reveals a great depth of feeling and emotional intelligence on his part.

The front cover of the 808s and Heartbreak album features a heart-shaped balloon that has been punctured until the air has nothing left in it. The rest of the background is grey.

The music itself can be summed up in the word ‘sparse’. The backing beat is minimal (coming from the 808 drum machine of the album’s title) and the singing is a low, flat sound that does not jump high or low, as if from someone that is just going through the motions of living.

The punctured heart of the picture, the greyness, the sparseness, it all adds up to a particular type of sadness. That sadness is not the famous sadness where you cry your eyes out and have to tell everyone about it because you’re so full of emotion that you’ve lost your mind. It is not the one that most sad songs are about.

This album commemorates the sadness that comes after that. It is an unrecognised type. You’ve done all your crying and then all that is left is that you have to silently live with your loss for a long, long time. As seen on the album cover of 808s and Heartbreak, there is nothing left in your heart. There is nothing left in your life. You just go through what you need to do but your hope is gone. The world is grey, and nothing will ever make you happy.

This album was made in the wake of Kanye’s mum dying. His first three albums had been all about the success of his striving, but several songs of this fourth album dropped lines about the hollowness, the futility of that star life. “My friend showed me pictures of his kids. All I could show him was pictures of my crib,” and “There is no clothes that I could buy that could turn back time.” There was once a video leaked about a lady asking him what he was so angry about all the time. He replied, “My mom died for this shit.”

By the time of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 there was colour back in his life again, with a bright red album cover. But the song Blame Game sums up a new breakup. In this song, there is a voice that is so hurt, so constricted that there is a sense that the person has blown an emotional fuse, that the hurt has been so much that it ruptured his insides to the point where he is now unable to feel again. The voice of the second verse is literally of a robot going through all of the angry events that destroyed the relationship. By the third verse there is just his normal voice wondering how on earth so much love can fade into nothing. “We erase one another. With so much of everything, how do we leave with nothing?”

But this is only one song of 13, not an entire album of tracks called Welcome to Heartbreak and Coldest Winter.

They say that Kanye’s anger has always fuelled his creativity. Is suffering a prerequisite for being artistic?


The Triple Frontier

eldorado_misiones_300aJune 13, 2014

The Triple Frontier is a point at which three countries meet – Argentina (the small town of Puerto Iguazú), Brazil (the larger city Foz do Iguaçu) and Paraguay (Ciudad del Este). It’s famous for the Iguazú waterfall – ‘Big Water’ in Guaraní – the pharaonic Itaipú hydroelectric dam a tad further north, supposed to be man’s greatest ever public works project, and for the shadiness of the commerce that goes on on the Paraguayan and Brazilian sides.

This was the area I was to start my World Cup. The flight was full of Aussies off to the Brazilian cowboyish hinterlands to see Australia vs. Chile. As we arrived into the Argentine airport it was a reddish brick building that reminds me of old fashioned churches and is typical of the red dirt, fertile green surroundings, picket fence vibe of that area and of the entire country of Paraguay in general.

My memory of the Argentine part was foggy, a place where the sun was shining and everything was rosy when I travelled there in 2006 with a mate, Jonas. But arriving there direct from Australia this time felt so strange. The teenagers were out wandering about in their school uniforms, finished for the day, and I was hustling around looking to change some money in small tourist agencies.

I had a lucky break, one of many, when three Melbourne boys let me share their taxi into town. The young blonde driver told us that the Argentine side of the falls was closed due to a flood of biblical proportions, the water rolling over its limits in a breathtaking show of unanswerable force. Go to Brazil if you want to see the falls, she said.

I took a taxi across the border with an Argentine driver who wrote off Argentina’s World Cup chances and said 80% of his countrymen did likewise. I told him Argentina’s team has a good reputation internationally and he waved it off. Suddenly we were in Brazil, where Spanish social order, innate social respect and reserve were no longer factors.

Brazil! With its slurry language and mutt-like people, a mix of God knows how many races. This was the seat of the World Cup, a country teeming with people who whatever the up and coming oil richness at the top could never stop running on the treadmill, for among 200 million competitors if they paused for a moment they would surely fall off.

That was the mood. I took a bus to Curitiba with a bunch of people who had nicked across the open Paraguayan border to buy up a bunch of goods in the free-for-all market of Ciudad del Este and sell it surreptitiously in Brazil. The dodginess of it all was confirmed when the bus rolled over a police weigh station – all people at the front of the bus went to the back to lighten the front load, then rushed towards the front once the front wheels had passed. But they were foiled by uncomprehending me blocking the aisle, not knowing what the fuck was going on. They subsequently failed the weigh station but an uncaring officer waved them through. Lucky all over, again.

I was aided by the milk of human kindness and by my wonderful friend Regiane and her husband. Arriving in Curitiba, there had been an article by a Spanish journalist saying “Curitiba is not Brazil”, a sentiment I’d heard before, not as festive, black, hot, dancy or whatever else Brazil is supposed to be. To which I can say: thank God, for the moment. I can’t keep up the pace.

Here in Curitiba we saw Brazil’s handsome it boy Neymar score twice in the opening game. His first goal was what a champion team needs – in any sport when things are nervous, you need an X-factor to pull a scoring play out of nowhere and lighten the load. I think I have a crush.

What do we do when we no longer have our youth?

I was having an unhealthy lunch in a certain chain restaurant on Smith Street, there more for the quality time I could spend with myself than any other reason. Except I didn’t end up doing that because two people on either side of me talked to me throughout.

They were both getting on in years and didn’t seem to be eating anything or there for any particular reason. They both seemed interested in what the time was. One leaned over and told me my watch was nice. She told me she’d lost some of her photos from her wedding in 1957. The other started asking me about how iPads worked. As she continued talking to me about her flatmates taking her clothesline space and whatnot, the other had closed her eyes and appeared to be fighting some sort of rising anxiety.

The whole subject inspires a rising anxiety of my own. What the hell do we do once we’re no longer marketable? What kind of emptiness does life entail once our looks have gone and there’s no palpable reason for people to sit and talk to us?

I hadn’t realised what a supernatural effort it takes to keep living past, say, forty-five if you find yourself alone in life, whether actually alone or distanced from people. Keeping it together is a struggle even for me at 31, so how do people stay sane when they are double that age with no stimuli to tie them over? One was talking to me about TV shows like X-factor, stuff I would dismiss as low culture for the brain-dead, except that disappointingly university lecturers talk about those things too. What keeps the mind sharp when there is no one around to bounce ideas off and you have one too many conversations inside your own head?

It scares the devil out of me. There’s no more employment at those ages unless you’ve clung on grimly to your existing work for decades. There is consequently no money (read: freedom) either. The lady next to me told me she can’t get a pension until she’s 66.

It opened an already semi-open glimpse into the purposelessness of life. It’s all well and good to play games with our looks and myriad of acquaintances and hook ups in our culture-friendly ages of 20-30, but what then when friends dry up and we no longer have the goods to get some new ones?

On one hand, beatnik writer Hunter S. Thompson killed himself at 67 once he could no longer call the shots in life. (His suicide note was entitled “Football season is over.”) On the other, philosophical/rapey TV shows like Oz had the ex-neo Nazi character James Robson convince himself that he must lower his standards and do whatever it took to survive, whatever the cost, since that is the very foundation of being alive.

I just hadn’t realised the fortitude it takes to do what on the surface is a default setting.

The blues of busking

It was Saturday. The rain wasn’t yet falling but would later on, getting my beautiful second-hand saxophone a bit wet and making me worry about rust, the ultimate triumph of nature and the fact that taking it to the streets is ultimately overrated.

What are the streets going to provide, anyway? Revolution? Egypt’s triumph of the masses has gotten a little convoluted. Affirmation? Unlikely. Definitely not comfort. People are only out in the streets because they’re trying to get from Points A to B. The journey is uncomfortable and the destination is everything. That’s how it always appears, until my girlfriend told me that the journey/struggle really is the meaning, and the destination is just a promise to keep us going.

Busking either makes me very happy or very unhappy. One can either find a comfortable, spacious place to play a musical instrument in the CBD (result: no money), or hustle where people congregate and be told to piss off by business owners and other buskers. The council restrictions read as follows: “You are not allowed to play anywhere fun. Or practical.”

So, why do it? There’s affirmation and a bit of money. It’s better than just playing for nobody in my bedroom. That is probably the order of the priorities unless you’re a dude with a guitar who has it and knows how to rock the casbah. They make cash, colourful notes. Others just make coins. Or nothing, if you fancy yourself as a lost soul playing alone under a bridge. Beware of trolls.

I’ve come to hate Swanston Street, from a busking (and aesthetic) perspective, but there are few alternatives (Bourke is for semi-pros). Business people don’t care about noisy quasi-vagrants, which crosses off the CBD westside. The older we get, the more our heart dies?

Sometimes I get two or three fans. People seem less inhibited to ask directions from me. What do you know, I’m a fixture. The best are people who take a film of me playing on their phones, or want to take their picture with me. Maybe I’m briefly not a nobody, to them I’m a Melbourne icon! I could care less if those people give me money, they are giving me something else, something better. But money makes the world go round too.

I have my staple songs but tire of them rapidly. I know what works for sax, in the circumstances: no songs with repetitive notes, or that are too slow and indistinct. I read sheet music like a grade prep learning to read, all pauses and squinting, so it all has to be in my head. Occasionally I connect and a couple of people tell me I’m awesome. Yeah, I knew already. Oh, you mean at sax?

Sometimes I am not on, make many mistakes and have to smother a rising humiliation. I’ve already scattered some pre-coins into my box to not look so pathetic since many people look not at me but into my box, wondering if they should quit their own day jobs.

Of course they should, but for unrelated reasons.

On the night the dream died

I have a lifelong obsession with the country Paraguay. This is an obsession that has subconsciously guided all of the decisions of my life. The goal is incomprehensible, and therefore so are the actions that need to be taken to achieve it. I can’t rationally explain (or justify) to other people the reckless and irrational things that I do, because I can’t explain to them the irrational goal.

This year I was in a perfect position to achieve my aim of living there for perhaps the half a year or so needed to get it all out of my system. I had a perfect combination of money, time, material and relational detachment, a plan and relative youth, but I did not use the three-month window that was open to me, thinking that there would be more time later on. There wasn’t; my brother in Australia became sick, and going ‘home’ to Australia again wasn’t a decision to be made. I was about a week or two away from touching a lifelong pipedream, but the chance once again became an insane impossibility fit for only fantasies, the way pipedreams are.

I went to Encarnación, a small city in the south of Paraguay across the river from Argentina. I was scoping out what I would miss, as I had previously decided that I wanted a smaller town in which to conduct my business and my life. I was tired of distances, transport and travel times. Encarnación would have become my new home.

Paraguay was celebrating its 200th year of existence as a nation, and painted murals on the fences and the red, white and blue number 200 in lights in the plazas were celebrating this everywhere. It was raining as I walked around Encarnación. I wanted to see the central plaza (bigger than usual Latin American plazas, impressive) and the mighty Paraná River across from which the Argentinian city Posadas with its buildings and a few lights appeared from the rainy mist list like an apparition. On that same street – the Costanera, the street that ran along the river – were the stands left over from February, when Encarnación is the carnival capital of Paraguay, another thing I would have participated in with relish.

It was my curse, to only see Paraguay, a tropical country, in the gloom of its short-lived winters (although a hotel worker told me it always rains in winter in Encarnación), like an entire country’s weather system was merely a message to me. I imagined the sun coming out the second I left the country. Message received.

The houses were small but were only behind tall picket fences and not ugly, forbidding walls. The streets were deserted, for who but a fool would be walking around in the rain? This was Paraguay’s day; that night they would play (and win) the semi-final of the South American soccer tournament and many people were wearing the red and white striped shirt of Paraguay’s soccer team. I entered a bank, and five of the six employees were in red and white. I’d just been to Brazil, where they hadn’t bothered wearing their colours. Brazil has action, but Paraguay merely has their country. There were possibly even more women than men wearing the shirt, a masculine pastime played in feminine colours. These quiet beauties had white skin, big eyes, black hair, small and beautiful figures, and spoke in their incomprehensibly sexy (and plain incomprehensible) Paraguayan Spanish-Guaraní accents.

I thought that going to Paraguay and experiencing the stillness, the bored tranquillity, had killed my desire, but when I left I found that the desire was still there, to torment me for the rest of my life. In Encarnación there were unaccountably a couple of Asians here and there, and the next night I ate at a classic Japanese restaurant, where an Asian family behind me had a daughter who spoke her family’s language with a very Guaraní accent. When I walked away from the restaurant in the cold along the ten blocks back to my lodging, looking at the one-story houses, feeling the small size of their city and the small size of life, I felt that I could love Encarnación.

The next day was the trip across to the second option I had considered for myself, the small town of Villarrica, which would have been home if I had considered dropping off the map entirely (Encarnación, at least, is the third biggest city in Paraguay, which indicates what a small, rural nation it is). The countryside in between the two places featured dirt roads, palm trees, magnificently green plains and waterways, and large houses that were usually pained green or blue in accordance with Paraguay’s nature vibe. There were cute towns along the way called Yuty and Caazapá, but unfortunately Villarrica had an ugly centre that consisted purely of shops, and I couldn’t have possibly lived there. It had Paraguay’s quiet, forgotten, naturalistic feel, but it also had the unpleasantness of Paraguay’s other vibe, a large market of things being sold; a buyers’ and sellers’ country, a nation that was simply one large shopping centre of objects of dubious origin. Villarrica was too small to have action, too big to be beautiful, although the outskirts were pretty. Reports that Villarrica possesses an Alliance Française school (I wanted to teach French in South America) just didn’t seem possible. Verdict: Encarnación yes, Villarrica no.

Someone waved to me from a balcony in Villarrica, as I disconcertedly made my way back to my lodging. The Paraguayan people were so straightforward, smiling and friendly, although I couldn’t penetrate their way. Once I left that unreal country whose existence I can’t be one hundred per cent sure of, the world became real again.


My girl in Bolivia told me she hopes I wake up from the dream-like state I float around in, before she never said another word to me. She could have been the woman of my life, but she was sandwiched between the two other things that I wanted more than anything else, and The Dream dictated that I had to leave her. I hurt her, a principled, consistent woman who will probably have nothing to do with me again. I believe it truly isn’t worth it, getting into relationships on the road and with the necessity of cutting them just when they are flowering. The first girl I was with in Bolivia understood this better than most, and clamped down on any residual feelings, and burned me. Years later I learned from her and adjusted my feelings accordingly, but other women were more straightforward with me, more natural. They treated me as a genuine option and not just as a plaything, and I still can’t bear their sadness when I left them.

I still haven’t woken up to myself, but when I picked my brother up from hospital here in Australia – the reason The Dream had died – I felt guilty for even wanting things for myself at a time like this. Waiting for him to be finished, watching him, I had a slight window where I had to force myself not to tear up, and wondered what exactly God was thinking when he made life such a sad thing.

Happiness found in Portugal

Lisboa from across the river

“Extraordinary things are happening in Portugal,” I wrote early one Monday evening a month ago. I was in Portugal for a few days at the start of August, already a world ago. Fate stepped in and delivered me something extraordinary each time that I thought I would succumb to the overrated torpor of hostelling. Portugal, while a beautifully exotic word and a name that I can hang my hat on, was not in-your-face, so unless I could find a person to show a piece of Portugal to me I wouldn’t be able to find it. In the end, two people did: Lauryn Hill and Kánanda Freitas. Neither of them were Portuguese.

Lauryn Hill re-wrote her story, even if one concert may blend in with another for her. On a plaza (public square) next to the ocean she came to me, even though I only arrived in Lisboa half an hour before the free concert was to begin. I stood waiting for her for hours in a crowd of mostly black Portuguese. I was surprised to learn that they too were a part of the Portuguese scene, meshing and joshing with each other in black-cool Portuguese language.

This is my picture. I was there!

I’m going to interrupt the pure narrative of this one to state that me in Portugal ultimately was the story of re-found happiness that I had believed was gone, in two people. Lauryn Hill appeared genuinely grateful to be passing through her repertoire of musical truth there with us in Lisboa that night, even if that truth had come and gone more than ten years ago, since in the end we each have to prove ourselves today or else disappear into irrelevance. I was grateful for this moment in my life too, and at one point she saw me, I’m sure of it! I was making a heart shape with my fingers, as much a Portuguese theme as a love moment, and she acknowledged someone in the crowd in my direction, and for the sake of dreams I’m going to believe it was me. She had wound the clock back: she was very pretty and it seemed to me, very happy too, or at least happy to be committed to a moment in which she could momentarily give the best part of herself to people who appreciated her. She looked frail in a way, but her clothes were her-stylish and she thanked us for our patience at the end of the night. Her backing singers all hugged each other in joy after she left the stage: a job well done.

Two days later on Monday, August 2, I was next to the water with a 19 year-old Brazilian waitress who had only been living in Portugal for six months. Why do I directly relate my joy and esteem to whether an attractive woman is interested in me? I do, and that day when she kissed the back of my fingers I was overwhelmed; finally a woman saw me as a man and not as some sexless wraith, and I would not have to make the first move that I had never traditionally known how to make. Fernanda was a woman who had fallen out of the sky into my lap, surely a gift from the God I’m not sure if I believe in. She was brown-skinned and that day she wore a pink dress with sandals. When I felt her hair it was a little stiff, different but lovely, a black person’s hair I suppose. I rode Lisboa’s classy trains with her and after many minutes of simple caresses I finally gave her a kiss, already a foregone conclusion. Half an hour later we ended up in each other’s arms next to the river, with all Lisboa spread out on the other side. A perfect moment, and I had acknowledged to her that I was happy, but I didn’t add what a rare event that was. When the ferry left to take me back to the mainland at six o’clock that was it, another mood lost before it could flourish. Staring at the water while on the ferry, I felt the same feeling that I had when I had left Karina behind in Bolivia in 2006. Feelings can’t be stored or remembered; we only have a moment in which, when we feel them again, we surprise ourselves and say, “I remember this.”

Spain had everything a person could need to be happy but I didn’t take it; Portugal had considerably less, but somehow what I was looking for.


A post to finally justify the somewhat ridiculous URL of my page: last night in a bar-slash-whatever (places are seldom just pubs anymore, they are generally funkified combinations of that and nightclubs) I saw a perfectly formed girl (by my specifications: delicate but not too thin) with a beret and tanned skin in the absence of daytime light sitting on a stool, and in front of her there was an attractive guy with a three-day old beard who was also on a stool facing her. They were kissing each other every so often, which is not so unusual in the circumstances, but they did it with a tingling anticipation that was lacking in other pashing couples. It was a scene that captured my attention for a few seconds. Then she put her hands on her lap on top of her thighs, flat with the palms down, and moved them a centimetre forward. In that instant I saw subtle sex pulse through her. I thought: there’s a possibility that those two might be committing to having sex with each other, maybe not tonight but sometime in the future. This is sounding like voyeur territory but from the snippets that I glanced in my ‘I don’t want to be here’ awkwardness, it was one of the sexiest things I’ve seen. Let’s face it, workaday life is not full of these moments and TV sexiness is not sexy, it isn’t real.

Call this foolish, but I think women have sex embedded in their genes, a certain style of eroticism and movement during sex that us chimpanzees with penises will never be able to replicate. They also have dance within them too, an innate understanding of movement that again, us men don’t have. I guess what the two things have in common is movement, sensuality, feeling. My judgement is skewed by sexual desire, but women are the ones who bring the beauty to our race, who make it worth anything. They are the ones most responsible for that elusive subtlety and magic that sometimes happens.

I can be in touch with it too, but since these qualities don’t actually affect anything in our knockabout world, I’m left floundering because my subtle abilities (writing, languages) do not get cabinets built, or roads designed, or food produced. As James Brown sang, “This is a man’s world.” And perhaps that’s the problem.


P.S. A google image search for ‘sexy’ and ‘sensual’ came up with a lot of skin and a bunch of asses waved to the camera, and missed the point entirely.