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Writing Notes

by Bernard Zuel

from Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 2001

After penning a couple of novels Stephen Cummings returns to his first love - music.

Stephen Cummings has spent much of the past year with a severely incapacitating bulging disc in his back. Possibly, the Melbourne singer says, it's the result of too many years spent bouncing up and down on unforgiving stages in the '70s and early '80s while singing with the Sports.

"It's the singer's version of tinnitus," he says, probably grateful that his post-Sports career has found him in more of a soul-singer/storytelling-crooner context. These days, he can pull up a stool without embarrassment.

But though we've all heard the stories about artists such as Martin Scorsese crediting their childhood illnesses and confinements to bed as career-defining, creatively formative events, Cummings can confirm that they have less cachet for grown-ups.

"Now, no-one is interested," the 47-year-old laughs. "I'm just another old whinger with a bad back. That's what my partner says, 'Stop complaining.' They [the family, which includes two children] got so sick of it at Christmas that they left me and I just lay here through Christmas and New Year in bed with a lot of videos. It's a weird thing, too, because it's a slight injury, but it's one that inconveniences you all the time. And you feel like you're faking it all the time."

Cummings's solo albums have often captured sharply defined individuals living blurry lives of small pieces and smaller hopes. Many of his characters, usually living in the semi-mythical Lovetown (OK, it's Melbourne), would reappear on subsequent albums, such as the waitress Jane and her suitor, their lives slowly opening their secrets to us. This accretion of detail, delivered in casual style, made his move in the mid-'90s to fiction unsurprising - his two novels have been generally well received. And you have to suspect there is a third book brewing as he remembers some of the only-in-fiction characters that he has met this year.

"I was starting to run out of people to see [about my back] and this friend recommended I see this Japanese woman, a shiatsu sort of woman," Cummings begins, carefully pacing his story. "He said, 'Have you seen the Seinfeld episode with the soup Nazi? She is the shiatsu Nazi.' He said, 'When you go there, don't speak, and after she's done the massage, whatever you do, don't get up till she tells you to get up.' I rang up to make an appointment and she said, 'Are you really sick?' I said, 'I'm really sick' and she said, 'Well, we'll see about that.'

"When I got there she looked exactly like Clive James, only a bit musclier. You go through, like, three different types of shower before anything starts and she does this massage and then puts a towel over your eyes and says, 'Don't get up.' After about five minutes, I felt this really strong sensation just above my groin, like something was there touching me. I thought, 'Oh my God, what's happening?' but I remembered my friend saying, 'Don't say anything or she won't see you again,' so I lay there for another five minutes with this pressure on my groin and stomach. Finally I just pulled the towel off and there was this huge cat sitting on top of me. It was her cat.

"Eventually, when I wasn't getting better, she said I couldn't come any more. 'You're not getting well, you can't come any more.' I kept going to people like that all the time. I went to one guy whose name was, believe it or not, Dr Love. The thing was, he was a chiropractor and now I wonder why I wasn't suspicious of a chiropractor who calls himself doctor. I was suss on him all the time, but he had the most fantastic waiting room with all the latest magazines and I was tempted to keep going there to ease the boredom. He was always going, 'Whatever you do, don't ever go to a back surgeon.' After about the sixth visit, he kicked me out as well and said, 'Perhaps you should go and see a surgeon.'

The enforced inactivity did have one productive result - Cummings began writing songs. Plenty of them, too, of which 10 appear on his new album, Skeleton Key, an album that mixes lone prairie country songs, slow-burning soul/rock tunes, a touch of Baja and several that hark back to those quintessential Cummings albums of the '80s. As ever, the topics are simple: love and the complexities of being too young to fold but too old to bend easily.

At the same time that the Skeleton Key songs were coming together, this (only just) walking crock did what even at the time must have seemed odd. He accepted a role in a feature film being shot in Adelaide. The film is Dope, an interracial thriller directed by J. Harkness, which is due to be released in February. Cummings plays a Supreme Court judge on a 24-hour pay TV court channel. ("It was all 'Objection overruled' and 'We'll be right back with the verdict after this commercial break'," he jokes.)

"I was so out of it and mentally a bit screwy that I went off the idea of flying and took the train to Adelaide," he says, confessing that "I was taking quite a few muscle relaxants by then. In between shots, when they said, 'Cut', I would have to lie down in a full wig and gown. I was the oldest person on set. Everyone was 19 or 20, full of energy and I was ..." He sighs. "Out of it."

Dope is his first film, his first acting role of any sort, actually, though almost at the same time as the film role came up he was asked to audition for two ABC programs, one of them a children's series directed by Ana Kokkinos (Head On). But despite having spent the past decade branching out, not just with the novels but book reviews, essays in the now defunct magazine The Eye and newspaper articles (he was the unofficial swimming pool correspondent for The Age), Cummings sees Skeleton Key as a reaffirmation of his first love, music, in particular soul, country and blues.

"That's what I naturally like, that's what I naturally do. In your beginnings are your ends," Cummings says. "You once said in a review that what I do best is be a soul singer. And that's really what I do. And one of the things that makes me unique in this [soul singer] area is I'm a really good singer. Unlike Jimmy Barnes, I'm not trying to kill all these well-worn, well-loved songs, stomp them into the dirt; I'm trying to create my own take in that area.

"There is a lyrical bleakness, but there are other amusing elements that take it out of just being bleak. That's what makes me interesting but it's also my undoing. I've played quite a few roots festivals and even though I go over well, the people who run those things say, 'Oh, you're quite sophisticated.' They think because I'm slightly perverting it or putting my own kind of take on this form they don't like it."

In a world where some prominent columnists use the term "intellectual" as an insult, it shouldn't be surprising that for some "sophisticated" is a pejorative.

"I never know how to answer that," Cummings moans. Maybe? "No, I'm not, I like cheap toilet humour; I'm not really sophisticated at all."


Name: Stephen Cummings
Born: September 13, 1954
Where: St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne
Supported: Fitzroy until they were booted out of the AFL, now North Melbourne.
Albums: 10 solo, four with the Sports
Novels: Two
Films: One as actor, one in development based on his second novel, Stay Away From Lightning Girl.
Still lives: in Lovetown

Skeleton Key is out now. Stephen Cummings plays The Basement on Wednesday.

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