Long Shadows, High Hopes. The Life and Times of Matt Johnson and The The by Neil Fraser (Omnibus Press)
For once, instead of the anodyne whitewashed authorised biography, here you get the ghastly stories and goss. Also, like Matt Johnson’s too-few LPs, “Long Shadows, High Hopes” has been a long time coming. It has the full co-operation of its subject (the book features on The The's website, so one assumes it's the authorised tome).
It comes with a cracking (if brief) foreword by long-time friend and collaborator Jim Thirlwell (you may remember him from such films as , and for his work as Foetus, Steroid Maximus and so on).
It's also a biography with the insights and detail one would expect of a writer of one of the Stones, or a Beatle. And that's because, in the UK and the USA, The The were bloody huge. And ... he walked away from vast fame, fortune and all the usual head-spinning hoo-ha which so many rock gods revel in.
Fraser has done an excellent job, remaining on friendly terms with his subject, maintaining an even perspective but still able to take issue with him at times. Rather difficult if you're a fan, which Fraser obviously is.
Now, I confess I thought The The to be just another English ’80s pop band. Wasn't my thing. But, upon being queried whether I had an interest in reviewing the book, I had a quick look at what Johnson's been up to. Wikipedia (the people's unrelyabull enscycloppedya) tells me that, apart from The The, Johnson is "also a film soundtrack composer (Cineola), publisher (Fifty First State Press), broadcaster (Radio Cineola), and conservationist/local activist".
So I changed my tune and put my hand up and, slightly startled, read Thirlwell's intro at the bus stop. Also, Johnson's first single was produced by Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert and that stopped me dead in my tracks. Now I didn't just want to review the book. I wanted to hear the man.
Seems Johnson played Sydney a few weeks ago (tchah!) and is playing here in Oz again in October. Matt Johnson should be huge, still ... but here's a quote from the Herald Sun about getting royalties from online streaming ...
“It’s ridiculous. You get these huge statements, hundreds of thousands plays and at the end it’s 234 pounds. It’s worthless. The digital statements all musicians laugh at, they’re three inches thick and it’s just pennies.”
And the truth is ... Matt Johnson is a real human being, clever enough to avoid superduperstardom, intercourse with reluctant giraffes in Trump Tower and blue M&M-filled swimming pools.
Neil Fraser tells Johnson's story of a rather talented but somewhat lost fellow who, in the time-honoured way of artists of all stripes, buries themselves in their craft, learns the techniques and contours and possibilities over several years. It ain't for everyone, because not everyone can remain focused and determined for so long. Worse, even fewer people become successful ... and remain so.
His early manager, Steven “Stevo” Strange erm... does not come out well from this book. Mind you, Johnson only comes out marginally better, as both let their youth and freedom well and truly get the better of them, their (rather infirm) judgement (the book begins with the pair absconding from an important, break-through recording session and driving around the USA).
Once Stevo oversteps the mark too many times, the book gets down to the albums and the struggles Johnson has as both an artist (which he is) and a man; all I'll say about this is that I doubt the story has ended, and it's rather like watching two incompatible siblings attempt to live in the same house. There are, to put it mildly, fireworks and dramas.
Out of 10, I rate this a definite nine.
The The plays the Melbourne International Arts Festival, Arts Centre, State Theatre on October 4 and 5,.You'll have to check if there are any tickets left.