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Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy?

review by Jo Case - The Big Issue

4 stars out of 5

This joyfully hyperactive memoir tells the story of an idiosyncratic life immersed in the local, national and international music scene. The title is a wry rejoinder to Billy Joel - who once tried to reassure a nervous Cummings after his band, the Sports, messed up on stage in a hip New York club (by telling them that, some day, the incident would be funny). The Piano Man was right: it is, and so is this book, which leaps about like Tom on Oprah's couch.

It sounds a little nuts, but works wonderfully, thanks to Cummings' wry and caustic comic voice and his winning blend of intelligent introspection, cheeky riffing and candid gossip.

He recalls battles with Michael Gudinski, writing notes to fellow snoop Helen Garner in a bandmate's diary, limousines in LA, ill-advised sex with housemates, touring with Split Enz, performing on Countdown and being jealous of Nick Cave, whose Bad Seeds he describes as looking "like a bunch of blokes on an end-of-year footy trip to the Gold Coast". A highly entertaining ride through our recent musical past.

Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy?

review by Michael Dwyer

The "kind of music memoir" advertised by Stephen Cummings' first non-fiction book is the kind that names names, bursts bubbles and burns bridges with the recklessness of a man with nothing left to lose.

"The past smells like rotten eggs," he declares on page one. "At this stage of my life I don't need libel actions but what the hell."

The former Sports front man turned novelist and adult contemporary troubadour is nothing if not fatalistic. The title of this scathingly funny series of flashbacks refers not to a classic high point on his rock'n'roll road, but to the moment it all went wrong - in front of Mick Jagger.

Not that he's trying to deflect the blame for anything.

Summarily disowned by his father after a poor showing at a junior cricket match, he's assumed every misfortune was his own silly fault since a dog took a piece of his leg on a school excursion to Alice Springs. Inexplicably mortified, he bandaged the open wound for months without telling a soul.

How such a contained and terrified suburban Melbourne youth got hooked on the promise of rock'n'roll is easy to understand. Far more remarkable is how he managed to make his bed between its teeth and emerge only somewhat lacerated: with years of chronic back pain, more years of therapy, and mind chemistry that includes equal parts venom and Valium.

Cummings structures his stories, not unlike recent benchmark memoirs by Bob Dylan and Cold Chisel's Don Walker, in discrete episodes that play loose with cause and effect. A chronology exists, from the gleeful anarchy of the Pelaco Brothers to the anxious expectations that drove and destroyed the Sports to diminishing cycles of solo success, but omissions are gaping and diversions in time, space and trains of thought are many.

In some chapters his memories are married to personal soundtracks.

The long careers of Lou Reed and John Cale, for instance, are a prism for reviewing halcyon days as a Bourke Street cinema usher and film student, random flashes of early bands and share-house trysts, and a post-Sports stint moving scenery at Channel Nine.

Other chapters use collaborators or touring partners to illustrate aspects of the pop musician's life. Split Enz's farewell tour of 1984 is a maddening ensemble piece. Cummings' last gasp as a major label act is shadowed by the degeneration of his erstwhile junkie producer, Steve Kilbey. An opportunistic disco assignment with Kylie-wannabe Melissa Tkautz demonstrates much that is false, vacuous and tawdry about soap star pop.

A particularly daring chapter uses Nick Cave's outrageous success as a yardstick for the author's simmering sense of injustice. By turns he confesses huge admiration and crippling jealousy for this "smug, superior and bone-thin" kid who he nurtured when the Sports were riding high. "It's almost funny," he concludes, but as always, "the joke's on me".

Given Cummings' default position of self-deprecation ("in retrospect, I was an idiot"), it's not likely that libel actions will ensue from Cave, Kilbey, Kate Ceberano, Ross Wilson, Robert Forster, Glenn Wheatley, Midnight Oil, Eddie Rayner, Don Walker, Renee Geyer or any other party possibly wounded by his beautifully turned words of steel.

His former manager Michael Gudinski might well laugh aloud at being called "an offensive and abusive bear of a man" with "an attention span the size of a bee's dick."

The winners of this stupid game, after all, have no need to engage with Cummings' theory that "success has more to do with luck than talent," a viewpoint that frustrated his band mates and minders no end over the years. Even given plenty of both, his pattern of self- sabotage underscores his basic incompatibility with the pop scene’s less attractive prerequisites of bullish self-belief and ambition.

Laid bare with a minimum of romance, the game ultimately smells so rotten that retreat looks like a kind of heroism.

Cummings still makes good records and performs to devoted fans. He's also found true love, as touchingly declared in a loaded final chapter that manages to tie in several early sexual encounters and a near-death drug experience. Somewhere between the rotten eggs and sour grapes lies a unique path through a fabulous minefield.

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