The Bellbrae hill, 1974
I can only recall my father talking about music on the one occasion. Not that he said very much. He preferred the races on the radio. I presumed the records at home were Mum’s – Shirley Bassey, June Bronhill, Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald.
The family was driving back to Geelong from the beach-house on the Great Ocean Road. We had a log cabin at a place called Moggs Creek. A sneeze-and-you-miss-it-sort-of-place, Moggs Creek. Just another bend between Anglesea and Lorne.
If Dad listened to any music, it might have been songs filling the gaps between the races on the radio. Middle-of-the-road songs by crooners whose singing would be cut short when the horses were about to jump at Flemington or Randwick or Caulfield. Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby…
Or maybe Dad paid some attention to the entertainers on that curious 1970s Saturday night Channel 7 show, The Penthouse Club. Hosted by Mike Williamson and Mary Hardy, the program featured – if that is the right word – cabaret performers in-between crosses to the trots at the Showgrounds and Moonee Valley. Did Dad listen to Smacka Fitzgibbon and Maria Venuti, or was he busy checking the form guide?
It was late on a Sunday, 1974. Getting dark. Mum and Dad in the front, the kids in the back. The automatic silver-tan Kingswood sedan trying to get up the Bellbrae hill. Bellbrae’s a blink-and-you-miss-it kind -of-place. A church, a tennis court, a valley. A little school up a side road. Cemetery too. Horses on the hill. Bags of horse manure at farmers’ gates.
I was 15 and Dylan had just released the Planet Waves album. Maybe Forever Young was on the AM car radio instead of, say, Blue Hills or Sentimental Journey. It was a Sunday, so there wouldn’t have been any races.
“The new Dylan record,” said Dad from behind the steering wheel. “It’s not very good is it?”
It seemed to be a rhetorical question. A question for the horses on the hill to ponder. A question for the engine of the Kingswood to consider.
Ten words. Eleven if you count the contraction. Dad never was one for expanding on a point.
Certainly I didn’t have a ready answer to my father’s insight into Dylan. Back then I probably only knew Dylan’s early hits.
Maybe Mum turned to Dad and said “Yes, dear”. Maybe not.
Maybe one of the horses on the hill nodded.
The car reached the peak of the hill and enjoyed the flat 15 minute run into Geelong.
Did my father know more about music, and about Dylan, than I thought? It is the natural folly of children, after all, to underestimate their parents.
Maybe Dad had just read or heard a review of Planet Waves and thought he’d try to show some interest in his children’s interests. Just as I now try to talk soccer with my son after I’ve read the sports pages. (I’ve given up trying to understand the off-side rule.)
Or did Dad know not only Planet Waves, but Blonde On Blonde and New Morning and Nashville Skyline and all the others?
Did he know not just Forever Young (both versions) but Planet Waves’ other tunes? On A Night Like This, Going Going Gone, Hazel, Tough Mama? Something There Is About You, Dirge, You Angel You?
Did Dad think the lyrics – some bitter, some tender, some joyful – were not up to scratch?
Did he think Dylan and The Band should have spent more than just three days in the studio?
I didn’t get to know Planet Waves til my uni days, when I bought it secondhand. The eleven tracks are, as it says, on the less-than-pretty album cover, ‘cast-iron songs and torch ballads’.
Listening to them again recently, the songs still stand up. You could say Planet Waves is more Basement Tapes than Blood On The Tracks. You could say, as my father said on the Bellbrae hill, that’s it’s not Dylan’s best record.
Of course, you can’t know everything about your own family, your parents especially. There are bound to be gaps.
And those gaps are a bit like the space between the tracks on old vinyl records: those seconds between the songs that are meant to be silent interludes but because the records and the needle are so old, you always hear something. Some crackling or scratching or hissing or bumping. Some memory sighing.
And if you listen closely enough you might hear a father backing out the driveway in the morning. A mother welcoming you home from school. A father, closing the car door, arriving home from work. A mother opening the squeaky door of the oven to check the roast. A father watching a sport/cabaret show on the telly. A mother kissing you goodnight. A father talking about Bob Dylan.
© Vin Maskell
A shorter version of this story is part of a 2500 word essay, Beach House Records, published in the winter 2014 edition of Great Ocean Quarterly.