Modewarre. One angry hot morning. 2014
I was editing the doomed and wonderful Great Ocean Quarterly, our love song to the ocean that was sending us broke, fast. And that day I had to take care of one our expensive follies: a project called The Church of the Open Sky.
The idea was, we took a musician and put them in a sacred space of some kind along the coast – preferably something crumbling – and recorded a song. We’d photograph the session, write it up, and offer a free download of the recording.
Nice in theory.
In practice, I knew next to nothing about audio production, and even less about musicians who like to play songs in busted-arse churches on the coast, for magazines on a rapid slide to insolvency. It’s fair to say I was offering a niche gig.
But we’d managed so far. Shane Howard, Mick Thomas and Leanne Tennant had been up for it. And Danny Spooner sang in the Congregational Church in Stevedore St, Williamstown.
This time the church I had in mind was a strange and mournful chapel in a paddock outside Modewarre; west of Geelong, population 41. The farmer was using it to store hay. It was deeply gothic. It looked like Cormac McCarthy wrote it as the scene for a lynching.
But what I didn’t have was a musician.
I called a friend who ran a pub. He put me onto an agent. The agent listened to the brief and said, without hesitation: ‘You want Marlon Williams.’ I was in no position to argue. The young New Zealander has a voice that can sound like a choir of angels doused in whisky having multiple simultaneous orgasms.
I picked the kid up at Mick Thomas’s pub in Abbotsford. Lean and rangy, T-shirt, guitar in a battered case. He said nothing: nothing at the pub, nothing in the car as we sweltered in peak hour traffic on the Westgate.
I could tell he was a purist, so I was too scared to put music on to break the crippling silence. He resisted every conversational trick I tried. He was 21, studied classical singing and Russian at Canterbury University and was an expert on Robert Johnson. I was 44, and…oh god. Have you heard of Noiseworks?
At the church, I watched the kid unpack his guitar among the haybales and vaguely check the strings. I heard a rattle.
“Mate, I think you’ve dropped a plectrum inside the guitar.”
He looked at me with infinite pity.
“That,” he said, “Is a piece of Joe Strummer’s T-shirt, and my best friend’s ashes.”
Which was the exact moment I knew we had the right guy.
He sang a song about seafarers and lost love that was so sad I wept and forgot to turn on the recording device so we had to do it again.
I didn’t know then that the song was called Silent Passage.
It was written in 1974 by a Canadian guy named Bob Carpenter. Carpenter came achingly close to living out a fairy-tale of the Sixto Rodriguez kind.
Little is known of his early years, but suddenly, in 1970, Rolling Stone were raving about this soulful outsider, and Emmylou Harris, Billy Joe Shaver and others queued up to record his songs. He picked up a record deal just as folk music hit a groundswell.
But contract strife delayed the launch of his masterpiece debut album – for a decade. Carpenter became a recluse: first painting houses, then studying to become a Buddhist monk. He drifted between cities during those lost years, buffeted by unknown storms.
When the album finally came out, Carpenter was dying of a brain tumour. He completed his monk’s vows, despite having lost the power of speech, by squeezing a friend’s hand. He died in Canada in 1995.
The album’s cover art is an etching of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The nautical references in the album are thought to have been inspired by the time Carpenter spent in the Navy, before being discharged for stealing a radio.
Marlon’s gone on to release acclaimed albums, tour as a headline act, and support everyone from the Vienna Boys Choir to Justin Townes Earle.
Our beloved magazine died not long after that recording. But Marlon, who’s no doubt forgotten us, gave me something I’ll cherish forever: Silent Passage.
The original, and much longer, version of this story was first published in Great Ocean Quarterly.
Jock Serong is the author of four novels, the latest being Preservation. Jock was part of our concert at the 2019 Williamstown Literary Festival.
ABC Radio Melbourne aired a version of this story, including music by Marlon Williams, on The Friday Revue on 14 August, 2020
Bob Carpenter’s original version of Silent Passage: