I’m sitting at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival watching a man promote his new book. I’ve been soaking up launches and panel chats all morning, but this is the one I’ve been waiting for. His face is so familiar; like bumping into a friend you haven’t seen for years. He’s a little older, sure; salt and pepper hair; still untidily handsome. He reclines in his chair, quite the elder statesman. He answers every question with a world-weary self-assurance, casually tossing F-bombs into the crowd with the cool elegance that only a rock star can get away with. His upper body is practically motionless throughout. If you couldn’t see the rest of him, you’d have him pegged as calm and collected to a Zen-like state of tranquillity. But I can’t stop glancing at his leg. One leg wriggles and bounces with nervous energy. It gives the game away. All is not as it seems. There’s a whole lot you’ll never really know about Steve Kilbey.
Forgive me the long set up, but Uncollected is a book I couldn’t possibly ‘review’ in the usual fashion. It’s a poetry anthology, after all; in Kilbey’s own words ‘part lovely and part bullshit’. Poetry appreciation is subjective at the best of times, but the nature of this book – a compilation of previously published works spanning nearly 30 years – means genre, writing style and speaking positions chop and change throughout. You’ll either like it or you won’t, regardless of what I have to say about it. I’d rather look at the book through the prism of the information I gleaned at the aforementioned Q & A session, which gave Kilbey the chance to contextualise some of the writing in Uncollected and talk casually about his life and career.
Like any good child of the ‘80s, I fell in love with Steve Kilbey as the lead singer and songwriter with legendary Australian band The Church – and my inner teenage self was more than a little thrilled to meet him at the Festival. With big hits like Unguarded Moment, I’m Almost With You and Under The Milky Way, The Church managed to achieve great commercial success while still maintaining a steady subcultural street cred. In the BWF interview, Kilbey described The Church’s music as a unique combination of classic Australian rock and moody pop, that sat quite outside the standard 80s spectrum running from New Romantic to Hip Hop via Hair Metal. He was unabashed about the brilliance of some The Church’s songwriting, but equally aware of the inevitable fall that comes with youthful hubris. When the BWF interviewer asked ‘What advice would you give to your younger self?’ Kilbey replied ‘Ah, that guy wasn’t listening to anyone!’
Kilbey has survived the full rock n roll rollercoaster from artiste, to pop pin up, to junkie and back. He still likes a smoke (nudge, nudge) but the hardcore living, which cost him a good whack of his Church-related earnings and almost his life, is behind him. He’s into yoga these days, and juggling his art with parenthood. The Church still tour from time to time. He paints; he blogs. He has a patron who funds his creative life. This, in itself, is such a gloriously old fashioned notion that it made my heart sing to hear it. How wonderful it is to know that somewhere out there rich guys will still pay artists to express themselves, in this day and age where the worth of creativity is judged only on its RRP.
And that notion of frivolous, indulgent, wanton creativity is how I view Uncollected – and why I’d rather just let it exist than critique it as such. Parts of it are beautifully written – other parts are stream of consciousness experiments. It’s not all ‘good’, but who cares? I’m pretty sure Kilbey doesn’t. Like a lot of other people I know (*cough*) Kilbey’s writing is as much a sort of personal therapy as it is highly skilled wordsmithery; the poetic imagery he once poured into song lyrics or the small, type written volumes that preceded Uncollected now appears on his blog as he’s embraced new technological opportunities for creative word play. Art for art’s sake is a beautiful thing.
Having said all that, Uncollected begins with a reprise of Earthed, Kilbey’s first published poetry collection, which only ever had a small, independent print run in the late ‘80s. I’m pleased to say I still own a copy of the original, which I received for my 14th birthday (I think). I’ve dusted and reshelved it since Kilbey revealed at BWF that it’s now worth around $3000. The ‘value’ is about its limited publication and the perennially hip status of The Church, who’ve never really been shoved to the ‘retro’ end of the world’s record collection.
In terms of filthy lucre, Kilbey’s stories about The Church’s good and bad fortunes are both painful and hilarious. Kilbey chatted a little about the incredible power of Molly Meldrum and Countdown to make or break a music act in 70s/80s Australia. He feels that a faux pas he once made about Meldrum’s sexuality got one of The Church’s Countdown appearances axed – and sales of the single in question tanked accordingly. Down the track, Kilbey had no one but himself to blame for financial hardship. Most of The Church’s original music and lyrics documents (in the days before digitisation) were sold to a US collector for drug money. Kilbey escaped to Sweden for many years where, by his own admission, his only friends were hookers and thieves. He has had a truly fascinating and tumultuous life. Perhaps one day he’ll put aside the allegory and allusions and write a straight autobiography? Although I suspect he might need some good legal representation: he’s a call-it-as-I-see-it kind of guy these days and he knows where the music industry’s bodies are buried!
As you wend your way through Uncollected, you’ll come across tightly wound, cynical theories on world politics alongside drug addled hallucinations invoking God, the universe and everything. My personal favourites are the pieces where Kilbey takes aim at himself and the sheer absurdity that’s been his life. He read out a brilliant extract at the BWF about his dopey mate ‘kilbey’, for example, a naïve companion who’s accompanied him on life’s great journey. It’s the closest we’re going to get, so far, to that elusive tell-all memoir.
Sometimes i feel like jus’ making it all up
i mean, who would know
but life is always weirder than friction
and thats how the snake got out its skin
and kilbey flounders n struggles from one disaster to another
who cares if kilbey insulted hughie louis n made him cry?
who cares that he snorted coke at roger jaggers bar mitzvah
and kilbey was staggering around the green room
treading on rick ocaseks corns
and eating mister misters guacamole
we went out for a stroll in the snow
as luck wood have it
we bump into ziggy marley n end up blowing a spliff
kilbey pretending to know all about dub
says some stupid things
“thats not fucking dub, man(mon)?” says zm
we’re left coughing in the snow
Uncollected, page 276
Kilbey’s writing can be uptight and personal, or symbolic and ephemeral. He paints lyrical pictures that may never make sense to anyone but him; or, in fact, that will mean something entirely different to each person who interacts with them. I love the fact that Kilbey seemingly couldn’t care less what you or I think. He’s happy to be here at all. He’s sent his words out into the wild now. Do with them what you will.
Uncollected ($25) is out now and available via Kilbey’s blog The Time Being.