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The Second Cummings

by Susan Chenery

21 June 1996, Metro, Sydney Morning Herald

Stephen Cummings is a many of many wonders - with his life, his music and now a book. He talks to Susan Chenery about his different journeys.

The shy guy nervily rolls a cigarette. Even sitting idly, Stephen Cummings seems to be in constant kinetic movement, a kind of giddy energy radiating from his skin. He is talking fast. Faster and faster, saying less and less, stumbling over words; convoluted. He sings a lot smoother than he talks, that is for sure.

"You just kind of blast through it really," he says of being, as he once was, a rock star. "When I was travelling with the band, on reflection, I was kind of stupid." Nervous laughter. "I was not enjoying myself. I was a total kind of neurotic. When I had to do it all the time I didn't like it. It kind of wore me out...Either you like showing off or you don't.

"You just blur out. You don't have to think. When you are kind of like doing it and doing it and doing it, like, six nights a week, you kind of like get a bit f---ed off."

Stephen Cummings is still doing it and doing it. But not six nights a week. And not as the once-desired lead singer of Sports either. Or even as the Frank Sinatra of Saint Kilda as he was in a later incarnation. He is doing it real slow.

Cummings gazes with wide, childlike eyes that beam incongruously from a deeply etched face. There is something touchingly untrammelled and innocent about him. "People who know me get really angry at me because I just zone out, drift off.

"I was a dreamy kid," he admits, pecking at his homemade cigarette. With a shock of grey hair, he sort of shines in a quiet, sharply jaded and noir kind of way. So shy.

There is something of his gentleness in his latest album Escapist. Sparse, hypnotic, melodic, psychedelic soundscapes about love gone wrong. And gone right. A seductive, yearning, husking invitation on one track to "sleep with me" that sounds quite convincing, really.

Escapist is his seventh increasingly experimental solo album and his second collaboration with the The Church's Steve Kilbey. All of his albums have been critically acclaimed, but Cummings is an endearingly hopeless self-promoter.

"Over the past eight years, I have played smaller and smaller gigs. I have made different sorts of records that have been less popular and something else again. I just try to do something different, something to interest me.

"At the same time I think now I wish I hadn't made quite so many records. I wish I had tried to make each one better and refined them more.

"When you first get involved with music, it is the music that attracts you. And then it is more like trying to meet girls and you want to be me, me, me. You go through that, and if you keep on doing music then you kind of go back to the original reason you got into it...But you can never repeat the kind of excitement of those first records. I have been doing this for 18 years and it just kind of happens now."

And, strangely, for one who, at times, is rendered barely articulate in conversation, Cummings has recently published his first novel, Wonderboy. In it, a dispirited, deadened, 40-year-old-man, living in low-rent, loser Lovetown with his beloved 10-year-old son, finds himself on a magical dream journey in Vietnam looking for his father who had abandoned him. It is both a fairytale and a poignant look at father-son relationships.

"It is a journey book. I had always wanted to write a book but never got around to doing it. I just wrote this to kind of teach myself how to do it. I wanted to see the whole thing through. I thought it might teach me to be more patient or something. Then I got really interested in it."

And guess what? Cummings is a 40-year-old man with an adored 10-year-old son. "That was my starting point. I read years ago that most men thought they had a really bad relationship with their fathers, so I kind of thought there was something there. But I didn't agonised about it, I just did it."

And how does it feel for a man who's been widely believed to be a major spunk, adored by women, to be 40? "I feel a lot better. If you want to go to the pool and do your laps, there are things you don't have to worry about any more. You kind of just enjoy life and not worry about it any more."

But then he changes his mind. "Or it could be very depressing. Girls look through you because there is someone more attractive behind you. You have the weight of 40 years. You know how long that is and you kind of go on making the same mistakes. You think back to all the rotten things you have done," he says, laughing. "The lies you have told, stuff like that."

Clearly exhausted by all this self-revelation stuff, Cummings lights up another cigarette.

Stephen Cummings is playing at The Basement, Sydney, on August 4.

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