Resilience: Tim Paine, Tasmania and the Stuff of Miracles

‘This has gotta be the greatest piece of cricket writing this century. Maybe even before that: since Boonie’s Under The Southern Cross in ‘96. Maybe I need to think like Boonie. Hmm…’

I’d been talking to myself about writing something on Tim Paine for at least a year. And in the long Covid-19 winter of 2020, too close to lockdown and too far from the cricketing summer, I’d finally started to listen. I’d just watched Under The Cover Of Clouds by Tasmanian filmmaker Ted Wilson (producing, directing, acting and casting his entire family – a real self-starter) in which his character loses his job as a travel writer in Melbourne, returns home to Hobart and starts writing a book about Tasmanian top-order batsmen – specifically, David Boon. In the pit of that cold winter, having just lost my job as a travel writer and wallowing in a wash of homesickness for Hobart, my home town, the parallels were too dazzling to ignore. This wasn’t just self-talk: the cosmos was talking to me, too. Maybe even yelling.

Inspired, I fired off a text to Wilson:

‘Ted! Charles Rawlings-Way here in Adelaide. How are you? Just watched Under TCOC – a real tonic in these dark days. And it’s basically my bio-pic: I’m from Hobart, too (Taroona), have just lost my job as a travel writer (15 years on the road for Lonely Planet), and have been ruminating over approaching Tim Paine to write a book about him. Which is all very hilarious. I don’t have cool specs like you, though… Can you hook me up with Painey via Boonie? Cheers, Charles.’

It took a couple of hours (not that I was counting), but Ted eventually returned fire:

‘Hahaha. Hi Charles. Thanks for your message. I’m really busy with work at the moment but I’ll be in touch. Unfortunately I don’t think I can help with Painey as I don’t think Boonie likes the film and I am scared of him.’

It’s hard to imagine which part of the film Boonie might not have liked: in his fleeting few minutes of screen time he comes across as an utterly good bloke (if a slightly wooden actor). Regardless, if Ted was now in hiding, living fearfully through some kind of reverse-celebrity paranoia, he wasn’t about to introduce me to the Australian Test cricket captain.

Enough mucking around: it was time to crank up the comms. I emailed Tim Paine’s management at Dynamic Sports & Entertainment Group in Melbourne:

‘Hello DSEG – freelance writer Charles Rawlings-Way here in Adelaide. I trust you’re keeping safe in lockdown. Aside from social distancing, sitting down for a beer at the pub and the no-hand-shaking thing, it’s pretty much business as usual across the SA border…just hope it lasts!

I’m super-keen to talk with you about writing Tim Paine’s biography. I’m from Hobart myself, and have followed every false start and finger operation of Tim’s career with nervousness, and eventually, pride and delight.

I’ve been a freelance writer for 15 years (Google me!), writing 40-something Lonely Planet travel guides and untold numbers of articles and food/booze reviews for Time Out, Australian Gourmet Traveller, National Geographic… In 2018 Urbane Publications published my bio of Scottish rock band Del Amitri, which hit #1 on Amazon UK.

I’d love to write another rock bio – maybe something on Melbourne band Motor Ace? But Tim’s story is so compelling, it’s just begging to be told. How long will he keep playing? A year? 18 months? Now is the time to get a book underway.

‘Get to the back of the line!’, I hear you say. Of course, there must be dozens of other journos lining up for the opportunity: it was a stellar piece by Peter Lalor in The Australian recently, for example. But Pete’s not from Hobart, is he? Tim’s story needs to be told by a Tasmanian: the trajectory of Walker > Woolley > Boon > Ponting > Bailey > Wade > Paine (plus a few others) is critical to this tale, and needs to be viewed through a lens that only a fellow islander can access.

There’s clearly too much to discuss in one email – but I wanted to make contact to see if we can get a conversation rolling. I’d love to talk biographies, publishing contacts, cricket, Tasmania and all things Tim Paine whenever you have a moment.

Bye for now,
Charles Rawlings-Way’

Ballsy, no? For a decade-and-a-half I’d spent my time writing about dive bars in Toronto, whale-watching tours in Tonga, obscure Scottish rock bands and food. But never cricket. If ever there was an outsider in the race for the Australian Test cricket captain’s signature on a publishing contract, it was me. I was the ultimate underdog, with no apparent form to even justify a place at the starting gate.

None of this negativity/reality stopped my pulse from quickening when I saw DSEG’s reply land in my inbox. For a fleeting moment, standing at the checkout in Woolworths with my phone in one hand and a tub of vanilla yogurt in the other, I allowed myself to dream: ‘They’re going to say, “Sure man, let’s sit down with Tim and talk leather and willow!” But the response from Richard King, DSEG’s Chief Operating Officer, was as gentlemanly as it was devastatingly predictable:

‘Hi Charles, all good here in lockdown-city, thanks!

I love the passion that comes through in your note, but we are already sorted in terms of our existing network of writers that we will draw from when the time comes.

Appreciate your interest in Tim and wish you well with your next project.

Cheers, Richard.’

I didn’t sleep much that night: ‘our existing network of writers’ was a club from which I wasn’t normally excluded. I’d always been the ‘inside’ guy – part of the network. I was a legit best-selling biographer, dammit! And everyone loves an underdog, right? Especially Australians. But more importantly, I’d made a valid point: the arc of Tim Paine’s ascent to the Australian Test captaincy is welded to the character of Tasmania[1] – the place, the history, the people, the mindset…even the weather.

But before we get into that, let’s dig up some data.

[1] I refuse to call Tasmania ‘Tassie’, which is just so kitsch and patronising. I’ll leave ‘Tassie’ to the big-city TV weather reporters and Friday-night office workers, who – with a wet wedge of King Island brie in one hand and a glass of Ninth Island pinot noir in the other – erupt into fits of laughter and accuse us of being quaint whenever we mention ‘the mainland’.

IT’S ALL GILLY’S FAULT

Aside from baseball, it’s hard to think of another sport that’s so gloriously immersed in statistics as cricket. It’s a numbers game, mate. And if you look at the cold hard stats on Timothy David Paine, they don’t make for a particularly scintillating read. As of September 2020 he’s played 31 Tests for an even 50 innings, scoring at a modest 31.66, with an equally modest seven 50s and no hundreds. Zero. Not one. His singular ODI international ton came against England at Trent Bridge way back in 2009. He’s played some steady knocks, no doubt – and actually, his average is a tick ahead of fellow Tasmanian Test wicketkeeper (and now specialist batsman) Matthew Wade (31.30…more on MS Wade later). But it’s fair to say that Paine hasn’t exactly set the cricketing world ablaze with his batting alone. However, as far as wicketkeeper-batsmen go, his numbers deserve a second look.

Before the international advent of Adam Craig Gilchrist in 1996 – through the many cricketing summers BG (Before Gilly) – the notion that an Australian wicketkeeper might also be a kick-arse batsman was rarely considered. Even legendary 1970s keeper Rod Marsh – who, when he found himself in the right mood, could brutalise bowling attacks – only managed three centuries from his 96 Tests. And before Bacchus (BB), you have to go waaaay back to the controversy-prone Billy Murdoch in the 1870s and ’80s to find another Aussie glove man who managed to crack a ton. In between bankruptcy, going on strike for more of the gate takings and sparking a violent pitch invasion when he was run out batting for NSW against the touring English squad in 1879, Murdoch scored two Test centuries…but neither of them came when he was wickie (he only kept for Australia once).

Fast-forward to 18 November 1999 at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval: it’s no stretch to say that when Adam Gilchrist strode to the wicket in the fourth innings against Pakistan and scored his maiden Test ton (149 not out), he was crossing over into an unexplored realm. By the time Gilchrist called time on his career in 2008, he’d also clocked up 96 Tests with a batting average of 47.60 – including 17 centuries, one of which against a hapless England in Perth in 2006 remains the fourth-fasted Test century of all time (57 balls: don’t blush, Chris Gayle). Gilchrist was a once-in-a-lifetime player – a cricketing miracle. Massive props to Kumar Sangakkara, but we may never see the likes of Gilly again.

So suddenly, when we step out of the shade of Gilchrist’s almighty average (and his ears), Tim Paine’s 31.66 doesn’t seem quite so modest. His consistent glove work reinforces his status: with 133 catches from his 31 Tests, he’s averaging 4.29 per match. Gilchrist is sitting back there on 3.95…and in fact, if we take the first 30 Tests as a measure, no Australian keeper in history has caught more recently-hit red leather than Paine.

Some say Paine’s catching stats are simply a reflection of Australia’s pace attack, which is undeniably awesome at the moment: Cummins, Starc, Hazelwood, Pattinson, and until recently, Peter Siddle. Has there been a better line-up of Aussie quicks in living memory, serving-up such a smorgasbord of juicy nicks outside off? Maybe only the overlapping Lillee-Thompson-Pascoe-Hogg-Lawson-Alderman era of the late 1970s and early ‘80s offered anything like the potency of Australia’s current red-ball barrage. Still, if a bowler is good enough to get the edges, the keeper’s gotta to be good enough to catch ‘em. And Tim Paine is far better than good enough.

So was Brad Haddin, who stepped into Gilchrist’s shoes in 2008, seemingly unaware of what Australian wicketkeepers are supposed to do (or not do) with the bat. Haddin smashed the ball around the park: over 66 tests he averaged 32.99, with four centuries and a whole bag of 50s (18).

But there’s still broad daylight between Brad and Gilly – the exact opposite amount of daylight that was between Tim Paine’s right forefinger and the handle of his bat when he was struck by a 148.2km/h Dirk Nannes lightning bolt in 2010.

SORE FINGER

The game was a domestic Twenty20 exhibition match at the Gabba, between a cobbled-together Aussie Fans XI captained by Matthew Hayden, and an Australian Cricketers Association All-Stars XI led by Brad Hodge, with Paine behind the stumps – a hit-and-giggle TV-ratings session designed to promote Twenty20, which at that stage was still in its nascent form. But over the coming years, Tim Paine didn’t do a whole lot of giggling.

What looked like ‘a bit of a dent’ as Paine thought, inspecting his finger after retiring hurt on 4, turned out to be a chronically fractured phalange[2]. He went on to endure seven (seven!) operations on his injured index: eight pins, a titanium plate, a piece of his hip bone and a sliver off his wrist were holding his finger together – a delicate surgical confection that kept breaking whenever he copped a knock. The injury would heal and heal again (kudos to the surgeons), but Paine’s psychological wounds were proving more difficult to repair.

[2] Finger bone.

Worrying about being hit on the hand every time he went out to bat, Paine suffered through a debilitating crisis of confidence that sent him into a downward spiral – in his cricket and in his head – that spun out of control for years. He watched like a helpless observer as his batting averages in all forms of the game headed further south than Hobart. In Paine’s absence from the international scene, both Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill cycled through the Australian Test team. Once Australia’s youngest-ever contracted domestic player ($10K can buy you a lot of hamburgers when you’re 16), Paine, it seemed, had been cast onto the scrapheap behind cricket’s casualty ward.

Finally, after flunking out of the Tasmanian team in early 2017 – not eating, not sleeping, not leaving the house, pissing-off his girlfriend Bonnie and crying on the couch – Paine admitted to himself that he was a mental mess. What had started as the batting yips had blown-out into crippling anxiety and full-scale depression. Realising he needed help, he unloaded his baggage onto Cricket Tasmania’s team psychologist Emma Harris: ‘It was the first time I actually told anyone what was going on,’ he said in 2020. ‘I sat with her for maybe only 20 minutes that first time, and I remember walking out of that room and instantly feeling better – that I had let someone in.’

From there, Paine blew his nose, had a sandwich and a sleep, apologised to Bonnie and began six months of hard net sessions, facing as much pace as he could handle. And it worked. In November 2017, from out of nowhere, Cricket Australia recalled Paine to the Ashes squad. He wasn’t even Tasmania’s first-choice wicketkeeper at the time: Matthew Wade had been playing for Victoria for a decade but had returned to Hobart ahead of the 2017–18 Sheffield Shield season and stitched up the Tasmanian keeper’s job while Paine was on the couch. But Wade had fallen out of favour with the Test selectors, Peter Nevill hadn’t made enough runs, and rising South Australian star Alex Carey was still an unknown quantity. Paine, meanwhile, had notched-up a half-century playing in a Cricket Australia XI against the touring English team, then smacked an eye-catching 71 not out for Tasmania playing as a dedicated batsman. The numbers fell Paine’s way: seven years after his last appearance in the baggy green, he was an Australian Test player again.

Fast-forward to March 2018 at Newlands, Cape Town’s impossibly photogenic cricket ground. Despite plenty of spite on and off the field, the Australian tour of South Africa was going passably well. Australia had won the first of four Tests – a game best remembered for the stairwell stoush between David Warner and South Africa’s keeper Quinton de Kock[3] – but lost the second Test and was looking wobbly in the third. Dean Elgar had carried his bat in South Africa’s first-innings tally of 311, and Australia was staring down a hefty second-innings deficit after posting a modest 255 in return. Then, in the long shadows of Devil’s Peak, Cameron Bancroft stuffed something dodgy down his jocks while the whole world was watching. Tim Paine’s cricket career was about to take a new and surprising direction.

[3] Good thing Usman Khawaja was there to keep Warner away from de Kock’s jugular. And check out Tim Paine giving the big ‘don’t argue’ to Vernon Philander! There’s your future captain, right there.

After retaining the Ashes in 2019 and sitting tight through this very weird 2020, it seems that Tim Paine and his captaincy have kept the faith of Cricket Australia and coach Justin Langer. And it seems that his sore finger is up for the job. Paine himself is no doubt delighted to be able to file his physical and mental woes in the bottom drawer, somewhere in the distant past. Because distance is something he knows all about.

FAR AWAY, SO CLOSE

Actually, Tasmania isn’t that far from the rest of Australia. Between the island’s north coast and Wilson’s Promontory in southern Victoria, Bass Strait is little more than 200km shore-to-shore, dismissed in twenty minutes by plane or nine slow-boat hours by ferry. If you consider the Hogan and Curtis island groups in the Strait – Tasmania’s northernmost outposts – the political divide is just 50km from the Victorian beach.

There’s also a geologic brotherhood here: the granite bluffs on Wilson’s Prom bubbled up from the same volcanic smelter as the boulders peppering the Bay of Fires on Tasmania’s east coast. The cold fronts that lacerate Melbourne every winter are the same icy gusts (the excellently named Roaring Forties) that make Hobartians clutch their collars and hurry home to stoke their wood heaters.[4] In terms of pure linear mileage, Tasmania is nowhere near as isolated as Perth, Darwin or even Cairns…but Bass Strait’s cold ocean span does more to limit opportunities on the island than any tract of interstate bitumen.

[4] Neither is there a STD area code separation: Tasmania slipped under Victoria’s 03 umbrella in late 1996 without anyone really noticing.

Not surprisingly, crossing Bass Strait is something a lot of young Tasmanians entertain – some with enthusiasm, some with a weary sense of inevitability. When I bumbled out of UTas in 1992 with a Bachelor of Architecture, many of my mates viewed Tasmania just as Colonel David Collins had back in 1804: the perfect island detention centre; somewhere we were, not somewhere we wanted to be. Hobart was sleeping through the early ‘90s recession and sported half-a-dozen architectural firms we could hope to land a job with—and hardly any of them were hiring. Disappointed, we yawned into the Harrington St dole office and spent hazy couch-bound afternoons chugging Cascade longnecks and watching the cricket (Boonie!). Other than the occasional trip to the Uni nets to roll the arm over, graduate life in Hobart in the ‘90s was catatonic. The exodus to Melbourne began.

But it wasn’t just unemployment that drove us away. Tasmania is a uniquely fated island, crossed with a bleak gothic spirit that hangs in the cobweb corners of the latitude. It’s the kind of place where, quite unexpectedly, a desperate and tragic oblivion can bear down and force you to face your mortality.

Hungover one midwinter Saturday, somewhere in the bottom of that recession, I lumbered down from my girlfriend’s house to the North Hobart shops, milk and cigarettes on my list. Sheets of ice wind whipped down the face of Mt Wellington, tearing at the cuffs of my jeans; thin feathers of cirrus sped by on faster, more elevated planes; foothills cut deep silhouettes against the sky as they humped down to the slate-grey Derwent River. I shivered in my skin and whispered to myself, ‘We are all just hanging on here…’.

It’s a heavy vibe. And the vibe gets even heavier when you consider Tasmania’s indigenous history. Cast-off from the mainland when the land bridge to Victoria drowned beneath rising sea levels 8000 years ago, the island’s indigenous Palawa nations thrived in isolation. How did they survive? Didn’t they suffer through the endless cold? Perhaps the desperate and tragic oblivion I sensed that winter morning only arrived with the first bloom of British sails on the Derwent. Across the broader span of time, perhaps Tasmania has only recently lost its sense of ease.

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ I hear you say, ‘– this is all very poignant. But what does it have to do with cricket?’ Plenty. I’m trying to paint a picture here, you see – a picture of Tim Paine’s childhood backdrop, and of what Tasmania means for his psyche. Maybe we need to learn some more about his home ground.

BEACH CRICKET

Lauderdale is a little drive-through beach ‘burb about 20km east of Hobart, with a population of two-and-a-half thousand. The town squats on a sandy isthmus between a sheltered off-shoot of the Derwent River called Ralphs Bay to the west, and broader Frederick Henry Bay to the east. There’s really not a whole lot going on here: an oval, a school, a pub, a petrol station, a few shops, a couple of pizza joints and a strip of houses three streets wide, tracing the arc of the beach.

Tim Paine grew up on Bambra St on the northern edge of town – a no-through-road with a little track leading down to the sand at the far end. On the south side of town, down near the canal, fellow Australian Test cricketer Matthew Wade was batting a tennis ball against the back wall of his parents’ house on Mannata St. That these two Lauderdale lads should both become Test wicketkeepers[5], should both feature in the 2019 Ashes squad, and should actually find themselves out in the middle together at Edgbaston when Wade smashed a very fluid 110, is the stuff of miracles. I mean seriously, what are the odds?

[5] Of the 18 male cricketers from Tasmania who’ve played at Test level, three have been wicketkeepers: Roger Woolley, Matthew Wade and Tim Paine. Boonie also donned the gloves for Australia once or twice when Ian Healy was crook…which is more than we can say for Kenny Burns, who, once he’d been selected as Australia’s keeper in 1890 and was on the boat to England, fessed-up that he’d never actually kept wicket.

Well, let’s take a look at that, shall we? The 2019 Australian Cricket Census suggested that there are 1.65 million Australians playing cricket. Sniffing a scandal of some (any) description, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper debunked those stats as over-inflated and knocked the tally down to around 1.25 million. Still, that’s around one in every 20 Australians. How many of these cricketers are from Tasmania? Tasmania’s population is around half a million, so that’s about one in every 1020 Australians. How many of these cricketers are from Lauderdale? One in every 204,000 Australians. How many are wicketkeepers? One in every 2.24 million Australians. And the likelihood of just one of these dudes making it into the Australian team? That’s a one in 24.68 million chance. And both Paine and Wade being in the same Ashes squad, and batting at the same time when Wade scored a ton? I give up… I’m no statistician[6], but this deeply improbable story is a book in itself.

[6] There’s a 100% probability that I’ve botched these calculations: please correct me @crawlingsway.

When Tim Paine and Matthew Wade were kids, a legendary roadside food stop called Chalkie’s was Lauderdale’s cultural high-water mark. Attached to a petrol station, Chalkie’s was a mandatory burger stop after a surf at Clifton Beach, 10km further south. Lauderdale is skeg territory: all the kids here surf, especially when Lauderdale Point is working – one of five[7] pointbreaks along this stretch of coast that, when the Southern Ocean swell is big enough, rise from nowhere and peel hypnotically along the shore, perfect three-foot roller after roller. This only happens about five times a year and the waves sometimes come and go within a day. But when the swell is right, the word soon gets around: ‘The points are working!’ Every surfer from within 50km is here, paddling out in the cold dawn light.

[7] Six, if you include the secret one that the locals don’t talk about…except maybe over a chicken schnitzel burger at Chalkie’s in 1989.

Lauderdale’s other highlight is its curiously redundant canal. The concept, way back in 1913, was to connect Ralphs Bay with Frederick Henry Bay via a 10m-wide, 3m-deep canal, shaving untold kilometres off the mainland-to-Hobart sailing route. A similar canal had been sliced between the Forestier Peninsula and Tasman Peninsula at Dunalley in 1905, and had won plenty of fans. Lauderdale was gripped by canal-digging fever! But then WWI stalled the excavations and the Frederick Henry end of the ditch filled up with sand. A nifty system of breakwaters designed to keep the sand away proved too expensive, so in 1927 the big dig was abandoned. By 1949 there were 71 rickety, unsewered shacks built along the edge of this Venetian paradise, but the local council deemed them to comprise a ‘depressed living area’. Most were demolished.

But I digress… The point is that for Lauderdale kids, aside from chasing waves and throwing each other into the canal, there isn’t a whole lot to do. The Tasmania Police Academy is just over the hill in Rokeby if you’re contemplating a career in blue…but if you’re a young guy who lives and breathes cricket, you’d better hope that kid from Mannata St is home so you can go and smash a ball around on the beach. And you’d better hope your talent and ambition are big enough to carry you further than that.

I KNOW HE’S YOUR CAPTAIN, BUT YOU CAN’T SERIOUSLY LIKE HIM AS A BLOKE

Some might say that Lauderdale’s fickle surf is a good analogy for Tim Paine’s batting: when he’s in form he’s magic, but the rest of the year he can sometimes be a bit of a non-starter. This perspective certainly fits with some of the criticism that’s been levelled at Paine since he took over the Test captaincy after the Newlands disaster – friendly fire from the relentlessly talkative likes of Geoff Lawson, Michael Clark and Shane Warne. Lawson suggested that Paine should hand the captaincy over to Pat Cummins after the 2019 Ashes: ‘It’s a pat on the back and give him a bonus check, but we’ve got to move on.’ Clark weighed-in on Australia’s less macho, less outwardly aggressive team persona under Paine, saying that Australia ‘won’t win shit by worrying about being liked.’ Warnie has been a font of opinion on Paine’s appointment and his captaincy tactics, suggesting that Paine’s batting isn’t good enough to warrant his place in the team, let alone lead it: ‘We, as Australians, should always pick our best team, and then you pick your captain and vice-captain from that,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we should just make a captain and then fit a side around him.’

But these guys are from another era – frozen in time in those long summers pre-Newlands. Pre-Trump. Pre-#MeToo. Pre-Covid 19. Pre-#BlackLivesMatter. Even pre-climate change. I’m not saying that these criticisms are invalid: Paine himself is the first to acknowledge that yes, he is an accidental captain, and yes, on batting form alone he’s probably behind a few other guys waiting in the wings (you know who you are, Usman Khawaja). But our world has changed, and it’s changing fast. Tim Paine is a captain for these times: he’s wise, he’s thoughtful, he’s witty[8], he’s decent, he’s fair…and he’s fallible. ‘We, as Australians’ should be looking for more than just aggression and unsociability from our cricketers. We need more than that now. We need to be bigger and more humane. We need leaders like Tim Paine.

[8] Caught on stump mic in 2018, Paine’s legendary-but-still-kinda-decent sledge to Murali Vijay about Virat Kohli – ‘I know he’s your captain but you can’t seriously like him as a bloke’ – is about as nasty as Paine gets.

To be Tasmanian is to understand that nothing worthwhile comes easily. Paine understands this about the Test captaincy – it hasn’t been easy, and he’s under no illusions that his time at the top will be limited, by his age if nothing else (he turns 36 in December 2020[9]). Tasmanians know that living on this cold island on the quiet rim of the Earth positions them uniquely when it comes to success. The gifted and tenacious have always prevailed here – hard work and talent pays off wherever you live on this lonely planet. But Tasmania has never been a place where dreams and visions have been met with ease of opportunity. Since cricket-playing white fellas showed up, at any rate.

[9] Although, when you consider that Queenslander Bert Ironmonger was 50 when he played his last Test in 1933, Paine may still have a few years left in the tank.

If we rule out the Northern Territory and the ACT on grounds of their territory-ness, Tasmania is Australia’s least populated state (a tick over half a million). It has the oldest population of any state (median age 42). It also has Australia’s lowest life expectancy (79.3 for men, 83.2 for women), highest smoking rates (18% of people here have at least one daily dart) and second-highest divorce and infant mortality rates in the country (pipped only by Queensland on both fronts – go figure). Tasmania also has Australia’s lowest median weekly household income ($1100.00), and (veering wildly back onto topic) the lowest winning percentage of any state in the history of the Sheffield Shield (24.75%). And you still can’t get a pizza here after 10pm. I could go on, but I’m getting a bit upset.

It’s cheered me up somewhat to learn that, in 1851, Tasmania won the first-ever first-class cricket match played in Australia, beating Victoria by three wickets. But after that, Tasmania hung around the clubrooms like a bad smell, pestering the mainland states for a game for more than 100 years. Tasmania was finally granted entry to the Sheffield Shield comp in 1977…but even then, until 1982 they were only allowed to play each of the mainland teams once per season, while everybody else played twice.[10] This farcical situation is typically Tasmanian – or rather, typical of how the mainland states perceive Tasmania.

[10] Given that Tasmania started so far back in the field, and despite their shitty overall winning percentage (and claiming the wooden spoon 14 times), the Tigers have held the big shiny Shield aloft three times – in 2006-07 (this team including TD Paine), 2010-11 and 2012-13 – and been runner-up five times.

Hobart and Launceston are hardly Sodom and Gomorrah: the Apple Isle’s two biggest cities have been the apple of everybody’s real-estate eye for years now, MONA continues to be Hobart’s twisted cultural firestarter—and you can dig up damning stats on every Australian state without looking too hard. But it’s fair to say that it does take an extra measure of determination to wander through Tasmania’s socio-economic scenery and excel here – or to leave the island and excel somewhere else. And not all Tasmanians can be bothered with this kind of fight.

At worst, Tasmania’s societal backdrop breeds a savage strain of tall-poppy syndrome and a weird kind of hyper-modesty: there are plenty of bushels here with people’s lights hidden under them. And there are plenty of Tasmanians who simply choose to never leave the island. But at best, growing up here equips Tasmanians with hard-wired resilience and the kind of dogged persistence that can take them all the way to the top. All the way to the captaincy of the Australian Test cricket team.

As much as Tim Paine’s story is a collision of raw talent, bad luck and good timing, it’s also a tale of unbelievable personal resilience, deeply rooted in and motivated by the nature of his native isle. It might take a miracle, but it’s a story that can only be accurately viewed, understood and described with any depth by someone who also understands Tasmania.

We’re all underdogs in this game, you see: Tim Paine, Tasmania and me.

© Charles Rawlings-Way 2020; images by others.

Where Did You Go? Motor Ace, Melbourne & Life After Grunge

The whole idea of ‘post-grunge’ music is just plain uninspiring. Post-punk, post-hardcore, post-disco… The implication is that the real thing has been and gone, and in the aftermath some dudes are picking over the bones and ashes, stealing ideas and trying to make a buck. And it’s all a bit shit.

And indeed, there were plenty of bands cowering under the post-grunge umbrella whose music was turd-like. How could sunny Floridians like Matchbox Twenty ever muster the melancholia of the Seattle rains? How could the god-bothering Creed pretend that the sun didn’t shine in Tallahassee? Sure, Nickelback cranked out an album every two or three years and sold millions of them: the commercial imperative behind record companies signing bands like these office-rock Canucks was very real. But creatively, post-grunge was always going to be a pale, inauthentic shadow of something pure and unique – as hollow as a shotgun shell on the floor of a Seattle garage.

But what happened when post-grunge wasn’t just a barefaced cash-in? What happened when a band came along who took the best of grunge – the lustrous guitars, the pained lyrics and redemptive melody, swooping from minor-key verse to major-key chorus with Pearl Jam–esque intensity – and took it somewhere new? Add the hint of a love song to the mix, a few scoops of Radiohead, maybe a little Smashing Pumpkins and some country-and-western sincerity, and you could even call it progress.

It happened for a four-piece band from Melbourne called Motor Ace. And for a few shining years in the early 2000s, it was spectacular.

> FOUR CORNERS

Motor Ace formed, as bands do, from the remnants of another band. Snowblind was a five-piece line-up in which young singer/guitarist Patrick ‘Patch’ Robertson had been cutting his song-writing teeth. The band released the four-track EP Lorenzo[1] in 1996 on First Floor Records, but they span their creative wheels and never really got past ‘Go’. Yes, releasing a four-track EP remains the stuff of dreams for most neighbourhood rock bands, but it soon became clear that Snowblind was blind to Robertson’s vaulting ambitions. Robertson – looking altogether Brit with the doe-eyed marsupial good-looks of a young Ian Brown and a foppish kid-brother haircut, straight out of Manchester ‘89 – had rock star written all over him. He was going places.

[1] The transcendent title track of which would eventually feature on Motor Ace’s 2001 debut Five Star Laundry – and still possibly the only song glorifying Lorenzo Lamas that wasn’t sung by Lorenzo Lamas.

Robertson turned 21 in 1998, but he’d been slugging it out in various bands since he was 15. His deepest desire was never to be forced into the soul-destroying confines of an office job. As he told Adelaide’s Sunday Mail in 2019, ‘I wanted to be able to play music forever. That was the desperation.’ So, when Snowblind wandered into a crevasse in early 1998, Robertson cast his desperate gaze across a wider musical landscape.

If we believe the legend (as detailed in the Five Star Laundry CD liner notes), drummer Damian Costin was eking out a living as an assistant engineer at a recording studio where Robertson was laying down some tracks. Costin clumsily dropped a reel of Robertson’s tape (back in the days of tape), which, to Robertson’s considerable horror, unfurled itself across the studio floor. But the two soon hit it off once Robertson heard Costin’s drumming – a controlled creative explosion described in those same liner notes as ‘incendiary’. Call it what you like – ballsy, busy, weighty, pugilistic – Costin’s drumming, along with his temperament and his jawline, was never going to take a back seat. Better yet, in time he’d prove to have a savvy business head – John Bonham’s tub-thumping beef meets Mick Jagger’s commercial teeth.

The next cat to enter the room was ethereal, beatific lead guitarist Dave Ong, who, when he showed up to audition had just returned from protesting against uranium mining on indigenous lands at Jabiluka in Australia’s Northern Territory. A bearded enigma with the heavy-lidded gaze of timeless serenity, Ong kept his revolutionary zeal in check, sitting and listening for an hour before picking up his guitar and peeling off the intricate opening lines of the song that would eventually become ‘Siamese’[2]. Robertson and Costin were impressed – here was a guy with serious chops but a quirky, anti–guitar hero vibe. The perfect fit. Dave got the gig.

[2] Still possibly the only song lyric in rock history to include the word ‘inanely’.

The final corner of the Motor Ace quadrangle was bassist Matt Balfe, a rock-steady rhythm man who was perfectly happy to slide in behind Costin’s percussive deluge. A master of creating and accentuating space within a song, Balfe’s bass work was taut, restrained and sweet-spot melodic. Just as critically, given the frenetics of Costin’s efforts and complexity of Ong’s lead lines, Balfe’s playing was often astutely minimal (sometimes knowing when not to play is just as important as hitting the right notes). And he could sing! In Balfe, the band had found its equilibrium.

Ambition, potency, creativity, balance – the four corners of rock ‘n’ roll. Just like Led Zeppelin. Just like The Who. Just like the freakin’ Beatles. Motor Ace put the pedal to the metal.

ACE 2

> BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

Melbourne – now home to 4.4 million people and one of the world’s great Victorian cities – is critical piece of the Motor Ace puzzle. Culturally and developmentally, Melbourne lagged behind Sydney and even the far-flung maritime outpost of Hobart for decades, but the epic Australian gold rush of the 1850s brought hundreds of thousands of shovel-carrying hopefuls to the city. Plenty of them stayed and needed somewhere to live. Continuing through to the start of the 1900s, Melbourne was a boomtown, with street after street of Victorian terrace houses knocked-up in a hurry – some opulent, some modest, but all of them totally photogenic. And now – like New Orleans, like Paris – Melbourne’s faded cache of architecture forms an atmospheric backdrop to everyday life.

Melbourne is also grey, cold, wet and windy – like Seattle, like Glasgow, like Wellington. Who ever heard of anything creatively half-decent coming out of Surfers Paradise? Forget about it. The sun is shining and everybody’s at the beach. But Melbourne is an internal city: Melburnians read books, they drink coffee, they play guitars. They dress in black, they go to gigs. There’s an earnest, bookish substance here which feeds off the city’s wrought-iron fatigue; a beaten-down grit that fuels creativity – and especially music – like no other Australian city. Melbourne downplays artifice. Melbourne demonises narcissism. Melbourne is the real deal. And in the streetlight haze of August rain, under a cobweb of tram wires, it’s goddamn poetic.

It’s also true that Melbourne is one of the world’s great drinking cities, with pubs seemingly on every second street corner (gold mining was thirsty work). In inner-city neighbourhoods like Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, plenty of these pubs doubled as live-music venues. A grungy front bar with a little stage in the corner was the norm (extension cords gaffer-taped across the sticky carpet); or, if you were a big enough band to pull a bit of a crowd, there’d be a dim, poorly ventilated ‘function room’ out the back or off to one side which could hold a few hundred people, tops. Legendary rock rooms like the Corner Hotel in Richmond, the Punters Club and the Evelyn in Fitzroy, the Tote in Collingwood and the Espy and Prince of Wales down by the bay in St Kilda had live music seven nights a week. The scene was kickin’.

The late ‘90s was also a time when the music industry was cashed-up with profits from CD sales. Everybody bought CDs! Before the advent of Napster, then Pandora, right through to Spotify and beyond, in 1998 it was still financially feasible for a record company to a sign band for juicy multi-album deal, let them record where and with whom they wanted, promote their material and even pay a healthy royalty or two to the songwriters. If a rock band wants to make money from their music these days, they have to go out on tour and charge top-dollar for tickets – there’s bugger-all money to be made in digital music sales. But the 1990s were heady days in the recording industry, and a real purple patch for Australian live music. Motor Ace plugged in their guitars.

terraces 2

 > PURPLE PATCH

Unless you were living under a rock in Australia in the early 2000s (or at least, didn’t listen to Australian rock), it was hard to avoid Motor Ace. Picked up by Festival Mushroom Records’ pseudo-indie label Sputnik, the band recorded a five-song eponymous EP at the legendary Sing Sing Studios on Chapel St in South Yarra (since 1975!), where everyone from Blondie to Nick Cave, Jimmy Barnes and KISS (!) had graced the Persian rugs. Always on the lookout for spicy new local talent, national ‘youth’ broadcaster Triple J backed Motor Ace heavily and played the heck out of their new single ‘Chairman of the Board’, which, like ‘Lorenzo’, would also eventually find its way onto Five Star Laundry.

Triple J maintained their enthusiasm for the band right through 2000, playing similar heck out of the singles ‘American Shoes’, ‘Death Defy’ and ‘Hey Driver’ as they emerged one by one from the Sing Sing sessions, ahead of the release of Five Star Laundry in March 2001.

Everything was going swimmingly – Motor Ace were fast becoming everybody’s favourite new Powderfinger. This lofty status was sealed when ‘Death Defy’[3] was picked up by Network Ten as the theme song for their sassy new 20-something TV drama The Secret Life Of Us. Starring a crop of soon-to-be-world-famous-in-Australia actors like Claudia Karvan, Samuel Johnson and Deborah Mailman, the show ran for four seasons from 2001 and was a genuine hit, even finding its way onto small screens in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and unexpected countries like Israel, Serbia and Estonia (they love a bit of unresolved sexual tension, the Estonians). Secret Life didn’t exactly line the band’s coffers with boundless funds, but it did carry them across the threshold from impoverished indie radio listeners to the receptive ears of the mainstream Australian proletariat, sitting in their suburban beanbags watching telly on a Monday night.

[3] Still the song with the best bagpipes solo since AC/DC’s ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll’).

Motor Ace was riding the fast train to glory. Crowds numbers at gigs leapfrogged from dozens into the many hundreds. Five Star Laundry rocketed to #4 on the Australian charts, eventually going gold[4], and when their follow-up release Shoot This debuted at #1 in August 2002, it looked like Motor Ace had it made. Produced by esteemed London rock lord Chris Sheldon – who’d worked with everyone from Radiohead and the Foo Fighters to the Pixies, Big Country and Anthrax – the album’s lead single was the anthemic ‘Carry On’, which hit #13 on the Australian charts. In another piece of fortuitous collateral promo, the song was picked up by The Australian newspaper for a TV ad campaign, which kicked sales along even further. Laced with synth and luscious strings[5], ‘Carry On’ had Motor Ace sounding like a very mature, accomplished outfit indeed. The follow-up single ‘Keeping Secrets’ was just as polished – a poignant urban fable crowned by a gloriously uplifting middle eight and a haunting Dave Ong guitar refrain, which sounded complex but was deceptively simple (all the best ones are).

[4] Which means different things in different countries: in Australia it’s sales over 35,000.

[5] Arranged by Robertson with some help from Iva Davies, the driving force behind ‘80s synth-rockers Icehouse – and a man whose curly mullet and too-often-naked torso left scars on a generation of young Australian video-watchers that have yet to fully heal.

Shoot This stepped away from some of the grungier guitar tones and raw vocals of Five Star Laundry – it had, after all, been six years since the release of arguably the last great grunge album, Soundgarden’s elegiac Down On The Upside in 1996 (even post-grunge had a use-by date). But as a listening experience, Shoot This hangs together better than its predecessor: all killer, no filler, it’s a masterful collection of songs. The album shifted 100,000 copies in no time. Game on.

flyer 2

> LOST IN TRANSLATION

As soon as the bigwigs at Festival Mushroom smelled dollars, the idea of breaking Motor Ace overseas was high on the agenda. But as Australian bands have discovered time and time again, cracking the overseas market is easier said than done.

Whether they hailed from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth or anywhere else, there have been plenty of awesome Australian bands who have failed to translate on the world stage. Only occasionally has an Australian act been able to wow the northern hemisphere crowds with any real certainty or staying power. And when they have, Aussie bands have usually had to stoop to gimmickry to get them over the line – some kind of goofy schtick or whacked-out point of difference. AC/DC had a 5’2” maniac schoolboy who played a Gibson SG with the clarity of a Chicago bluesman; Midnight Oil had a bald 6’4” banshee for a frontman who danced like an electric-chair escapee; INXS pumped white-boy funk through the conduit of one of the most irrefutably sexy singers of all time. Men at Work had to bounce around like demented kangaroos in their ‘Down Under’ video for American radio jocks to give it a listen; the Bee Gees even had to invent a whole new way of singing. But for everybody else – mightily talented bands like You Am I, Cold Chisel, Australian Crawl, The Cruel Sea, Baby Animals and Powderfinger – having great songs, great singers and a shaggy backyard aesthetic just didn’t cut it beyond the shores of this great southern land[6].

[6] With apologies to Suze DeMarchi’s haircut and Tim Rogers’ velvet jackets, neither of which you could ever describe as ‘backyard’.

Of course, the difficulty that bands from small markets face in trying to access big ones isn’t unique to Australia: just ask anyone from Canada about The Tragically Hip, any New Zealander about Shihad, or a metalhead from Copenhagen about Disneyland After Dark. For rock bands around the planet, America and the UK were, are and will always be the promised lands. You can sell all the albums you want in Australia – and Motor Ace certainly did – but to really make it, you still need to make it overseas. It’s not a case of cultural cringe, and it’s not about talent: in the age of social media we’ve moved beyond the need to bounce like kangaroos and sing like eunuchs to get the point across. Bands can record themselves, promote themselves and be themselves now, working from whatever remote global nook they happen to find themselves in. But selling music in Australia remains an economy of scale: there just aren’t enough people here to make playing rock ‘n’ roll profitable in a sustainable way.

And so, in 2003 Motor Ace hit the road. But their series of shows across Japan and the US didn’t go to plan, The Age newspaper in Melbourne going so far as to describe the tour as ‘disastrous’. Back home in Melbourne, the band licked their wounds and skulked away into a temporary hiatus. Then, a European tour playing alongside so-hot-right-now Scottish band Biffy Clyro was in the offing, but they turned it down. A tasty record deal with the behemoth global label Interscope was even on the cards – yes, Interscope, with its stable of mega-artists that included everyone from U2 and Guns N’ Roses to Eminem and Madonna. But with the band still recovering from their overseas tour (what did happen out there?), negotiations stalled. It’s actually amazing that they managed to cobble together their third album, Animal, produced by Robertson flying solo. Costin laid down his drum tracks at Sing Sing, then Ong and Balfe filed-in individually to record their parts at Robertson’s home studio. There was clearly a deep level of dysfunction within band ranks, but this creative process seemed to suit Robertson. ‘I enjoyed making it more than any of our albums,’ he said at the time. ‘Musically it’s our most interesting record.’

Released in August 2005, Animal is mature, reflective collection of songs which was critically well received but promptly tanked on radio: even the previously steadfast supporter Triple J didn’t give it any love. Animal didn’t make a dent in the Top 20 and dropped out of the charts after just three weeks.

Motor Ace had stalled their creative engine. At the end September 2005, barely two months after their third album had been released, Festival Mushroom Records’ general manager Michael Parisi took a call from Robertson. It wasn’t good news: the band was finished. Motor Ace played one final show at Melbourne’s Hi-Fi Bar in December of that year, then wandered off into the night towards their separate destinies. Perplexed fans were left with a handful of shimmering rock songs, a headful of ‘what might have been’ dreams and plenty of unanswered questions.

Maybe now, as the band comes off the back of a successful reunion tour marking 20 years since the release of Five Star Laundry, it’s time for some answers. For Motor Ace, who stood in the wings of the global stage and blinked into the bright lights, only to turn around and walk away, there was much more going on behind the scenes than anyone outside the band suspected.

But that’s a bedtime story for another night…

 

© Charles Rawlings-Way, 2019; images by others.

Here And Now

‘What are those?’
‘B&H Ultras. Trying to cut down.’
Ha! Rain falling up. Salmon swimming less. Springsteen singing ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t’… Nina cutting down was never going to happen. Cigarettes were her thing, and by association they’d become my thing, too. Lying on her wrought-iron bed in the flat below her parents’ house in Lenah Valley, we’d smoke and watch TV, exhaling towards the open window so the nicotine fug wouldn’t circle up the stairwell (Jean upstairs didn’t mind, but Big Nev would get shitty). Nina really knew how to smoke – a talent honed through years working behind the bar and further years studying for her Psych degree, reading late, coffee rings on the table, ashtray brimming. There was a native nonchalance in the act: the angle of the wrist; the hollowing of the jaw; the way she held in the smoke until she’d finished her sentence. She never exhaled through her nose. She never had yellow fingers. Never even coughed. Borderline divine.
‘At least you don’t have a cigarette lighter in this thing. Might help… What time do we have to be there?’
‘One. But I told them we’d be late.’
We were always late. Mostly because we’d been lying around in bed, smoking.

Nina’s little white Austin-Healy Sprite puttered across the causeway to Midway Point, flashed past the solitary petrol station then hit the second causeway before the suburb had time to register. Who the hell lived at Midway Point, anyway? The few houses there were drab ‘60s brown-brick numbers, hunkered down in the lagoon air, tiled roofs and aluminium window frames dulled to a salty patina. The tide washed around the headland in a slow surge, stirring the muddy shallows and leaving everything funky and damp. At night the flounder fishermen waded in off the rocks with spears resting on their shoulders, their torches faltering in the darkness like distant wicks.

‘What do think of the stereo? Donovan put it in on Tuesday.’
Fucking Donovan. ‘Donnie’ to his mates. The rock singer. He’d left Nina two years ago for a hairdresser called Barbie (Barbie!), and now that I was on the scene he was hanging around like a bad smell. Trying to assuage his guilt. Screening me for appropriateness. Testing me. Attempting sabotage, sauntering up between sets at Café Who and saying, ‘Can I borrow you for a joint?’. Under different circumstances I would have liked the guy… I reached down and cranked up the volume: Del Amitri’s ‘Here And Now’. Sounded perfect.

Donnie sang in the best (only) originals outfit Tasmania could muster in the early 1990s. They wheeled out wet, mainstream soft-rock fodder as per the rest of the home-grown pap on Australian radio at the time: 1927, Rick Price, James Reyne post-Australian Crawl, Jimmy Barnes post-Cold Chisel… They’d managed an uninspiring single or two which earned them a TV slot on the lame Hey Hey It’s Saturday variety show, which in turn landed them a gig opening for Bryan Adams at the Derwent Entertainment Centre. In a little city, they were a big deal. By 1995 Donnie had done his musical dash, but he was still everybody’s small-town hero. Donnie sang like Bono. Donnie looked like Daniel Day Lewis. Donnie installed the stereo in Nina’s Austin-Healey. Fucking Donovan… I stewed for a long, silent minute then steered the conversation elsewhere.
‘Starting to rain…’

Nina wheeled up next to a newsagent in Sorell and went inside to buy a lighter. I jumped out, opened the boot and wrestled the Sprite’s black canvass roof up over its tube-steel frame, snapping the fat press studs down with wet thumbs. Over my shoulder a dark brood of clouds massed behind Mt Wellington but seemed content to stay there. A late summer shower. I climbed back into the Sprite and watched the runnels on the windscreen.

The moment before you die, does your whole life flash by you like they say it does? Or does your mind boil it down to a few distilled, shining moments? As my father lay dying he wrote a list of the moments he wanted to take with him: my sister’s laugh; the smell of Erinmore tobacco when he first opened the tin; the view from Down Gate after he’d trudged over the common behind his uncle’s house in Devonshire.

Moments matter. Donnie the rock singer didn’t matter. We didn’t know it that summer Saturday, but Nina and I had seven good years ahead of us. She came out of the newsagent, stopped to ignite a B&H Ultra, then climbed back behind the wheel.

midway point

Sad Songs & Success: A Tale of Del Amitri

‘Justin Currie from Del Amitri just messaged me on Facebook.’

‘WTF??? In other news, Dave Grohl fell off the stage in Sweden and broke his leg. Need anything from the shops?’

Just an everyday text exchange between a husband and wife, really. Apart from the Justin Currie thing… Three question marks barely seemed enough, given the lustrous glow of Del Amitri’s star in the ‘90s pop galaxy. And you’d never catch Liam Gallagher or Bono stooping to reply to some random punter’s Facebook message. Well, Bono maybe, on an off day. But Justin Currie!

WTF???

Continue reading “Sad Songs & Success: A Tale of Del Amitri”

into nevada

20.09.94 > GLENWOOD SPRINGS COLORADO TO LAS VEGAS NEVADA > 1.35PM

All through the night across the great flat state of Utah I fought off lucidity, curl necked against the glass on the 11pm Greyhound. I tripped through half-sleep dreams, sometimes so real they drew a physical response, twitching in my seat as the grey bus motored quietly through Grand Junction and out past the Wasatch Range, moving southwest on Interstate 70. Continue reading “into nevada”

dormitory horror #1

04.09.94 > CHICAGO ILLINOIS > 4.13AM

My mind moved through a soup of sullen thoughts as I tried to sleep, but it just wasn’t going to happen: the fucking guy in the bunk below was drowning in fat snores, keeping the whole dorm awake. Cold air filtered down from the jammed-open window above my head in small liquid gusts, chilling the skin I’d left exposed. An air-conditioning duct in the ceiling dripped intermittent droplets of grey oil onto my neck – usually just as I was about to be carried over sleep’s threshold, pushing me back. A horror car alarm screamed through the insomnolent suburbs, a childish melody thwarting a thief but ruining myriad tomorrows. My mattress assumed the shape of my bones, my body sinking, hips and elbows moulding into the lumpy stretcher, heavy with the weight of attempted slumber, though my head, not burdened with dreams, barely grazed the pillow. 4.13am. The distant dawn receded further as the realisation of sleeplessness set like cold porridge. The guy below choked, rolled over, farted and recommenced his slow drown. Dormatory horror. God help me… Continue reading “dormitory horror #1”

heading downtown

20.08.94 > NEW YORK CITY > 4.02PM

Rollerladers gyrated through midtown NYC – backwards, sideways, backwards again – hopping kerbs and dodging taxis in a fluid, improvised slalom. Guys in fluorescent stretch, backwards caps – one dude with a muscular yellow python draped across his shoulders, lugubrious – snapping fingers to tapes, making time through the jam, courier packages in backpacks or in hands, bound for Soho or Wall St or places north. Rollerchicks with bobbing hips, jean shorts, look-at-me leotards, mapping out trajectories of bumps, bends and sways – 3D patterns of hip bones sketching hearts and turning heads, riding a sluice of faithfully following gazes, heading downtown.