Sunday, January 13, 2008

Days of the Triffids

Long ago I played a very minor role in the pre-history of the Triffids, an Australian band which has continued to gain critical acclaim long after its end in the early 90s and the death of singer-songwriter David McComb in 1999. Last year SBS TV featured their Born Sandy Devotional album in a series on Great Australian Albums. A re-formed version of the band is about to play a series of gigs at the Sydney Festival this week. Meanwhile their albums are being re-released on Domino Records.

I am currently writing a chapter for a book of essays about McComb and the Triffids, focussing on religion. This is a precis.

Many comments about the Triffids’ music and its appeal have focussed on its peculiarly Australian character. The specifics of David McComb’s imagery and the very fact of his attention to religious questions and symbols sit awkwardly with that assessment. Rather than showing a more typically Australian secular apathy or animus to Christian faith, he employs its trappings powerfully, if piecemeal, in his construction of a world of yearning, distance and hope. And the specific forms that faith takes in his songs are not immediately derived from the religious practices of his own Australian upbringing, but are the product both of the US-dominated popular culture of his childhood and youth, and of the reflections on faith and religion found in a literary canon of European and American, as well as Australian, authors.

The religion of David’s songs is not exactly the “semi-Pelagianism” that some have said is more or less inevitable in the kind of Anglican boys’ school we went to. It is, however, unmistakeably Christian, and far more resonant of edgier forms both of Protestant and of Catholic piety or faith. While it may have been influenced by some childhood familial experience of a Presbyterian Church in suburban Perth, as well as informed by religious education at Christ Church Grammar School, the details of its imagery were really those of his own voracious teenage and adult absorption of an unlikely and wide-ranging canon of music and literature.

Although the set of religious symbols that appears in his songs does not map clearly onto any one form of historic Christianity, it has some affinity with a trajectory of introspective and somewhat pessimistic thought that can be traced from Paul of Tarsus to Augustine of Hippo, and then through the Reformation to Kierkegaard. This is a Christianity of grace, not works, which may or may not include the trappings of symbol and ritual, but always centres on the need of a broken person for redemption.

This dynamic, so often present in his songs even where religious language is not, defies assimilation to the glib “spiritual but not religious” tag that might otherwise suggest itself for McComb’s ambivalent stance. There is no trace here of the banal “spirituality” of contemporary popular thought, the benign and domesticable reality that makes all quasi-divine; David’s divinity is gut-wrenching, all-absorbing, fearsome, and largely absent.

It is not much like Nick Cave’s well-known love of the Old Testament. It meets the eye and ear as a pastiche of elements from the film, popular music and other media of the mid-twentieth century, but there is also an enormously sophisticated layer beneath, created from his formal and informal forays into literature like Rainer Maria Rilke and Flannery O’Connor—David’s music would make an eerily apt soundtrack for any re-make of Wise Blood.

While eclectic, the recurrence of American mythology in this imagery is striking. The songs, religious in symbolism or not, manage the creation of a mythic American-tinged world that perhaps was only imaginable from Perth, or at least from Australia. In it, wild preachers in dustbowl towns are neighbours to tortured souls behind convent walls as well as salt-of-the-earth rural Chapel-goers, all serving a deity mysterious, dangerous, deeply loved and often denied. Into this landscape the narrators or subjects of McComb’s imagination come driving or stumbling, spires as well as saloons in the background, bringing the sensibilities of their less exotic background and marvelling in a world writ large, more colourful than their own.

Perhaps, however, the eclectic or imported character of these religious elements does actually not make them less Australian. Debates about Australian values and virtues are a reminder of how banal it is to characterize Australia and its culture solely in terms of what is exclusively or iconically Australian in the view of a few, rather than in terms of the mixture of experiences and influences that actually constitute the eclectic reality of Australian cultural practice. Although David McComb’s religious world seems rather American, it is a sort of America assembled in a psyche formed in suburban Perth, Melbourne pubs and London garrets, and steeped in Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann, as well as in Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck. And given the experiences of the people who followed the Triffids or who have found some significance in their music—the intellectuals, expats, artists and travellers—we might have to admit that this America of the mind is a very Australian sort of reality.

David’s songs are arguably a darker and more pessimistic contribution to a chorus of younger Australian artists and intellectuals who surprisingly, given our secular self-image, find in Christianity rather more than delusion or boredom. Nick Cave, Tim Winton and Nikki Gemmell herself are among the others who have publicly been connected with Christianity in ways somewhat oblique both to the traditional or institutional Church and to mega-Church fundamentalism. These are serious questioners, like David McComb, and with him they are in good company. They remind us that religion, whether or not we profess it, is not merely propositions or institutions but something existential, a quest that recognizes the perplexity of life and seeks symbols and examples that make sense of suffering, loss and love.