jazz and improvised music

Review by:
John Shand

23 January 2012

John Clare

Extempore, 175pp, $29.95
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The lyrics of those singer-songwriters who followed Bob Dylan down the path of self-analysis tend to be the worst offenders. Their whingeing confessions of lost love and bleatings about a hostile world sink them ever deeper into a cesspit of self-pity. They lack the wit and finesse of the Great American Songbook writers, and completely miss the candid, open-wound vulnerability of a Leonard Cohen.

Writing about one's self is a fraught affair, whatever the medium: whether lyrics, poetry, autobiography or newspaper columns. In this, his fourth book, John Clare often provides a model of just how it can be done so the candour does not become vulgar, nor the vulnerability become maudlin. He can bring icy objectivity to the task in hand, yet weave a slender thread of self-deprecating wit through it, and knot it with moments of shining perspicacity.

Clare will be familiar to readers of this website because of his erudite and warm-hearted reviews of jazz concerts. On that subject he has previously published Bodgie Dada: Australian Jazz Since 1945 and Why Wangaratta?: Ten Years of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. Take Me Higher is closer to his other book, Low Rent, in being a collection of observations, anecdotes and stories, while also containing some fine examples of his recent writing about music.

One of the defining aspects of Clare's best work is its lack of self-consciousness. Sometimes his are the musings of a mind gloriously unfettered; a mind in a similar state of receptivity to an inspired improvising musician. He can completely immerse himself in a sight, an event, a sound or a place, however ostensibly unremarkable in itself, and write about it without resort to snideness or satire.

He can also write as if elevated above events, but without the prose becoming stilted. In View From the Ward, set during his convalescence after taking a major tumble from his beloved racing bike, he writes:

Lying here, I can feel the motion of waves and the unspooling, undulating road in my body, through the pain. The weaving run along Henley Marine Drive. The moments on strange streets out west, under trees, by a convent wall, when I would think: these details are winding back into my head to emerge perhaps in a some dream.

Yet this ability to take flight is rooted in a deep command of the mechanics of writing; a command that bears scrutiny on a level that is usually the exclusive domain of poetry. Rhythm is the most subtle of all the skills a good writer possesses, and Clare controls the rhythms of his sentences with musical precision.

Along with many recent pieces the collection contains examples of his work for The National Times and The Sydney City Monthly from 30 years ago. As much as there is to relish in some of these, it is also clear that Clare has subsequently become a more distinctive, penetrating and exultant practitioner. This may seem as it should be, but not all artists improve. Many produce their best work in their twenties, and then spend decades striving with increasing frustration and even bitterness to replicate the glory years.

Among the finest of the 39 pieces presented are that which lends its title to the book (and which is also the longest), and the closing short pieces, Rain 1, Rain 2 and Rain 3, which have a luminosity and delicate beauty that lingers in the mind. Occasionally Clare allows his self-observation to lose objectivity, and descend towards egocentricity. Sometimes, too, in observing others, particularly in his older writing, his perceptions may not be as insightful as the space they are allowed implies. But these are minor quibbles.

One quality that does emerge from Clare's work for The Sydney City Monthly - observational pieces resulting from living in the pockets of the personality Jeanne Little, the designer Leslie Walford and Paster Arthur Neville - is that he would have made a fine biographer. But while he never embarked on this line of work - which, at its best, is arguably the peak of the prose writer's art - in relation to others, between this book and Low Rent he is well down the road to giving us a biography of himself. It is, however, a world away from the debased version of so much of what passes for autobiography these days: ghost-written inflation of the frenzy of celebrity. Clare has a mind, a heart, an imagination, critical faculties and can write! So, among, many other things, this is a book for readers who are curious about the man behind the writing.

He provides such vivid flashes of his childhood, for instance, that long-buried memories of my own early years came hurtling from nowhere. Overall the books coalesces into the story of man who has plunged into a myriad of life's possibilities, with the capacity for each moment to perhaps flare a little more brightly and be more keenly absorbed than is the experience of most.

In her enthusiastic forward Helen Garner refers to "a powerful urge to start underlining things that I would kill to have written". I can only concur.

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