Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Nurse the Hate: Midnight Oil

I went to see Midnight Oil a couple of nights ago.  It’s the third time in my life I have seen the band, one that I enormously respect.  I hadn’t realized until now the band had been in the backdrop of my almost entire adult life.  I stumbled onto the band when I was still in high school.  When you were in high school in Erie PA in the 1980s, alternative culture and underground music isn’t something you casually sorted through with a mouse click.  Erie was a cultural void.  Finding anything interesting was a mission or complete accident.  In the case of Midnight Oil, the atmospheric conditions were in a bizarre configuration that somehow allowed a Canadian radio station to be picked up on my otherwise terrible radio in my bedroom.  For one glorious day I heard a vast playlist of unknown music.  Erie had two rock radio stations, each somehow worse than the other.  Jet14 was a strict Top 40 station that couldn’t be any cheesier or out of touch.  K104 had morphed into a watered down AOR station that took the absolute worst aspects of classic rock and mixed it with the worst of Top 40.  It always seemed to be playing Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” or Toto’s “Africa”.  They must have had a playlist of 17 songs, but every once in a while a Zeppelin song slipped in, so that was my preferred station.  

The Canadian station was subject to the national rule that more than 50% of the artists played must be Canadian.  I had no idea of the regulation at that time.  All I knew was I wasn’t hearing “Hold The Line”.  It was song after song of things I had never heard before.  It was like a station from another planet.  It was really exciting.  I remember that Midnight Oil’s “Power and the Passion” from their “10, 9, 8…” record stopped me in my tracks.  It was definitely rock music and had an off kilter herky jerky rhythm while a guy with an unusual accent talked about something that sounded serious.  This was something with much more meat on the bone than the current Journey record.

There was one record store in Erie that even had the potential of having a record this subversive.  In the back corner of a McCrory’s Discount store, some employee had convinced the manager to allow him to order a small stock of what was then called “punk” records.  The word “punk” at that time meant anything that sounded like it might contain dangerous ideas (or what rock and roll was supposed to be in the first place).  Having no way of finding out who Midnight Oil was, the name of their record, or even place of origin, I had to ask the clerk if he had heard of this obscure document and if he could somehow through the grace of God find a copy of such a thing.  It was like trying to get the Ark of the Covenant.  Literally the only thing I knew was the name of the band and song.  The clerk, excited that someone wasn’t asking about a copy of an April Wine record, eagerly flipped through a mimeographed record wholesaler’s catalogue.  “Is it off the Midnight Oil, Head Injuries, or 10,9,8 album?”  What’s the most current one?  I will take that.

Weeks later the store called me to let me know that it had arrived.  I went to the Millcreek Mall in my buddy Eric’s brown Toyota Tercel, perhaps the ugliest car of its era, which is saying something.  I held the record between my hands as we drove back to my house.  I didn’t listen to it until Eric had gone home as I didn’t want to sully the experience.  I had only heard the song once.  What if it wasn’t cool and I faced the horrific backlash of peer group disapproval?  That was too big a risk.  I put the record on my rinky dink stereo and was blown away.  Holy shit.  It had the energy and melody of arena metal, but was really smart and somehow exotic.  It proved the world was bigger than tiny Erie PA.  This Australian band was singing loudly about United States imperialism, environmental protection, isolation, fighting back, and basic human justice.  It was a whole lot better than songs about wizards and shit.

My immediate peer circle bought into the band, but not as enthusiastically as I did.  While absolutely huge in their native Australia, they were essentially unknown here.  When I went to college I brought my Midnight Oil records with me.  I distinctly remember an incident when I was awkwardly hoping to win the affections of a girl by the passive aggressive tactic of “hanging around and maybe she will like me” in my freshman year.  Another suitor, a boy from her hometown, was in her dorm room for a small party as well.  We were taking turns playing records and then I put on “10,9,8” as a display of my worldly tastes.  He, sensing my intentions with the lady friend, began to mock the band and by extension me.  “Midnight Oil?  Hahahaha!  Who has ever heard of Midnight Oil?  Hahahaha!  Put on some Loverboy!”  I swear to Christ that’s what he said.  I remember saying to him something about how he was a stupid fucking hillbilly and things denigrated from there.  He left the party shortly afterwards in his stonewashed jeans and climbed into his Monte Carlo and drove back to Richfield.  Not before I told him that Midnight Oil was an important band and he wasn’t smart enough to understand it.  I was obnoxious.  History will also show that I was also correct.

A couple years later I got to see the band at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh on a rare US date.  It was very hot and I was battling an illness.  The show was great.  I remember almost passing out from dehydration.  I slept the entire ride back to Kent in the backseat of the car shivering with fever.  There was no way that I would have missed that show.  I never thought I would get to see them.  CBS had picked up their US distribution so their records were suddenly available.  When their next record “Diesel and Dust” came out, it broke them in the United States.  For most of the US population, “Beds Are Burning” was their only song, relegating them to a place in US popular culture in the same neighborhood as Fine Young Cannibals.  They kept doing their thing though with “Blue Sky Mining” even being a minor hit LP.  

Over the years I would drift in and out of the band.  I went to see them at the Odeon in the mid 90s, probably ten years after first seeing them.  They were still great deftly mixing in unfamiliar new material with the “hits”.  In the US the band had become a footnote again, their records once again becoming hard to find.  I picked up new releases when I saw them.  The band had drifted out of my orbit when I saw that they were coming to Cleveland on some type of landmark tour.  I was curious to see how they had held up on this date at the House of Blues.  Peter Garret, the singer, had put his money where his mouth is and actually been elected to Parliament.  Can you become a politician and still bring the rock?  How old were these guys now?  They had to be in their 60s.  Yet, out they came looking like they always had with a bit of gray and fucking delivered.  The benefit of being a 6’8” bald singer is that you essentially never appear to age from a distance.  That dude was doing his weird robotic dances, the band was hitting great harmonies, and knocking back songs about questionable American policy decisions in very divisive times.  It takes some courage to stand in front of a few thousand Americans in the age of Trump and sing "US Forces".  Joe Strummer would have been in the front row.  It was great.

I’m digging out some probably overlooked Midnight Oil records from the mid 2000s to drive around with this week.  I'm excited to see what I missed.  Who knew the impact of that odd weather pattern that would allow a Canadian radio station signal to drift over Lake Erie in the early 1980s would still impact me in 2017?  I could be listening to fucking Loverboy in my stonewashed jeans right now otherwise.          


At August 29, 2017 at 9:51:00 PM EDT , Blogger old man taylor said...

Amazing band.

At August 30, 2017 at 12:22:00 PM EDT , Blogger Ken in sunny Florida said...

I feel the same about randomly seeing the Cowslingers while working the WENZ booth at a rib burnoff at Burke Lakefront in 1996. Changed my life!


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