Sydney, New South Wales, summer of 2019-2020
i you were paid not to listen now your house is on fire
The second protest I went to during the summer of 2019-2020 was poorly organised but prodigiously attended. I went alone this time and wedged myself between the Town Hall light rail stop and twenty thousand other protestors. The rally was ostensibly calling for the Prime Minister to resign over his handling of the bushfire crisis, but I felt that I had done one better with my sign: WE WANT OUR FUTURE BACK.
While holding that sign aloft, I copped an elbow to the ribs from one particularly disgruntled gentleman commuter. I took my cue to exit, and scarpered onto the next westbound train, put my head against the carriage’s window and watched the sun go down over a discoloured sky.
ii don’t you feel your luck is changing
Three months prior, when the bushfire season was kicking off on the Central Coast of NSW, I was sitting at the dining table of one of the students I tutored in HSC English. His teacher had given him yet another text that was meant to represent an aspect of “human experience” and wanted him to make notes on it.
“This is a great song,” I told him. The text was the lyrics to ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ by Tears for Fears, printed on an A4 sheet like poetry. I’d listened to the song on a USB-sized MP3 player in my own high school days, recommended to it and many others by my disc jockey father. “Look up the video on YouTube. You can’t just read the lyrics. You’ve got to get the full experience.”
If you’ve never seen the song’s clip (I hadn’t), it follows the typical mid-80s MTV formulae. Vocalist Curt Smith drives across a California desert in a classic car, interspersed with the band lip-syncing in a studio. My student seemed bemused. Guitarist Roland Orzabal looked faintly reminiscent of a man who had cancelled a date with me once. I didn’t care for that at all. As I left my students’ house that evening, I mused that it was a terrible shame I had accidentally tainted a song I used to love.
Then I probably coughed a little, looked around, and wondered where all that bloody smoke was coming from.
iii. some of us are horrified / others never talk about it
The day after the protest it rained mud. I had a fever and a pounding headache. I paced incessantly and worried about the future. How was I going to finish my PhD under these conditions? How was I going to get my students through their exams when the world was ending? “Is it hot, or is it just me?” I repeatedly asked members of my family as I wandered about the house, melting into puddles on the tiles.
As the night wore on my fever worsened. Now bordering on delirium, I thought back to that lesson in October. I did really like that song, back when I was fourteen. Why let unresolved feelings and misplaced aggression get in the way of a perfectly good tune?
In the spirit of moving on, I looked up and streamed the album that gave us ‘Everybody’: Songs from the Big Chair. Over the next few days of my respiratory virus and associated insomnia, I became intimately familiar with it. I streamed it on repeat for hours at a time.
One track seemed too much of a coincidence to be real: Mothers Talk. Orzabal, who sings lead on the track, seemed to sing the tune of our times: “When the weather starts to burn / Then you’ll know that you’re in trouble.” The song is obviously an anti-nuclear tune, something apparent from both its vintage—Big Chair came out at the peak of the global arms build-up—and its reference to When the Wind Blows: Raymond Briggs’ ground-breaking and upsetting graphic novel, about a British couple who live and die in atomic armageddon.
That wasn’t important to me in the fug of sweat and fever. To me, “when the wind blows” recalled the weeks prior, when there was a massive fire front a few kilometres to the west of us, and the wind began to blow east.
iv it’s time to put your clothes on and face the world
I imagine that the little girl who used to listen to her parents’ music on her MP3 player and think that ‘Shout’ was performed by Frankie Goes to Hollywood didn’t imagine that her life would pan out the way it did. Even years later, watching that clip with my student, I would never have guessed what would unfold in the coming year.
But I imagine, too, that in a recording studio mid-eighties Bath, it must have looked like the world was ending. We worked it out then. Perhaps we can work it out again.
Stereo Story #553
See also Nathan Johnson’s 2016 story about Everybody Wants To Rule The World, set in North Korea.