+ SPENCER P JONES
Lyrebird Lounge, Ripponlea, Melbourne
Saturday, 18 June, 2011
Words: PATRICK EMERY
Share The annotation against the Lyrebird Lounge on Google Maps sums it up: a bit of old school St Kilda in the Rip – a great place to knock a few back. It's the perfect description. Contemporary St Kilda is something of a cultural paradox: infamous for its seedy underbelly, the suburb has mutated into a haven for young urban professionals and English backpackers. The legendary rock'n'roll venues of yore are overpriced shadows of their former glory days; yet the suburb retains a core community of old rockers still yearning for the wheel to turn back again.
It is into this void that the Lyrebird Lounge has settled in. Located in the staunchly Jewish location of East St Kilda, the Lyrebird Lounge hosts bands on a regular, if not always frequent basis. From legends of St Kilda's past, to the odd interstate visitor to the occasional up-and-coming band, the Lyrebird Lounge is the beacon of hope for the crusty old St Kilda rocker.
Tonight the Lyrebird Lounge hosts a bill worthy of the long trek across the Yarra: The Painkillers from Perth, supported by the erstwhile Spencer P Jones. The journey is relatively simple: a bike ride from Northcote all the way to Richmond Station, followed by a train ride to East St Kilda. The train carriage is patronised predominantly by representatives of the younger generation, their fashion sense anathema to the brisk winter air that lies outside. A young woman swigs from a 2-litre plastic juice bottle as the party alights from the train at Windsor Station. "I'm sure I didn't do that when I was that young," my travelling colleague suggests. "Hmmm, I reckon I did," I counter, "though I'm sure we had more class – we hung out in parks in the suburbs."
The train arrives at Ripponlea Station and we alight. A fellow passenger scours the asphalt path adjacent to the platform for discarded train tickets. We jump on our bikes and turn left down Glen Eira Road. Thirty seconds later and we sight the Lyrebird Lounge. It's easy to identify: every other business on the street is closed, and the street traffic seems entirely focused on this sole licensed venue.
There's a table set up immediately outside the front door, staffed by Nick, a long-time punter who cut his teeth in the greasy world of 1980s Adelaide rock'n'roll. The cover charge is negligible at best; it's a welcome relief to standard tariffs applied elsewhere in the Port Phillip area.
On the inside the Lyrebird Lounge is stylish and a little bit dirty, like a speak-easy in a St Kilda share house. The stage is crammed up against the front window, and it's difficult to identify the barrier between the fold back monitor and the vinyl couches. There's an upright piano against the eastern wall; on top of the piano a vintage projector projects stars onto the opposite wall.
Spencer P Jones is scheduled to commence his set at 9.10pm, but no-one with any experience with Spencer has the slightest expectation that he'll start on time. Spencer is sitting at the bar, chatting amicably with various acquaintances. We pay our respects, procure some Coopers Pale Ales and wander out the back. The beer garden atmosphere is closer to that of a backyard party that a pub; every face that wanders through is old and vaguely familiar.
Ten minutes later and Spencer has decided to migrate from the bar to the stage. Tonight he's wearing the red and black check woollen peaked cap, a recent favourite and ideal for the winter months. Bogans opens the set, before a slew of tracks that remain unrecorded but familiar to everyone who's made it their business to see Spencer play live.
From being the relatively enigmatic guitarist in The Johnnys and the Beasts of Bourbon – and a host of lesser-known cult acts in the 1980s and 1990s – Spencer has evolved into a charismatic songwriter of unbridled brilliance. The key to Spencer's music is its pathos-tainted pop sensibility. Every song holds a key to Spencer's turbulent emotional and chemical existence. It's mournful, maudlin and intense and utterly compelling.
A couple walk through the door half-way through Spencer's set. "You've missed the best part of the set," Spencer smiles through his gap-toothed mouth, before unwitting contradicting himself by launching into the three-chord wonder of Hot and Cold. Having cast the monkey of heroin addiction off his back some time ago, Spencer is notionally sober: sober, in Spencer's case, still permits him to consume the spirits that are habitually offered to him free-of-charge during any of his shows.
The end of the set arrives and Spencer motions to James Baker, tonight of The Painkillers, and previously of The Victims, Le Hoodoo Gurus, The Dubrovniks and The Beasts of Bourbon. "I think you know this one James," Spencer says, as Baker slides effortlessly onto the vacant drum seat to provide the dulcet drum beat for the Beasts' "The Hate Inside". "This is why we came across here tonight," a friend remarks.
There's a short break, during which we head back out in the beer garden for a dose of brisk June air. We're too preoccupied with old war stories of Dead Moon and the Pierced Arrows to hear the opening moments to The Painkillers' set. Once alerted, we worm our way down through the crowd to reserve a suitable vantage point. Joe Bludge is a stocky guy with a furrowed brow and a penchant for folk-blues riffs. His stories come by song, and there's little stage banter to be heard.
Behind him sits James Baker, the cave-dwelling legend of Australian garage rock'n'roll. Baker's crevice-laden face barely disguises a life spent indulging the demon drink; it's rumoured that back in the day Baker would put away two slabs during a mid-week rehearsal. If age has weathered Baker's physical health, his drumming is as potent as ever.
Mid-way through the set Bludge calls Spencer to the stage for what promises to be a memorable collaboration. Bludge jokes that he and Baker are going to play a game of "trying to catch Spencer out". Early on in the set Jones seems to be circling in and out of The Painkillers' orbit, his cowpunk licks stabbing into The Painkillers' folk-punk melodies with indulgent abandon. As the collaboration proceeds, so too does the synergy between the band and its interlocutor.
There's a moment during "Drunk On a Train" (or was it "Love Cancer"?) when the interplay evolves into a three-way dialectic of Socratic proportions: Bludge offers the basic tune, Spencer throws his own melodic sparks into the mix and Baker fires off his trademark troglodyte beats.
Spencer retires back to his front row seat to leave The Painkillers to entertain the crowd. A few songs later – during which Bludge plays his signature eponymous tune –and Bludge suggests Spencer return to the stage for a cover of The New York Dolls' "Lonely Planet Boy". It doesn't get much better than this, and everybody in attendance knows, and appreciates that conclusive fact. It's all over, and there's much rejoicing.
But it's also 11.30, and the last train out Ripponlea leaves at 11.47. Sensing the night could drag on far too long into the morning, we do a succession of succinct goodbyes, basking in the prevailing sense of goodwill and contentment that pervades the entire venue. Later on during the train journey we adapt Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh to the instant circumstances:
'The last train out of Ripponlea's almost gone/Only 12 riding minutes and we'll be arriving at Jolimont/There ain't nothing like the kisses of a jaded Richmond princess/I'm gonna hit some Carlton nightspot all night long'.
A final pit stop at the John Curtin Hotel brings with it a final beer and some perplexing conversational fare, and then we're away. This was a night that promised everything it delivered, and offered up plenty more.