I was thrown out of Melbourne’s signature university at the end of 1976, having accumulated an impressive collection of ‘F’ grades. That’s not ‘F for Fail’ – though it certainly is well below the plimsoll line of the good ship Pass Mark – but the F at the end of the series A – B – C – D – E – F. It doesn’t go any lower.
It’s worth noting that most of those fails were not surprises. One exam I spent the first fifteen minutes (the ‘lock-down’ phase when no-one is allowed out) writing out Lou Reed song lyrics in the exam booklet. If the subject had been 20th Century Literature I might have got a few marks but in fact it was a Maths exam and the examiners were evidently not fans. For a later exam I apologetically signed my name at the bottom of a blank page. It was a Monty Python reference but again, the audience was unmoved.
The real crunch came at the half-way point of the final exam: Ocular Anatomy. Part one of this test was a series of microscopes set up around the benches of the lab. Each scope had a slide containing a section of some part of the eye. The sixteen students in my Optometry cohort sat around the benches writing about what they saw down the microscope and moving themselves and their exam script to the next slide when a bell rang.
Ding! Move to the next microscope. Scribble scribble… Ding!
Next slide… More frantic scribbling.
All very Pavlovian.
Now I referred to sixteen students a moment ago and indeed that was our number. But only fifteen were scribbling. One was moving from station to station with a blank exam booklet and a slightly worried frown, wondering what all the pink squiggly things were. And do you know, even then it did not really dawn on me that I was in trouble. It was more a nagging sensation that all was not well.
The light-globe moment – and it was a 150 Watt flashlight – occurred during the break, as the Professor explained to us how the second part of the examination would proceed. The oral part of the exam. The exam where you walk, on your own, into a room with three Professors and they ask you questions about Ocular Anatomy. Out loud.
They are going to ask me questions.
I will not have any answers.
Crackling sounds of neural pathways closing.
Houston, we have a problem.
I cleared my throat somewhat nervously.
“Excuse me Professor, but I won’t be participating.”
I glanced around the group. Puzzlement was the dominant emotion; several mouths were ajar.
My smile was tight and unconvincing.
And I walked out of The University of Melbourne, never seeing those young would-be Optometrists again.
Wandering down Swanston Street, through the city bustle of a late Spring morning, there was a dazed sense of relief. It didn’t entirely obscure the yawning pit of terror in my stomach, but it signified freedom of some kind. The future was swirling with nauseous uncertainty but today a decision had been made. The higher education meter had, for the time being at least, fully expired.
I stopped off at Pipé records, the very same record stall that had relocated from Goesunder Flea Market to a cupboard-sized space in a tiny arcade off Flinders Lane. Leafing through records is always soothing to the troubled soul. When the albums are exotic imports from Germany, the experience can be transporting.
Due to financial constraints my browsing\buying pendulum usually swung towards the former so it is not very likely that I purchased anything that day. Though it was certainly around this time that I stumped up for the second Thirsty Moon LP, adorned with another startling Gil Funcius cover and promising more of the progressive jazz rock I loved so much. I want it to be true that on the day I walked away from university I went home and played a new album called You’ll Never Come Back.
It has been playing as I write and still engages and delights. Perhaps not quite as captivating as their debut, but still full of invention and surprise. When the rhythm section set up the twisted tango of “I see you”, you know that this is about as far from blues-based rock ’n’ roll as you can get. Sax bursts in through a squally whorl and electric piano swirls. Fantastisch!
“Trash man” lurches between time signatures in a way that disconcerts in the best possible way across its fourteen minutes.
Jumping like a frog – Dying like a dog
Sitting on a rock – Rocking on a seat
The lyrics are scarcely Peter Hammill but they are simple, direct and brief. The vocalists have stayed within their capacities and it works. This is primarily instrumental music, inventive and well-played.
On the second side there are no lyrics at all. “Tune in” is a sax vehicle with a fast fusion groove. Then the pace throttles right back for the atmospheric title track; flute and sustained electric piano set the scene before the piano builds to something of a climax – if you love electric keyboards as Vinyl Connection does you will love this. Then after a bit of a breakdown, the percussion beats its way back in along with a catchy sax riff. A long coda takes us towards “Das Fest der Völker”, the pretty and meditative final track, though this also builds and embraces some odd textures. This is a unique LP; I loved it then and I love it still.
Julian Cope summarily dismisses all the ‘kraut’ jazz-rock in his seminal book but he is just plain wrong. If you are feeling adventurous, grab some headphones and have a listen to side one of this brilliant 1973 album.
Strange though it might seem, this is part one of a longer memoir piece that concludes in a few days with, of all things, Santa Claus.