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Pop Houdini Takes His Final Bow

by Mike Gee

29 July 1996 - On the Street magazine

Despite delivering what may be his last record, Stephen Cummings has some irons in the fire

Maybe the title is fitting - Escapist. In a way Stephen Cummings is a Houdini, constantly unshackling himself from the mores of expectancy and delivering the unexpected. Maybe, if he'd played it straighter, closer to the commercial toe-the-line, this highly emotional, softly spoken, uncertain smiler would have racked up sales befitting the recognition and critical acclaim his work has consistently engendered.

What a pity he is quitting. Yep, the former lead singer of prototype Australian pop rockers with a twist, Sports, is putting down his songbook and tucking away the pen that's scrawled more than 200 songs across its pages over more than 20 years beginning with Sports and culminating in eight solo albums over 12 years - the latest of which Escapist is a blinder, his very best, a pure ambience and emotion affair, produced by the Church's Steve Kilbey again (after the success of the previous "Falling Swinger"); a pastoral beauty that finds Cummings singing with so much sensitivity and passion to a musical backdrop that bleeds empathy and understanding.

"I don't know what I'm going to do to tell you the truth," he says quietly. "No idea. It's a bit worrying. I was worrying all last night 'what am I going to do?' And I don't know.

"I don't plan to make another record though, not for a long time, for, maybe, five years. It's been a lot of songs, records, and now I think 'oh, like I've got nothing really to say'. I'm kind of thought out. And, you know, it is hard. Like if I was overseas in England and America, there they have a lot of respect for their artists as they get older. Here, well ..." The sigh is echoing. "If Elvis Costello or somebody like him lived in Australia he'd probably have been forgotten about or ignored by now because he was too old or was making the wrong kind of music.

"All we seem interested in here is other people's latest trend and other people's culture. It's pretty frustrating and it doesn't help, especially when you see a lot of good reviews for your records - and I've always been lucky like that - then the sales don't exactly ..." he laughs. That old cultural cringe. "Yeah, and I think it's time those people in charge of the record companies and the industry did something about it. There are so many great artists in this country, writing and playing great songs and music - like everybody says as good as anywhere in the world - yet all people are really interested in is promoting whatever is cool or finding something similar to whatever is happening overseas."

He's not alone in his sentiments. Recently, both Richard Clapton and David Bridie of My Friend The Chocolate Cake have echoed similar sentiments. The former, in particular, waging a strong word war against what the veteran singer/songwriter dubs the "land of no culture". Cummings agrees: defining a uniqueness about Australian pop culture is almost impossible. What a pity.

Yet, to be fair, he also emphasises that if the words, the songs were still there, maybe he'd go on.

"I'm really tired and to be honest I'm sick and tired of hustling, going in circles. Australia is small in vision and small in population. Most records sell the same meagre figures - unless they're teen orientated - and you have to go overseas to try and get real success. I don't know, really I don't. It's all so confusing. And it shouldn't be."

Don't get Cummings wrong; he isn't sour. Just worn and at a big fork with no signposts on his path to who knows where. But he's also proud, in a very quiet and elusive way, of Escapist and is prepared to call it the best of the remarkable string of solo sets that bear his name, each carrying its own distinct character and imprint. The fatalist shines. "Yeah, I've always tried to do something different each time I've got to record - something I was interested in - to take advantage of it because I've always thought 'oh, I'll never get to make another record so I might as well try this'."

As flawed as his vision of himself might be - Stephen Cummings is more loved at roots level than he thinks - he's also as direct about those he's locked sparks with - like Kilbey who wrote four of the album's 12 songs.

On paper, it's always looked the oddest of combinations; the tripped out, psychedelic pop eccentric capable of blinding genius and deathly disaster and the enigmatic, self-deprecating pop genius with a heart of gold and a million unanswered questions. Ultimately, it may turn out they're the same wolf in sheep's clothing.

"He's just kind of more neurotic in a different way," Cummings says with alacrity. "He doesn't say much but that's cool and it works. This time I also brought up Robert Goodge (he shares writing credits with Cummings on four songs) who's worked with Underground Lovers and the like. I thought it would be really good - 'Robert and Steve', but I think Robert thought it was a bit weird."

So here we are looking back at 20 years of Stephen Cummings wondering whether there'll be more that just his novels (Wonder Boy is in its third print run and he's working on a second novel Stay Away From Lightning Girl - the writing process of which he assures is both "unhealthily isolating, boring and painful" and to fill some of those moments when a melody, a harmony and a good song are priceless. Trademarks of Stephen Cummings, songwriter, performer and creative spirit.

What a pity if such blessed talent is lost, perhaps for good. What a bloody pity for Australian music and Australia. What a pity.

Escapist is out now through Polygram.

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