Born Sandy Devotional is 30 years old this month!
Don’t read this:
Until you’ve listened to the record at least five or six times, preferably on vinyl —
Don’t be put off by the occasional static crackle, or dusty pop.
Believe me, there’s nothing wrong with old technology.
Don’t read this:
If you’ve never been in love. If you’re too young to have experienced heartbreak wait until you have — not only will you be in a better position to appreciate the album, but you might find that it gives you a small measure of comfort in your time of need.
Don’t read this:
If you think my interpretation of David McComb’s lyrics might destroy the album’s mystery — I won’t be offended, not that you give a damn about my feelings, stranger.
Don’t read this:
Until the sun has sunk below the horizon and you’ve sunk a couple of intoxicating beverages, or inhaled certain substances (my prose needs all the help it can get).
Don’t read this:
Until you’ve listened to the album on a road trip, preferably on a long road trip. You don’t need to have experienced the desolation and isolation of the West Australian outback to enjoy the record, but it helps.
Once you’ve met these conditions, you may read on. Then, we can compare notes, and exchange missives about the genius of David McComb.
Born Sandy Devotional: An Appreciation
Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky.
A thick sludge of nostalgia covers my memories of the Triffids. It’s sticky core is made from hot summer nights spent in smoky pubs and clubs, watching throngs of black clad bohemians shake, shimmy and stare at the band in wide-eyed wonder. As I recall, Triffids’ fans were not very good dancers. People would rhythmically sway to the music, jump up and down on the spot, or just stare at the mesmeric spectacle, lost in private reverie. I remember one devoted fan, a petite young girl in a little black dress who used to do an especially well-mannered version of the hokey-cokey every time the band played an up-tempo number (right leg in, left leg in, and shake it all about, daintily). I never spoke to her, or knew her name, but she’s part of the sludge, and I see her pretty, clear skin face, framed by straight black hair cut in a neat bob, through aging layers of wistful sediment.
I can also see a group of friends singing along to the Triffids’ rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds.’ They’re young, definitely drunk and appallingly off key, but smitten with an exuberance and enthusiasm rarely found in people over 25. One of them takes large sips from a hip flask he’s snuck into the gig, as he whispers something in his girlfriend’s ear. Another fiddles with his Sony Walkman, which he uses as a surreptitious recording device. For many years, I couldn’t disentangle the music from these personal memories. I can’t hear ‘Beautiful Waste’ without thinking about my first girlfriend, Fiona, who gallantly endured my rabid proselytising about the band’s brilliance. My memories of Triffids’ gigs fill me with a warm glow, a sentimental longing for a generally happy time now long past. This is perhaps why it took me so long to appreciate their brilliance. While they never conquered the world or found commercial success during their heyday, the Triffids were a world class act, and David McComb was a song writing genius, one who fully deserves to share the penthouse suite in the tower of song with luminaries such Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
I lived in the band’s hometown of Perth, the world’s most isolated city, when the Triffids were at the height of their powers in the 1980s. I feel privileged to have been in the right place at the right time, for once in my life. For a local, I came to the band relatively late — I missed their early gigs at the Stoned Crow, and certainly didn’t attend any performances during their formative years. The band were already very impressive and accomplished when I first saw them in 1983. By this time, they no longer lived in Perth, but returned periodically for weeks at a time, playing regularly at venues like the Shaftesbury Hotel and the Red Parrott, both long gone (not even dots on today’s map of metropolitan Perth).
I saw The Triffids as often as I could, sometimes two or three nights a week. I even saw them twice in a single night once — the second performance that evening was memorable because a fight broke out between two drunken louts. I seem to recall McComb heroically restoring order by jumping off the stage and separating the principal aggressors.
I’m sure the band had its bad nights, but I don’t recall a single bad gig, although McComb was not averse to admonishing the sometimes complacent crowd for requesting familiar songs, and cover versions of other people’s hits (which the band appeared to enjoy playing). There was always one or two die-hard fans that felt the need to share their intimate knowledge of the band’s most ancient songs by rowdily requesting ‘Butterfly’ or, more often than not, ‘Farmers never Visit Nightclubs’. Depending on his mood, McComb would acquiesce or contemptuously dismiss these calls from the crowd.
Friendly hecklers notwithstanding, the band was palpably committed to their music — their shows comprised of furious sermons from the pulpit, atmospheric missives from a lonely place, and twee ditties delivered with just the right degree of irony. For all the dark and brooding songs in McComb’s canon, the band had a sense of humour, and revelled in playing cheesy Vegas-era Elvis covers alongside incendiary garage band classics like ’96 Tears’ and ‘No Fun’. Their version of the theme from Gilligan’s Island underscores their eclecticism and capacity for comedy. However, I think their affable presence, and droll irony often masked their brilliance. In any case, the energy and visceral power of the Triffids on stage resides only in the memories of those lucky enough to witness those astonishing gigs, although the band’s live recordings and videos capture something of their astounding prowess as a live act. However, as good as they were live, it’s the song writing I want to celebrate (even if my commentary does a violent disservice to McComb’s sublime compositions). I want to add my praise to the ever-increasing body of critical work devoted to McComb’s oeuvre by appraising the songs on Born Sandy Devotional, an album considered by most to be the band’s greatest artistic achievement.
David McComb brought a rare sophistication to the art of song writing, which is never more evident than on this album. His lyrics here are poetic without being forced or pretentious, and, more often than not, they’re imbued with a paradoxical sense of melancholy, tender and transcendent, deranged and insightful. His protagonists, often possessed by a feverish intensity and panic, wounded by a lover’s abject dismissal, find themselves marooned in a solitary space emptied of solace. The band creates compelling washes of sound that support the songs, providing a cinematic bed for these intricate ruminations on lost love. The songs explore various heightened states of being; states induced by love’s traumatic aftershocks.
McComb’s characters roam through his landscape of love, some delirious with fever, other stoic with resignation. They fall into its ‘frighteningly silent abyss,’ and few attempt resurrections. Of course, this virtual landscape has much in common with the Australian outback. The lonely, barren expanses of the island continent’s unpopulated land provide an appropriately desolate metaphor for songs about unrequited love, the album’s major theme. Yet, Born Sandy Devotional is no simple-minded paean to Australia. The country’s landscape is inherently mysterious, especially so for European settlers; McComb preserves its enigma by eschewing literalism in favour of a gripping ambiguity that demands close attention if the listener wants to appreciate its extraordinary nuances. The album’s very title is mystifying, and puzzling. It’s taken from a song that doesn’t appear on the album, a song McComb was never sufficiently happy with, so while the Triffids played the song live, they never officially released a definitive version (an incomplete take appears on In the Pines).
The deluxe edition of the remastered album contains a revelatory booklet containing McComb’s various notes for the recording. On the back cover, he points to the title’s ambiguity by noting its grammatical structure. ‘Born’ is a verb, an action. ‘Sandy’ is a proper noun (a boy’s name or a girl’s name), or an adjective, a qualifying description (as in the line, ‘a sandy beach’). ‘Devotional’ can also be a noun or an adjective. So what does all this mean? We can read the title as being about devotion to some person called Sandy — an object of desire. Alternately, it may be about devotion to a geographical region — devotion to sand and surf as practiced by many West Australians. Thinking metaphorical, it may be about devotion to the childhood memory of sand and surf, devotion to some formative experience. The verb ‘Born’ conveys a sense of inevitability, pre-destiny, or perhaps vocation — born to be devoted to ‘Sandy’, whoever or whatever ‘Sandy’ might be. Of course, there’s no imperative, or injunction to settle on a definitive interpretation; it’s possible to luxuriate in the uncertainty.
While many uncertainties inhabit the album’s title, there is nothing ambiguous about David McComb’s talent, although he seems to have had his doubts. The aforementioned booklet that accompanies the album contains a note McComb scribbled sometime in the 1980s.
The biggest joy/spur is the perverse question hanging over my head 24 hour per day — am I the stuff of greatness, or am I just another of the thousands of ugly despicable beings in their bedrooms clutching glasses of vodka, with a bunch of filthy exercise book.
For me, the answer to the question is simple: David McComb was the stuff of genius, and I hope the following commentary on his songs makes that abundantly clear.
‘The Seabirds’ sets a sombre tone. It begins without musical preamble – the singer comes in with the music almost immediately, assumes an omniscient third person point of view, and narrates the story of a broken man on the brink of total emotional collapse. No pair of designer sunglasses (a sign of affluence) can shield him from the white light of truth and the ominous sound of gulls screeching overhead announcing or echoing the disconsolate figure’s sense of impending ruin. The coastal imagery, which will recur throughout the album, establishes a vague geographical location, but the seabirds could be circling any coastal region. The images work as powerful metaphors – the predatory birds circle and swarm around the sky, providing a view of the hapless protagonist from the air as they attack their prey, turning the water blood red and giving the sky a ghastly glow – a suitably menacing backdrop for the unfolding drama. The seabirds are creatures of instinct, hunting their victims without emotion; they are distant, cold, calculating, and reminiscent of Hitchcock’s avian monsters in The Birds.
The lonely figure takes himself away from all human company and consolation, swimming to the edge of the reef, and the brink of sanity. His wounds are of such magnitude that his senses fail him. He can’t feel physical pain – the sting of the saltwater on serrated flesh cannot divert him from his loneliness, nor can he hear those voices that may talk him out of slipping over the edge (‘little boy it doesn’t have to end this way).
Like so many songs on Born Sandy Devotional, ‘the Seabirds’ is cinematic. The song’s first verse is a bit like a wide establishing shot, pregnant with menace. The second verse moves in to expose details about the isolated lover’s state of mind. He is purposefully swimming to his doom without regard for kin or corporeal being – he’s already dead inside.
The third verse cuts to a flashback that reveals the source of the man’s hurt. He’s separated from his love; he’s announced their ‘trial separation’ but probably suspects that the break is actually permanent. His attempts to find solace in alcohol and casual sex are futile. Nature once again provides suitably ominous imagery to heighten the emotional tone of the song. This time the rain falls hard on the motel roof, as the temporary partner of McComb’s character asks: ‘are you drinking to get maudlin or drinking to get numb?’ In other words, is he drinking to conjure sentiment, or drinking to numb the loss he’s recently suffered? Of course we don’t get an answer, for the question can’t be easily settled. He could be trying to do both. Is it better to feel nothing, or feel too much when someone shatters your heart? Either way, our hapless protagonist is inconsolable.
The final verse cuts back to the beach where the fatally wound man exhorts the malevolent birds to put him out his misery, for death is the only panacea for his kind of pain. The birds, creatures capable of striking prey with great precision, refuse to go near such a damaged soul — they leave him to scream at an indifferent sky: ‘where were you, where were you?’ He remains a pathetic figure, stranded, alone, hankering after a death the seabirds refuse to deliver.
As any local will attest, summer in Perth is fiendishly hot. Many residents take comfort in the myriad of beaches within easy reach of the city centre. Others find respite from the searing heat in slightly more distant locales like Rockingham or Mandurah. An aerial shot of the sun-drenched city of the Mandurah adorns the cover of Born Sandy Devotional, and its estuary features prominently in the photograph, taken in 1961 when the relatively small township was a mere ‘dot on the map’.
The topography visible in the image appears somewhat faded and washed out; various hues of green and jade are interspersed with golden brown. On closer inspection, we find the dark green areas to be vegetation, which becomes sparser as the eye travels south toward the thin strip of brown sandy land on the rim of the estuary. Here, the township edges the jade green body of water that flows into the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean. This tourist destination is literally a liminal space, for an estuary is a place where fresh water mingles with salty sea in a partially enclosed environment. The water is subject to river currents and ocean tides, so it’s neither river nor ocean, but some indeterminate mixture of both. These characteristics make the estuary an especially apposite metaphor for those conflicting forces and energies that batter the human heart. It also provides the geographical location for one of the most elegant songs on the album.
The music on this track gives McComb’s lyrics the cinematic soundtrack they deserve, and brilliantly evokes the intensity of summer, and distant love without resorting to commonplace sound effects — how easy (and cheesy) would it have been to graft the sounds of seabirds, and gently lapping water on to this track? Instead, the band evokes the sound and ‘feel’ of a distant summer through Graham Lee’s languid pedal steel guitar, and Chris Abraham’s deft Vibraphone, which sounds a bit like a tuned steel drum. The rhythm track alternates between underscoring the common time pulse of the song and employing a slightly off kilter syncopation, which lends the some a wistful urgency.
For those familiar with the sweltering West Australian summer the song will evoke memories of the sensation of bare feet on scorching concrete footpaths, and ‘washing the salt off under the showers’ littered along most Perth beaches. These summery images do more than provide local detail, for they place the listener in a world between and betwixt innocence and experience. The song’s narrator recalls a formative event, the passion of adolescent love that continues to haunt him like a ‘stain that won’t wash off’. He and his lover lie together on the estuary bed where they presumably feel the force of a powerful love now lost to the passage of time. It is here on the estuary bed that the lovers experience metamorphosis, and are released from the sleep and peace of childhood innocence as they shed their old selves during the course of what Leonard Cohen might call the old ceremony. Nothing burns as bright as the intensity of young love, and while the recollection of one’s first sexual experience is common grist for the songwriter’s mill, McComb handles the potentially clichéd scenario with understated grace.
To use the local vernacular of McComb’s youth, this is not a tale of a ‘good root’ but an achingly sad account of how the bitter-sweet memory of vanished love can never be recollected in tranquillity, or with any degree of clarity since its covered, or partially submerged, metaphorically, in estuary silt. The loss of the lover’s body opens a wound that will never close, a wound that will fester and burn as its spectral remnants haunt the narrator’s memory. And there’s no going back, there’ll be no rest for those longing for lost love. Another lonely man. Another lonely place.
I’ll be honest, and admit that this song, in my view, is the album’s weakest. It took me a long time to appreciate its undoubted merits, but it continues to be a source of minor irritation in an otherwise almost flawless work. It’s the only vaguely fast number on the record, and its insistent female chorus disrupts the generally dour and melancholy atmosphere that pervades Born Sandy Devotional. Maybe McComb wanted to temporarily break the spell, or at least demonstrate his versatility as a songwriter by writing a more or less conventional rock song — the track is not especially adventurous sonically, and follows a predictable rhythmic pulse. Still, it is not without merit, and certainly provides another permutation on the theme of unrequited love.
The emotional fallout from love gone wrong is not always directed inward. Rather than seek consolation in isolation, the spurned lover will sometimes wildly lash out at those around him like a wounded animal. And not infrequently, the betrayed one’s erstwhile object of affection becomes the target of vengeful fury; the kind of fire and brimstone ferocity dispensed by the Old Testament’s fearful deity. McComb’s ‘Chicken Killer’ is a case in point. An up-tempo beat drives this tragic narrative to its inexorable conclusion, and the taunting, almost child-like female vocals on the chorus provide an ironic counterpoint to the psychotic killer’s quest for retribution.
The song begins with a stark, matter-of-fact declaration from its deranged singer: ‘I knelt I aimed I missed I ran’. What is he aiming at? And what diminishes and distorts his vision so? We soon learn that the killer has his former lover in his sights, and he’s running through fields of corn in manic pursuit of her. He’s also out for poetic justice — he wants to brutally end the relationship where it began in vast expanse of land under the ‘weight’ of the sun.
The lyrics would not be out of place on Springsteen’s Nebraska, for the ‘Chicken Killer’ has much in common with the sociopathic characters populating the Boss’ journey through the badlands. The song’s tall, thin protagonist with ‘ribs sticking out of yellow skin’ reminds me a little of Norman Bates, the eponymous ‘Psycho’ of Hitchcock’s landmark film, or any of the deranged figures that stalk the pages of southern gothic literature (like Miss Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s short story ‘A Rose for Emily’ — another example of a character who kills in the name of unrequited love).
In fact, ‘Chicken Killer’ sits comfortably in the tradition of Australian Gothic Literature, which typically turns the harsh Australian outback into a menacing force that shapes and reflects the unstable mental state of those who commit murderous acts under its malevolent influence (Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well is perhaps the best known example of this genre).
‘Chicken Killer’ is far from a simple tale. The second verse finds the killer on a rampage of sorts, shooting birds and traffic signs aggressively exhorting people to tell him where his lover is, and, more pointedly, ‘where it is she’s been’. Of course, he gets no direct answers. The ‘smiling’ people gather round to perhaps placate the killer or calm his rage, but they appear as surreal beings in ‘coloured silks under coloured lights.’ This dream-like image gets weirder as the killer describes ‘paper streamers floating down like a skating rink or a boxing fight’. What does this mean? The streamers float with the elegance of a skater gliding across ice? Or do they float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in the manner of the great Muhammad Ali? The image is odd, and difficult to decipher, but the reference to ‘grace’ provides one plausible interpretation (although I’m not convinced rational analysis is capable of uncovering the song’s mysterious core). The singer is seeing visions that shift and change as though he’s under the influence of mind-altering substances, or possessed by some supernatural force that sanctions what he possibly perceives as righteous murder. The killer finds himself in a state of grace, which absolves him of sin, and strengthens his resolve to execute his murderous plan.
In the next verse, the singer charges out into the crowd asking the ‘blind, deaf, dumb and lame’ for directions. These handicapped figures refer him to the deity, for ‘she’s in his hands now’; but the divine being’s verdict is in and the killer’s former paramour (in a puzzling and awkward locution) ‘catches death as only lovers catch can.’
In final verse, the killer realises that his act will have consequences in the after-world (‘as sure as there’s a man on the cross on the hill/I’ll pay dearly for everything’), and leaves us with another disturbing picture: people poking and prodding the prone bodies of the cursed lovers ‘like roosters picking at the body of a hen’. They are fucked — literally and metaphorically, and the insistent chorus of shrill ‘children’ fill our ears with their mocking sounds.
This is perhaps the most eerie Australian song ever recorded. Imbued with an unsettling darkness, and ambiguity, it’s a suicide song, but one that sends a chill up the listener’s spine by skilfully leaving gaps in its narrative. ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ is reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry’s more verbose ‘Ode to Bille Joe’ — an exemplar of the Southern Gothic genre. Gentry’s ballad also deals with a suicide, and conveys an equally uncanny atmosphere, but where Gentry provides an almost novelistic account of her characters’ lives, describing the minutiae of their lunchtime menu, and making extensive use of reported speech, McComb opts for a more suggestive, poetic approach.
His story is apparently simple. A rejected lover drives off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge, leaving a note, the contents of which are not disclosed. She’s lost her love, her ‘blinding sun,’ so decides to end her life, having failed to numb her pain with alcohol. The concise verses don’t provide much more information, but they are pregnant with mystery. Why bother to pack a bag if you intend to kill yourself? To remove personal things from the purview of one’s erstwhile lover, perhaps? Why would the newspapers report the death of an everyday suicide? Was the singer a celebrity? If not, why make a movie about her life? The answers to these questions matter not, for the crucial fact is that somebody’s done someone wrong in an affair of the heart.
The suicide narrates the song — the use of the past tense in the line ‘I drove off the end of the Tarrilup Bridge’ suggests a ghostly voice, and Jill Birt’s vocal sounds disembodied, as though it’s coming from her character’s watery grave. Birt’s obviously untrained voice lends the song an air of fragility and authenticity. Indeed, she doesn’t raise her voice in the manner of a songbird — we don’t hear any histrionics, no feats of vocal gymnastics, no sustained notes, trills, or other technical ornamentations (not that Birt is capable of such tasteless virtuosity). This song clearly adopts the ‘less is more’ maxim in terms of vocal performance, but delivers a complex soundscape that reinforces the uncanny sentiment of the lyric.
Suffused with muted sounds of applause, chatter and laughter that morph into a low moan, the song evokes a ghostly gathering. Some of the sound effects blend with Graham Lee’s Lap Steel guitar, so it’s difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. As the piece progresses, it’s possible to make out what sounds like a hum or a car’s engine, and a piano tinkles randomly, almost below the threshold of hearing. These sounds bubble under the surface of the song, providing a ghostly undercurrent to the instruments that are in the foreground of the mix.
The song is in waltz-time, and possesses an awkward lilting rhythm. The insistent riff, played on strings and the vibraphone, is suitably ominous. The use of the vibraphone is especially effective. Remember, this is the instrument that gives ‘Estuary Bed’ much of is summery tone. Here, the same instrument is used to an altogether different end. It’s now played in a minor key, or in some strange modal form, but, nevertheless, provides an abstract point of contact with the earlier tune. This sonic connection between songs mirrors the lyrical themes that repeated throughout the album in various guises. The heartbroken suicide of ‘Tarrilup Bridge’ is obviously different from the psychotic narrator of ‘Chicken Killer’ but there common heartbreak, which they share with the other lonesome songs ensconced in McComb’s landscape of love, make Born Sandy Devotional more than just a random collection of songs.
As far as I can establish, the bridge in question is McComb’s invention. No such structure exists, although its name sounds like a plausible Western Australian location. Several towns in the region end with the suffix ‘up’ — Joondalup, Nannup and Manjimup, for example. These names come from the Noongar language, the language of the Aboriginal people who are the original inhabitants of Western Australia. ‘Tarrilup’ sounds like a place in the outback, remote, desolate, and barren — a perfect landscape for a lonely death.
This epic song brings side A of the original vinyl release of the album to suitably dramatic end. McComb carefully arranged the sequence of tracks on Born Sandy Devotional, so it’s no accident that its first act concludes with such a breathtaking climax. Thematically, he takes the previous scenarios apart and reconstitutes them as a summation of sorts. The singer is once again marooned in a lonely, remote landscape. This time, he’s on a dark road on a black night, hopelessly lost. The metaphor is especially potent, for he finds himself in unexplored territory, battling with unknown forces and demons unleashed by making a ‘wrong turn’, an ill-conceived decision (‘I never should have you out of my sight’). The character possesses the psychotic temperament of the chicken killer, the exhausted resignation of the defeated soul ignored by the seabirds, and the suicidal intent of the ghost of Tarrilup.
Christian imagery dominates the song. The lonesome traveller is a bit like Christ facing his last temptation in the desert, armed with a St Christopher’s medal for good luck and ‘empty shells’ for retribution should the opportunity arise. St Christopher is the patron saint of travellers and the song’s demented narrator takes some small measure of comfort in fingering his talisman. Like any desperate man, he is superstitious, and appeals to irrational powers to extract him from his unbearable pain.
At various points in the song, he thinks he sees his lost love, but she is shadow, a spectre whose elusive haunting, presence is impossible to verify. She torments him even though he concedes the relationship was doomed from the start (‘we were two wrongs, we were married at birth/and together make up an ugly flaming bird’). The reference to a ‘flaming bird’ suggests a hideous mutation of the phoenix, that mythical creature that rises from the ashes and symbolises re-birth and immortality. But McComb’s bird is an ugly mutation, one that produces an unsightly coupling of two ‘wrongs’. Yet, the singer’s longing for this unholy union remains steadfast. He is committed to this feted relationship despite its obvious perils.
Sonically, ‘Lonely Stretch’ owes much to the uncompromising aggression of The Birthday Party, and there’s more than a little of Nick Cave’s shamanic swagger and manic vocal delivery in McComb’s performance. I also detect a Springsteen influence in the stark, muted bass-string heavy strum of the rhythm guitar that opens the song, which, once again, evokes Nebraska. Initially, the guitar has only Graham Lee’s reverb drenched lap steel guitar for company, sounding like an ethereal howl from the depths. Lee’s otherworldly sound effortlessly moves between long gliding notes to a banshee-like wails as the song picks up pace. His menacing lines never fail to cut through the muddy mix, even when he’s using the instrument in a non-melodic fashion. The band creates a heightened sense of drama with exemplary ensemble playing. Carefully orchestrated dynamics, alternating between loud and relatively soft passages set a suitably spooky tone for this missive from a man grappling with extreme emotional distress, regret and disorientation. Instruments drop in and out of the mix to suit the dramatic requirements of the narrative. The Vibraphone reappears, its presence adds to the atmosphere, and reinforces the thematic connection with the preceding tracks. The interplay between the bass guitar and drums after the singer extends the final vowel of the line ‘Look out now! I’ll be so good for you!’ triggers a transformation in mood and register, which leads to the final verse, which sees the narrator recalling that his ‘sweetie’ is tucked away in some distant place, a mere ‘spot on a map’, presumably far away from his dark road.
The protagonist’s desperation grows as the work grinds towards its inexorable end. By this stage, the singer whips himself into a frenzied state of mind, intoning the final part of the song as an incantation, a plea to the almighty to deliver him from the malevolence that he feels closing in on that isolated stretch of road. ‘Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham,’ he sings with the fervent power of a backwoods preacher. By invoking the Biblical story of Jericho, McComb suggests that like Joshua his dramatic persona is engaged in a battle that is both violent and spiritual.
In a strange way, ‘Lonely Stretch’ is about the redemptive power of song. The narrator sings to himself, and his voice gathers enough momentum to make the listener convinced that his exhortations to Abraham can make the walls of his spiritual prison come tumbling down like those of Jericho, which crumble in the wake of Joshua’s destructive trumpet.
Wide Open Road
After the Sturm und Drang of ‘Lonely Stretch’, Born Sandy Devotional shifts gears, adopting a softer, but no less intense sound. ‘Wide Open Road’ is without doubt The Triffids’ best-known song even though it never troubled the upper regions of the Australian top forty. Still, it’s the band’s signature tune, and it’s difficult to do justice its subtle beauty because so much has already been written about it. Most commentators describe the song as quintessentially Australian, but unrequited love is not unique to the antipodes, and I suspect any simple equation between ‘Wide Open Road’ and Australian national identity, or landscape, does the song a great disservice.
There’s no doubt that McComb uses landscape as a metaphor for emotional turmoil and abandonment. However, ‘Wide Open Road’ doesn’t refer to specific place. Indeed, McComb tended write about landscape in general terms. He rarely used proper names to anchor a song geographically in the manner of, say, Chuck Berry. McComb’s songs are never travelogues (the one track on the album that refers to a place—’Tarrilup Bridge’ — is fictional). This is not to say that the Australian landscape is not relevant to the song. The Australian bush is a spooky lonely place. Its sheer scale is a reminder of how insignificant we are amidst its vastness. The outback’s isolation also provides the perfect setting for anyone who wants to escape the confines of civil society. It’s an even better place to contemplate ruin far from the prying eyes of friends and family. It’s a place where it’s not difficult to find a spot where no one can hear you scream, or see you collapse in a heap from heartbreak.
The unfortunate narrator, like the other characters we’ve met already, has a broken heart. The specific details are not important. His lover, perhaps his wife, has left him for another. The narrator pursues the renegade couple like an enraged animal, mortally wounded but unbowed. I also get the feeling that he goes bush to die, or at least release the repressed trauma of the separation. The lyrics begin with a vivid account of the visceral force exerted by emotions that threaten to explosively erupt from the body like volcanic lava (‘Well the drums rolled off in my forehead and the guns went off in my chest). We get a sense of the spurned lover’s emptiness that mirrors the vacant space of the wilderness.
The song works through a series of powerful images, little dramatic vignettes: a man screaming his lungs out in the desert, then chasing phantoms on dirt tracks, reaching out to touch his lost love in an act of absent-minded optimism. The scenes are a jumbled assembly of powerful recollections that move through time like cinematic jump cuts. These images convey the singer’s loneliness, which is so brutal that it requires self-imposed isolation. He cuts off friends and family ‘as limbs’. In other words, he endures a profound pain, one that comes from rejecting everything and everyone close to you. He’s now on his own without support from those who are the stalwarts of his life.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the refrain ‘It’s a Wide Open Road’ is an ambivalent declaration of hope. It’s as though the narrator’s trauma clears the slate, and while the past is suffused with regret, the future is open. The wide-open spaces can now take him anywhere. All is possible when you are no longer tethered to a partner, or so I would like to think.
Musically, ‘Wide Open Road’ is deceptively simple. A basic four-chord progression repeats itself, more or less, for the song’s duration. The song begins with the mellow tones of Jill Birt holding down a chord on her Keyboard before McComb whispers a count-in, and the song takes of to the rhythm of a drum machine, while Alsy McDonald hits his snare drum to accent the rhythm of the narrative as opposed to the pulse of the track. The pedal steel guitar provides a melancholy ache, complementing the ache in McComb’s voice. The beautifully layered guitars provide simple melodic counterpoints to the song’s melody. The band meshes like a finely woven tapestry, expertly responding to each player’s rhythms and lines. The result is gloriously atmospheric, and, in an odd, unexpected way, quietly transcendent.
Life of Crime
This song is deeply compelling for reasons beyond sober analysis. It strikes me as a dark companion piece to ‘Estuary Bed’. Where the earlier work conveys a bittersweet memory of adolescent love, ‘Life of Crime’ imbues young love with a strong dose of sin and shame. McComb replaces the nostalgic descriptions of summer by the water in ‘Estuary Bed’ with an altogether harsher collection of images. References to sun, sand and rain give the song an elemental ambience and the dog ‘licking drips of water from a garage tap’ add colour to the remote rural setting for this missive on self-loathing and recrimination. The narrator finds himself, once again, with ‘dim vision’ stranded in some far-flung town (another ‘dot on the map’) with a heavy heart. Musically, this is perhaps the most conventional sounding ‘rock’ song on the album, but the band are cohesive and muscular — the sound of a distorted guitar, possibly Lee’s lap steel, howls around the mix like an ominous wind, creating a suitably hellish hum for this mystifying track.
The song equates sex with sin, female sensuality with criminality and temptation — lines like ‘we fouled our mouths with the sin of our tongues’ and ‘Down there damn was done because the flesh was weak’ certainly suggests a strong sense of sexual guilt. Like most songs on Born Sandy Devotional, ‘Life of Crime’ is short on specific detail, but rich in atmosphere, which invites the listener to fill the gaps, and exercise imagination. The narrator appears distressed by his own passion, although McComb provides few clues about the reasons for his turmoil. The religious imagery in the song (the direct references to sin and temptation) suggests a man who strays from the path of the righteous because he’s tasted forbidden fruit. He’s now condemned to follow the tracks left behind by his lover — the song’s first line ‘Sunlight was hot/ Your mother was calling’ suggests that the lovers are still under the watchful eyes of their parents). Of course, a more literal reading of the song is possible. The fourth verse is apparently about separation. The narrator sings ‘Now your tracks are still fresh, and the branches still broken’ so the song may be about chasing a lost love through the wilderness. I prefer to read the verse metaphorically, and see the song as saying something about the ruinous consequences of devoting one’s life to sensual satisfaction, or romantic gratification. Love becomes a dangerous obsession, leading its adherents to follow hazardous tracks through their entire lives. There’s no going back once bitten by the bug of desire — I love the line ‘the grass still grows on the other side of the road’ which I take to mean that the narrator’s desire still burns long after his affair has become a distant memory.
However, the narrator is a reluctant convert to sensuality. Hence, the plaintive refrain: ‘I believe you’ll lead me to a life of Crime’. He is doesn’t want to be led astray, but knows he’s already condemned follow the path of criminality. The formative sexual encounter he recalls in the first three verses of the song leaves him with a sense of emptiness — ‘Sin still burns little fiery holes/I hold on tight to nothing at all’. The line may refer to an absent lover, or a loss of substantial values — this devotion to the senses leaves him with literally nothing to hold on to. There’s a little bit of Hazel Motes in McComb’s narrator. Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O’Conner’s novel, Wiseblood, is a preacher who lacks faith, and establishes the ‘church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified’. He looks like a preacher, acts like a preacher, rejects Christ. He’s filled with passionate intensity but has no clear idea about how to direct his zealous energy. The limited edition CD reissue of the album contains a booklet with a photograph of a section of McComb’s bookshelf, which contains the novel (McComb was obviously a fan of O’Conner).
The final verse sees a shift in perspective. Time has passed, the narrator’s vision is dimmer, and ‘the weather is colder’. He then alludes to his restlessness. He’s walked out on someone without consciousness of his act. He wishes her a speedy recovery as he walks down the lost highway looking for greener grass.
What remains when your lover leaves? I suppose that depends on the nature of the relationship. Who left whom? Was the break-up traumatic? Did you feel betrayed, abused? If you’re lucky, your mind will repress the most distressing incidents, embedding recollections of cherished moments in your poetic memory, providing an archive of passion, ardour and excitement. You can draw on this precious repository of pleasure in your darkest moments. If you feel abandoned, unloved, neglected, or just plain suicidal, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that once, perhaps a long time ago, someone loved you. If you’re feeling especially morose you might find comfort in old love letters, or objects that once belonged to your beloved, objects that may or may not possess the power to conjure the ghost of the departed. But memories and objects can rarely substitute for one’s lost love. In fact, they may even taunt and torment the discarded partner, as the narrator of ‘Personal Things’ reminds us.
The first verse gives the listener an inventory of personal things: a red scarf, a rinse, a blister and so forth. These things, or impressions provide a partial image of the lover, for memory is a fickle mechanism, prone to distortion and deception. McComb sings, ‘I think she wore red/I believe she wore black,’ suggesting his character can’t recall precise details. But what exactly is he trying to remember — the colour of his beloved’s clothes on a particular day, or her emotional state symbolised by colours? Perhaps she was never ‘blue’. In any case, the departed lover’s moods are none of our business (‘any number of colours under the sun I won’t be revealing to you’). McComb will have cause to repeat this sentiment later in the song.
The voice in the second verse appears to be addressing his estranged lover directly. The tone is accusatory, and confrontational. He confirms the end of the relationship (‘I can tell you it’s final/I know it’s concluded’) and angrily proffers evidence for his sense of betrayal while accusing his interlocutor of being incapable of comprehending his moral outrage (‘what could it mean to someone like you’). He’s also won’t be placated by a tepid offer of friendship. Don’t visit, don’t try and cheer me up with lame jokes, don’t ask me how I am, for I am in a state of hurt and confusion because of ‘your’ infidelity (running around like a chicken with no head, mortally wounded, yet undead).
The third verse sees the wretched narrator take refuge in solitude. He takes himself away to a new address after offering the following aphorism: ‘Some secrets of love you take to your bed/ and there’s some that you take to your grave’. I love the ambiguity of this line, the hint of sexual innuendo. You may share some secrets with subsequent lovers. However, there are some things too personal, too painful to share with the world. Ensconced in his private realm, the narrator surrounds himself with personal things, all of which fail to remind him of the source of his misery. Why can he take no comfort in personal things? Why to they fail to trigger memories? The song concludes with lines recycled from a very early Triffids’ song. As the song gathers intensity, McComb spits out the following lines:
‘You can rub it off/you can scrape it off/You can drink it off/ you can burn it off’. These lines sound like words of self-encouragement. It’s as though the singer is saying ‘you can do it, you can forget her’. The trick is to numb the soul. Scrape her memory out of your mind, drink yourself blind, burn every last trace of what once existed as love. The band mirrors the singer’s delirious exhortations by playing in 6/8 time (double waltz time), which adds to the singer’s peculiar and furious disorientation.
This is arguably the most magisterial two-chord vamp in the history of popular music. The bass guitar and keyboard set a clean, yet almost funereal tone; various guitar and lap steel sounds treated with delays and reverb lie low in the mix contributing to its ominous ambience. The string arrangement is sublime, lending gravity to McComb’s ode to survival.
The instrumentation supports the almost nourish image of the first verse. Someone’s standing in the rain, lost and forsaken. The singer speculates that this lonely figure might be you, or someone you don’t want to know. It may even be yourself in a guise you don’t want to recognise. He continues to speculate, hypothesise: ‘Maybe lost possessions/Maybe stolen property.’ These lines are possible explanations for the figure’s malaise. He or she has lost something, or had something stolen. Thousands of love songs refer to having one’s heart stolen — McComb obliquely invokes the cliché without uttering it.
Initially, the ‘you’ is ambiguous. It’s not clear whether the singer is addressing his lover, or himself. There is even the possibility that McComb is providing a second person perspective, inviting listeners to identify themselves with the character stuck in the rain. Either way, the song is in a different register from the others on the album. ‘Stolen Property’ is reflexive, almost analytical in its dissection of a failed relationship, and its emotional aftermath. It’s as though the singer is trying to put things in perspective. He is admonishing the ‘you’ — probably his former lover given his use of the word ‘darling’ — for wallowing in self-obsession.
Darling you are not moving any mountains
You are not seeing any visions
You are not freeing any people from prison
Just an aphorism for every occasion
In other words, ‘you’ are not making much of a contribution the welfare of others, ‘you’ are not trying to change the world, or follow any noble path through life. ‘You’ are a passive observer, who can always muster some sort of glib maxim for every situation. Moreover, ‘you’ are a thief — ‘you’ve’ taken something precious from me. Despite this character assassination, there’s little doubt that the unsympathetic ‘you’ has stolen the singer’s heart. What to do when you’ve invested so much in such a malignant creature? You let go. You let her run away.
After bravely exploring the hostile landscape of love, after cataloguing love’s various states of despair and anguish, McComb is finally ready to dispense some sound advice. ‘Stolen Property’ is a redemption song. It provides a sober, yet passionate argument for knowing when to walk away from someone you love. The singer still longs to touch his now departed lover, her ghost continues to haunt him, but as the music builds to a suitable portentous climax, the singer hears the voice of conscience, in the guise of that old testament preacher that periodically appears throughout the album. It exhorts him to pick himself up, ‘watch for the blade’. By excising his lover, the singer survives, gathers strength, endures and moves towards the light of redemption. Not many songwriters have the imagination and guts to tackle such monumental pain with such commitment, for fear of appearing pretentious, or ridiculous. The Triffids never shied away from drama, from almost operatic emotionalism. ‘Stolen Property,’ the penultimate song on the album, provides a fitting climax to McComb’s exploration of unrequited love. It feels like the final word, but there’s a little more to come before the record runs out of grooves.
Tender is the Night (The Long Fidelity)
This gentle ballad provides a profoundly ironic coda to Born Sandy Devotional given David McComb’s premature death at the age of 36. It’s difficult not to hear the song today as a prophesy of its author’s impending demise, although it works superbly without knowing anything about McComb.
The song has two parts. The first three verses tell a cautionary tale about a sensitive young man who literally fades away because of an unhappy love affair. The second section sounds like a long distance conversation between lovers on opposite sides of the world (‘Let’s go out tonight/It’s getting dark earlier now/
But where you are it’s just getting light’). The restrained, almost stark accompaniment to the lyrics gives the song a contemplative tone (there are no drums or percussion on the track). The subtle interplay between Birt’s washes of keyboard and Lee’s lap steel lines are largely responsible for creating this pensive atmosphere.
Jill Birt sings the song in her inimitably naïve voice. She tells us about a gentle young man mortally wounded by ‘the pestilence sudden pleasure brings’. This is a crucial line in the context of the song, but it also reintroduces the album’s major thesis: love is never a purely pleasurably experience, to put it glibly. Intense emotions can unleash untamed forces, producing ‘strange fits of passion’; feverish states of being that provoke people to commit all sorts of irrational acts from suicide to murder. To put it even more prosaically, we can’t always anticipate or guard against the ways pleasure and pain will come together, for love is a kind of pestilence, a disease, a curse that ultimately leads to ruin.
Unlike many of the characters we’ve met on our journey through the McComb’s harsh landscape of love, the sad figure in ‘Tender is the Night’ internalises his pain. Not one for histrionics, or explicit theatrics, the gentle young man takes pleasure in beautiful ‘things’, but the ‘personal things’ those objects touched by his beloved are locked away as he just burns up inside. Not everyone rails against the perceived injustice of unrequited love by bellowing, or trying to bring down the walls of Jericho. Quiet despondency is a common response to abject dismissal. The hapless character makes a point of isolating himself from his former love (‘he made a point of losing her address’).
Birt goes on to tell another brief story about another man who takes pleasure in hurting – once again, the song refers to this paradoxically connection between joy and sorrow. Finally, the singer addresses her lover, asking him if he wants to forget someone, too, and issuing a threat — ‘I left him, and I can leave you too’. The song concludes with a touching invitation. The lovers are obviously in different time zones, but she asks him out anyway. They go out separately, yet, in a sense they are together — they remain faithful to each other despite the physical distance between them, at least for the moment. McComb joins Birt to sing the final verses of the song, providing a poignant conclusion to the album.
The song’s title is an obvious literary reference. McComb may be invoking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel Tender is the Night (1934) but it’s equally likely that the title refers to a line from Keats’ well-known poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) which has much in common with McComb’s lyric. It too is concerned with fleeting pleasure, and the inevitability of death. McComb was certainly one of the most literate songwriters of his generation, and most fans are aware that he also wrote poetry, a selection of which was published posthumously in 2009. Without entering the vexed debate about whether song lyrics can be poetic, I’m comfortable calling McComb a poet.
What is a poet? Many luminous minds have tried to answer this question, but I think Soren Kierkegaard’s response applies to McComb’s rare talent. A poet for the Danish philosopher is an ‘unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.’ McComb was a poet and so much more, and Born Sandy Devotional fashions great beauty out of personal, unknowable cries and whispers.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A fragment of Life. Trans. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1992) p. 43.