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A Change Of Sport

by Matt Condon - Sun Herald, 3 October 1999

Musician Stephen Cummings is hoping to strike a different chord with fiction readers.

Afew years ago, Stephen Cummings attended his first literary festival in Brisbane. He was wracked with nerves.

Here was a man who, over the years, had probably played his music to tens of thousands of people, and had sold many albums as the front man for the well-known band, the Sports, and later as a solo artist.

Yet, in the cavernous auditorium in Brisbane before no more than 100 members of the public, Cummings approached the lectern as if it were the gallows. He was endearing. His speech was heartfelt. Then, inexplicably, he dropped his papers from the lectern. Correction - they seemed to explode from the lectern and flutter to the floor.

His invitation to the festival coincided with the publication of his first novel, Wonderboy. Now he has released his second - Stay Away From Lightning Girl - and has revealed himself as perhaps the least ambitious novelist in the country.

That is not to say that the novel itself is unambitious, or to disparage Cummings' deft and gentle prose style. It's just the man himself and his aspirations as a novelist. In short, he has very few.

"It's something to do for me," he says one sunny morning in inner-city Chippendale. "The novel just reflects, for a brief period, what I'm thinking. I don't think it's much more than that, really."

We are sitting in a cafe opposite a hospital and periodically people hobble by on crutches or roll down the footpath in their wheelchairs. It is, for a moment, a very strange and dysfunctional place to be in.

When Cummings' coffee arrives, the waitress inquires whether it's exactly how he wants it. Is there enough milk? Is it hot enough? Is there enough froth on the top?

He politely says "yes" to all of the queries. He seems, on the surface, to be one of those people who attracts a little insanity.

Just as characters in his novel attract lightning. The novel tells the story of a man who dies and goes to heaven, but is given a chance to return to Earth and make up for his past wrongdoings. It is an oft-used premise but one that still works powerfully for Cummings as a love story.

"I was at a friend's place and she was telling me about her sister," he says. "She told me she'd been hit by lightning three times and nothing had happened. She'd been in a crash and hit a truck. Nothing had happened to her. I have another friend whose horse was hit by lightning and died.

"So I became interested in people hit by lightning. I got on the Internet. There are hundreds of examples of people who have been hit by lightning. I guess you have to be a bit of an outdoorsy type of person or put yourself at risk by hiding under trees during a storm.

"But according to their stories, it's supposed to be like shock therapy. You lose your memory for a while."

It seems to be the way Cummings works for both his songwriting and his prose creation. He hears an anecdote or reads a vignette and it gets the ball rolling.

"Two days ago, I found an old surfing magazine," he says. "There was a story in there about a big surfer at the time and he's quoted as saying he thought he was immortal.

"I like that. It's just little ideas like that and you're off. It's the same with my music. I put a little something down on tape so I have it there. I've got a lot of things on tape."

A resident of Caulfield in Melbourne, Cummings will often walk around the racetrack to think and relax or he'll potter in his garden. The rest of the time he's in his workshed in the backyard. At one end, he has his musical equipment and recording needs. At the other is a word processor. He can swivel-chair it from one end of the shed to the other, depending on his mood.

"I go out there every day and try and do something," he says. "I think my brain works better in the morning."

Cummings has also just released another solo album, Spiritual Bum, a gathering of largely acoustic tracks. And he continues his work as a jingle writer.

"I've just written a song for the armed forces for a new cinema advertisement," he says. "They gave me pages of interviews with the guys and girls in the army and what sort of things they liked, including music, like Regurgitator and stuff like that.

"I don't really think of the army when I'm writing a song like that. Just what the people said in the interviews. Apparently, they've got enough computer whizzes and fighter pilots. Now they need ground troops.

"It's interesting. I might do that four times a year. But combined with royalties from jingles, new albums and books, I probably earn as much as the average schoolteacher."

He has a teenage son, Curtis, 14, and a young son, Dominic, 16 months.

"Teenagers," he says with a wry grin. "If they don't want to do something, they won't do it. He's a huge reader. I can't keep up with all the books. They're all questing books and they're quite violent. He loves those. He's also learning the trumpet.

"Modern kids aren't into our sort of things. They're interested in all things happening at once."

Cummings is due to perform this evening at the Newtown RSL. He wonders if anyone will turn up. He says the music scene has changed, and the music charts filled with dance songs.

"I've given up worrying about it now," he says. "I'm trying to broaden it. To make it even wider. I'll do a show at a university and the kids won't even know what I've done in the past. They ask me if I've got any CDs out.

"Making something simple and giving it power - that's the buzz for me. Usually, I just get on the guitar and play a couple of chord segments. I have scraps of lyrics everywhere.

"I don't tour that much any more. You don't really play unless people want to see you. I'm not out there to plunder and meet chicks."

The interesting thing about Cummings is that he still believes he can get better. That there are things in music he has yet to accomplish. It is this view of his art that has kept him alive in the scene for so long.

"I'm still a shy person," he says. "In fact, I've found I'm getting more nervous on stage now than I've ever been. Perhaps it's because I don't get out on stage that much any more.

"This is what my life is. But does that matter anyway? It's just doing it that matters."

Stay Away From Lightning Girl by Stephen Cummings is published by Vintage, $17.95

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