Friday, January 28, 2011
There are several reasons why I have a great sentimental attachment to the band known as the Powder Monkeys. I first met my (future) wife at one of their shows in 1993 at the Great Britain Hotel in Richmond. She'd gone to school w/ Tim Hemensley, though that wasn't why she was there. The band played at the GB often - I know I caught them there countless times - and if you were into great/interesting/worthwhile local music and of a certain age at the time, the GB was like a home away from home. Most nights of the week, you'd see a mixture of just about anything: punk, garage rock, noise, indie, folk, death/black metal (I do recall seeing Corpse Molestation play there once. They had corpse paint, six-inch-high spikes on their wrist bands and a candles on stage. They later changed their name to Beastial Warlust). Fact is, you didn't really care who was playing: it was cheap, it was fun and you'd always bump into someone you knew. From the years 1990-'95, there was no place in the land quite like it. My regular attendance at the venue started seriously tapering off somewhere 'round 1994, at which point the place was beginning to see the end of its hey-day, ruined by the presence of hard drugs. In 1995 or '6, it shut down for good and was closed for several years before being reopened under new ownership. It still operates today as a watering hole for the yuppie douchebags who frequent the area, but the once-interesting suburb known as Richmond (where I lived from 1995-2000) is a whitebread no-go zone these days for anyone who desires a culture beyond strip malls and juice bars. Let's not dwell on that, because life goes on and that "scene" contained a certain magic which can't be replicated. Or if it has been, I'm unaware of it.
I was talking about the band today to a work colleague, and it inspired me to give the band its due right here in cyberspace. The Powder Monkeys formed from the ashes of Bored! in 1991 by ex-members Tim Hemensley and John Nolan. I caught Bored! quite a number of times during Hemensley's period in the band, and anyone will attest to the fact that it was easily their high point. After Tim left, the band carried on for many years, and will still, on a very rare occasion, get together for a reunion show for the faithful/sentimental, though despite a couple of good tracks here and there, I found the post-Nolan/Hemensley lineup of the band to be largely dull and uninteresting. For one thing, other than the Ginn-like guitar freakouts of Nolan, the great joy of seeing Bored! during their peak era was watching Tim lose his shit on stage, abusing the audience, arguing w/ the rest of the band and sometimes even abandoning the show altogether. In December of 1990, I caught a show of theirs at the Sarah Sands Hotel in Brunswick - now an obnoxious Irish pub known for fistfights and suburban drop-ins - and there was a dumb-as-nails punker up the front who insisted on violently slamming into all those around him as the band played. After the first song, Tim called him an asshole and asked him to cool it down. After the second song, w/ no change in behaviour from said punker, Tim took off his bass and whacked the punker over the head. He went down like a sack of spuds and everyone gasped, thinking the guy had possibly been killed or at least seriously injured. He got up again like nothing had happened and egged Tim to play another song. They launched into the next number and punker-boy continued his assholic behaviour. Tim once again took his bass off, swung it at his head and missed, went full circle and belted it into his amp. Angry, frustrated and probably juiced up on various substances, he then tried to tip over all of the amps and PA gear on stage, half succeeded then jumped off the stage and started running through the crowd w/ a baldie security chasing him onto the street. I'm not sure what happened to him that night, but the show was over. It was the best 10-minute performance I've ever seen. Recently I mentioned this evening to a friend I've only known for the last few years, not knowing he was also at that show, and he remembers it just as I do. Maybe they played 4 or 5 songs, or maybe it was just 2 or 3; whatever the case, those who were there remember the intensity and tension of that show well. I never saw Black Flag in '81 or the Stooges in '71, but I figure I did pretty well in catching that performance.
So anyway... then there begat the Powder Monkeys. They were originally a 5-piece w/ second guitar and a harmonica player, though they shaved the lineup down pretty quick to the powerhouse trio of Hemensley, Nolan and Tasmanian transplant Timmy Jack on drums. From the period spanning roughly 1992-'96, they were probably the best rock & roll band in Australia. Their songs spoke of a certain urban anger and frustration which cut right to the point, and the dynamics of Tim's Lemmy-like throat gurgles and bass licks, combined w/ Nolan's Ginn/Hendrix/'Sabbath guitar squawls and the ceaseless, hard-hitting drumming of Timmy Jack rarely made them a disappointment. They cut their teeth playing a myriad of shows at the likes of the GB, Tote, Empress and Punter's Club during this era, and some of us thought they were just good enough to take it to a higher and wider level. They released some shit-hot material on the Dog Meat label (note: that wasn't me who ran that imprint), and word was that Johan Kugelberg had signed the band to a new label he'd set up w/ the help and financing of Rick Rubin, Onion. Onion released some excellent records by bands-voted-least-likely such as Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments and V-3, though the Powder Monkeys disc never eventuated. I'm not 100% sure why this is so. I heard that Rubin had pulled the plug on the money-losing enterprise due simply to finances, and I also heard that the label got cold feet on the band after hearing of their rampant drug abuse. Probably a combination of the two. By then, Tim had gotten himself a serious habit, as had John Nolan, and for me it started impacting on the power of the band's live shows. I saw them do some terrible gigs in the late '90s, sloppy and uninspired like a band pushing shit uphill, but they'd still rip out the occasional set which would have you believe they could get back on track and be the band they once were. They still managed to successfully tour Europe during this time, and even released an excellent album - possibly their best - Lost City Blues, on the White Jazz label out of Sweden in 2000. It never even got a domestic release, and kinda sank w/out too many people knowing it even existed down here.
I was working at Missing Link at the time and Tim came in a few times and sold copies he'd received from the label, and I had a pretty good idea what he was doing w/ the money he received. He'd come in about once a week and regal us w/ stories, usually sticking around the store for an hour or two cracking us up (or at least me up) w/ various ridiculous rants about records and bands he either loved or loathed, and it was during this period that I probably engaged w/ him more than I ever had previously or afterwards. I'd do the late shift on a Friday, he'd rock up, sometimes w/ a beer or two in hand, get on his soapbox and espouse his opinions to the world, or at least to the customers, most of whom were intimidated as hell by this 5-foot-tall motormouth passing judgment on what they were buying. Sometimes I'd have to tell him to shut up and leave them alone, especially if he was giving some young kid grief for buying a NOFX CD, though he mostly knew his limits and when to keep it quiet. Tim had eclectic taste in music, and mostly good taste at that. He could talk about the Seeds or Pharoah Sanders or Hawkwind or John Cage or Robert Pete Williams at the drop of a hat, and he'd just as easily tell you what sucked. I was baffled by his loathing of the Melvins just as I was surprised by his love of Crass. One day a young, aspiring anarcho-punk came in and dropped a bunch of Crass LPs on the counter for purchase. Tim sidled up next to him and proceeded to loudly proclaim his love for the band, asking the little wallflower if he'd ever heard Rudimentary Peni. The crusty kid looked scared to death, mumbled out some incomprehensible answer, paid for the records and hightailed it out of there. I told Tim to ease it up on the kids, and he seemed pissed off at me. "I was paying the kid a compliment!!"
Timmy Jack left the band sometime during this period; replacing him was Seminal Rats skinman Todd McNear. Todd's as good a drummer as Timmy Jack, maybe even technically better, though his skills couldn't hide the fact that the band was on a downhill slide. Tim had sold his bass for junk, resorting to borrowing friends' gear for shows. My brother lent his bass to him several times; it usually came back w/ a string broken and blood on its body (having cut his hand on it whilst playing). I don't think my brother ever asked him to replace the strings. Tim had a certain charm that would make you forgive his failings, and you knew he never had any money anyway. Things got pretty desperate near the end. The last time my brother saw him, Tim was trying to sell him Powder Monkeys CD at the front bar of the Tote.
Probably the day after he died in 2003, I happened to be in the city for work. Tim's friend Scotti at Missing Link rang me on my mobile and asked if I'd catch up w/ him for a coffee. I met him at a cafe and he looked miserable. He told me he had some bad news. I knew instantly what it was. Just a few days previous, my wife and I were discussing the possible fate of Tim and what his future entailed. He'd never really held a steady job, the band seemed to be going nowhere (as had the solo shows he'd been playing) and we sadly assessed that we couldn't imagine him growing old. He never did. The day before, or maybe the day before that, he'd OD'd in the bathroom at his parents' place. The news spread like wildfire, music web sites paid tribute en masse and it even made a dent in the mainstream media. The daily papers featured articles on his life and death, and I recall there even being a montage tribute to him that week on a 7PM chat show on one of the major TV stations. I couldn't help but be glad that he was finally getting some recognition, despite the terrible circumstances. I've never understood the attraction to hard drugs. To me it seems to be all about blocking out rather than letting in the good stuff, but then again, I've led a pretty blessed life so I'll stop the moralising. I talked to Tim several times when he was high on heroin and he was boring as shit, like anyone else in that state. When he was straight and fired up, he was the funniest motherfucker on earth. He'd been a bona fide punkin' rock & roller since he was in primary school, publishing his own fanzine at the age of 10 and playing in bands such as Royal Flush and GOD, and was quite the inspiration. I won't bullshit you and say I was a close friend, though I'm certainly glad I befriended him during his relatively brief life. During their peak years, the Powder Monkeys were just about the best band I've ever seen. They were a force of nature, blowing away any other act they played with, the combination of lyrical black humour and rock & roll dynamics unbeatable. There's talk of reissues in the works, and I'm just hoping they get a second life.