Tuesday, January 16, 2007

From The Pictures, to transistors, to digital devices

Corrimal had two cinemas – or picture theatres as we called them – before I went to school. The Strand, on Railway Street, next door to Corrimal Hotel, and the Roma in the hollow of the town centre, on Princes Highway.

Some of my earliest and vaguest memories, well before my first school year and long before we had television, was of going to the Strand with Mum and Dad for Saturday afternoon matinee sessions. We would take seats in the dress circle, above the ‘pits’. I remember cringing in fear when Indian war drums beat ominously during westerns, and my parents trying to sooth me, telling me it was only ‘the pictures’. 

But I must have generally liked going to the pictures. One Saturday afternoon, I went alone. Mum and Dad had decided we wouldn’t go that day, apparently disappointing me. Momentarily. 

Having vanished for several hours, my frantic parents received a call from the local policeman, who asked if they had a very young child. And if they did, the sergeant said he had me under lock and key – in his backyard, behind the police station, playing with his own kids. Seems I’d wandered along Collins Street, down to the end of Wilga Street, behind the football fields, across the small drainage creek dividing Corrimal, and up onto Railway Street. I was found on the steps of the Strand, wanting to be let in. It remained the only time I ever wandered away from home on my own.

I had several major ‘fights’ with Mum in the years after that day, and, furious, shrieked that I was leaving home. Good, Mum said, and she’d pack my small play case with a hanky and toothbrush. I sensed immediate loss and overwhelming dread, and only ever made it to the back of the shrubs in our front yard, where I hid. Mum said years later that she'd watch and smile . . . 

First the Strand closed, before I was 10. Then, when I was in high school, the Roma closed. The Roma and the Vista cinema, in Woonona, remained the only two operating north of Wollongong for many years. Indifferent shopping centres now occupy the Roma and Strand spaces.

Although larger cinema chains have fought back nationwide to create overall cinema entertainment experiences, almost all independent cinemas have fallen prey to technology that eventually spawned so-called ‘home entertainment centres’. Faith Popcorn was oh-so right in her seminal
Popcorn Report when she identified cocooning as a societal development that businesses would need to break through if they wished to survive into the 21st Century. Why go to crowded, expensive cinemas only to be mugged outside later when you can rent digitally mastered DVDs for a few bucks, and watch them in the comfort and security of your own home fortress?

And at home, you can drink, talk, go to the fridge, do recreational drugs, stop the action for pee breaks or sex or to pay for the home-delivered pizza, rewind if you miss anything . . . then do it all again if you think the movies are worth it. As soon as broadband internet connections are fast enough, we’ll
all be squirting movies and other entertainments down the line, in real time, for even less money. 

We’re already downloading music, and mobile phone subscribers in our major cities are doing it with music clips and TV over their teeny handsets. So sayonara video rental stores . . . and cinema complex experiences will need to be even richer, more erotic and far more complex.

In my own half century we've moved from a regimented, mass-entertainment world that had remained untouched almost another half a century before I was born. A world – even though rapidly fading by the early 1950s – in which my parents had regular seasons’ tickets to Saturday matinee sessions.

We shifted swiftly to a mechanical, transisterised world of six-inch and 12-inch vinyl records played by sharp needles, and black and white television. And I – along with countless millions of Baby Boomers around the world – bumped along for the ride.

Then even more swiftly, we shifted into a digital era driven by chips and stored on hard drives, and I was again on the front line. From a world of bulky valve-driven television sets that needed to dominate a corner of every living room, to full-colour memory stick devices you can slip into a top pocket, I’ve been there every inch of the way. 

From crackly mono AM radio, to interference-free, crystal-clear stereo FM radio that brought music to true life. And while silicon came to rule the world by the closing years of the 20th Century, the transition seems to have been as smooth as pleasant dreaming. And as exciting as listening in to the birth of Australia’s first FM rock radio station, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Triple J, where Sykyhooks' You Only Want Me ‘Cause I’m Good In Bed catapulted us to another level technical sophistication.

Back in the mid 1960s, I could never have imagined ever owning anything as magical as a personal computer. Technology then was ordered and understandable. Despite world turmoil, things seemed calmer through regimentation, management and far less choice. Information was fed more measurably, slowly, wholesomely, through a limited number of controlled sources. Nothing much seemed to have changed since television arrived in the late 1950s, and didn’t seem as though it would change much more in my lifetime. 

The excitement built rhythmically, systematically, and I loved its mesmerising effects.

In the 60s, TVs were almost always made in Australia, with valves, and housed in timber veneer cabinets astride tapered timber legs. You tuned them from behind with a screwdriver, and changed channels by twiddling the largest knob on the front. The one that clearly showed Channel numbers; 2, 7 and 9. The one above the On-Off knob. Clunk, clunk, clunk . . . The flat aerial cable disappeared into a small hole in the wall before climbing to the aerial itself, attached atop of its tall galvanised metal tube that hugged the side of seemingly every triple-fronted house in Christendom. Including ours eventually.

The Johnsons across the street had television before us, and I marveled at those early all-American cartoons. I remember, sitting crossed-legged the stipulated 6tft from the screen, on the Johnsons’ axminster carpet, glued to Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear.

Television sets and their installation cost a king’s ramsom, and Dad funded our first by selling several 19th Century hand guns in their wooden cases. Ironically, the gunsmith who bought them was burgled within weeks, and both weapons disappeared forever. Equally ironically, our television set – as valuable then in dollar terms as those guns – was never the target of a home invasion.

While Mum and Dad strictly regulated TV viewing throughout our school years, they devised what we called our Friday or Saturday night TV Picnic Teas; we’d spread a blanket on the living room floor and proceed to picnic in the flickering B&W twilight, absorbing our favourite images.

We could watch cartoons in the afternoon until Dad arrived home, and we could sometimes – very occasionally – watch kids’ shows on Saturday mornings. Sydney’s naive children’s TVwas dominated by the likes of Clifford and Gus and TCN 9’s Desmond Tester operating on appallingly makeshift sets.

But we also absorbed the Vietnam War, the first major war ever beamed nightly into living rooms around the world with little propaganda panel-beating, that changed everything. Forever. Like the westerns at the Strand, I now had a box seat at every major Vietnam rice paddy battle. 

Collective innocence quickly receding, we grappled with social shock after shock after shock after shock. Action horror war scenes nightly, direct from said South Vietnam. The Munich Olympics horror of Israeli athletes murdered by PLO terrorists in the prime of their lives. Then horror scenes of every major American city seemingly in flames every summer as race riots ripped at the very fabric of American culture. 

No amount of sanitised Leave It To Beaver, Gomer Pyle, Car 54 Where Are You?, My Three Sons or Superman helped. Nor did the hours of canned laughter at American TV jokes I didn’t find funny.

And I can still feel the dark shadow of the Cold War and its attendant likely Nuclear Winter sending shivers down my back, despite television discreetly sidestepping, as often as necessary, that element of global reality. We all knew it was there, like death and taxes. But like death, we never discussed it too openly. And if we did, it was with the same hushed resentment our parents’ generation reserved for taxes.

Then, on the morning of July 21, 1969, on a fuzzy television set at my high school at Bellambi, I watched American astronauts Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, taking mankind’s first steps on a planet other than our own Earth. Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was instantly and forever lasered into the back of my brain. Those who saw that instant of human touch-down know what I mean. Those who have followed since can only imagine the enormity of those first few seconds. Forget the televised bombing of Baghdad in the war against Saddam Hussein . . . Nothing – and I mean nothing – beat watching that first space boot stepping into the Moon’s super-fine dust for real Shock and Awe.

Radio was equally understandable back in the 1960s. My first transistor radio, made by National of Japan, featured the eight transistors required to make it youth-coveted in 1968. About the same time I was given a small mono cassette tape recorder that allowed me to (poorly, I might add) record songs from the radio. I bought very few expensive pre-recorded commercial tapes.

I played my first vinyl record – a six-inch disc of
Scarborough Fair, by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 – on my parents’ sturdy, portable HMV mono record player in the same year, just as radicalized university students started manning the Paris barricades and demanding an end to society as they know and loathed it. Two years later, long after the Paris barricades had been dismantled and the students ‘re-educated’, I started buying 12-inch albums, starting with King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King. The IBM PC, itself featuring countless transistors’ worth of processing power, was still another 14 years away.

When it came to music, these were also simplified years of limited technological choice. As the western world tore itself asunder under the influences of youthful rock music, an American-based political revolution spawned by an ever-growing, never-ending Vietnam War, and a snowballing social and sexual revolution spawned by The Pill, we had mono or stereo, and you could only select transmitted music from a small number of AM radio stations. You carried your AM ‘tranny’ to the beach protectively wrapped in a towel, and listened through a single, crackly ear phone. I carried my small radio everywhere, and treasured it because I knew my parents paid another king’s ransom for it. Tape recorders were either reel-to-reel (for audio aficionados with deep, deep pockets and a deeper understanding and appreciation of stereo recording) or cassette (like mine), with increasing numbers of ever-improving model ranges rolling out of Japan’s burgeoning electronics factories.

My other choice for catching music was my parents’ older HMV Bakelite radio, set up at one end of our dining room at the back of the house, on top of my mother’s venerable treadle Singer sewing machine. I set up an elaborate copper-wire aerial, attached to the back of the radio, passed through the window behind, and ran it along the length of the trellis running between the back of the house and the backyard shed. At night – usually on Friday and Saturday nights – I’d sit alone in the darkened kitchen, my ear pressed against the radio’s bassy speaker, scanning distant strengthening and weakening airwaves, monitoring exotic play lists of rural radio stations hundreds of miles away. FM transmission, capable of being pushed through the air in stereo, was another technology I could barely imagine.

I’d take notes, and compare play lists with my good friend, Paul Reilly, who always seemed to know every song, especially those recorded by Black American artists on the Stax and Tamla Motown labels. Paul also introduced me to
Spooky, by Denis Yost and the Classics IV, and I’d hear its haunting riffs occasionally over the next few years, as I scanned the night skies, especially those perfectly still, crystal-clear winter skies ideally created for AM radio waves. Spooky’s brief sax solo remains a personal favourite almost 40 years later. It never worried me that Yost is white. His sax sounds amazingly Black.

I came to believe Australian country radio stations played some songs I liked and rarely heard on the major Sydney stations, 2SM, 2UW or 2UE. I also got a strangely soothing kick out of listening to late-night ad patter referring to businesses with telephone numbers on streets I’d never visited. Some kids listened to 2UE, but it was never a favourite of mine; I preferred 2SM, with arguably the strangest radio personality – Mad Mel, with his Mahatma Duck sidekick. No one knew what Mad Mel looked like; he always covered his face in public with a scarf. “Mad Mel is everywhere . . . Mad Mel is everywhere . . . “ went the station refrain. John Laws, one of Sydney’s leading disc jockey, generated a far larger army of loyal listeners, as did UW’s Ward ‘Pally’ Austen, who also generated scandal by dressing as a Confederate officer, complete with Remington revolvers, and marrying a sweetheart about half his age.

Our local Wollongong station, 2WL just never cut it – even late at night, when other regional stations came out of their shells. Like those youth who divided themselves into either the Ford or Holden car camps, kids close to Sydney would divide themselves into SM, UW or UE camps. And I would scan the night skies for musical exotica, and excitedly call Paul to discuss these discoveries.

But no stations played the album music I preferred to buy. To hear this, I’d travel into Wollongong, and venture to the lower end of Crown Street to Wilson’s record bar, opposite the old War Memorial. There I would select albums from the Progressive Rock bins and ask to hear selections of tracks. Music for me quickly became a mysterious divining art. An art of personal discovery. I would listen intently in the small ‘sound-proofed’ booths lined with perforated Masonite board. I discovered King Crimson this way. I discovered Santana this way. And I discovered Led Zeppelin this way. I was always attracted by 12-inch album covers, which today seem huge compared with today’s more restrained CD counterparts. I clearly recall the day, in the winter of 1970, that I clapped eyes on the cover of
Led Zep I. I was enthralled by the reversed image of the zeppelin coming down in flames while still attached to its mooring tower. I had the locally venerated assistant, the one who seemed to know everything about every record in stock, spin a few tracks. I was hooked for life. “Yeah . . . a really great album, mate,” the assistant said as he deftly slipped the 12-inch black vinyl platter into its crisp black and white cover for me. “It’s just a pity they’ll never amount to much more than this record . . . This band isn’t getting the airplay it needs to survive . . .” With these words still in my ear, I stepped back out into the crisp Wollongong air. I figured the album would become all the more precious because of its likely rarity in years to come.

Other music I learnt from friends’ collections, and from steady visits to Wilson’s Record Bar. Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash and Neil Young, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Pacific Gas and Electric, Chicago Transit Authority, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown . . . The revolution continued well into the 1970s, well into my university days. However, by the time I was grooving to Brazilian saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and Paul and I were sharing a humble backstreet house in inner Sydney’s Leichhardt, I was still doing so to vinyl platters spinning on crude stereo players.

The IBM PC was still 10 years away, and CDs were somewhere else again . . . .


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