California Stars and the unsweetened year of the pancreas
On the 14th November 2021 I lost not only my cousin and one of my best mates; I lost a hero.
Richard James Brown of Croydon Victoria had always modelled for me the way of a true gentleman.
He was a born leader without ever needing a follower or accolades.
It seemed enough to him to simply walk the path that he knew in his heart was true.
And that was example enough.
He never cheated or lied that I ever saw and he always treated people with the utmost kindness and respect.
He loved a laugh, could tell you a joke and knew the difference between good music and simply expensively produced music- which isn’t to say expensively produced music isn’t good, it can be, it should be, but it’s not always.
He could feel when something was truly heartfelt and when something was merely phoney.
He could always pick a fake.
There was never any pretence.
Richard was tragically diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just after Easter 2021. He put up a brave fight but barely made six months. It was a huge loss to his immediate family, and a huge loss also to pretty much every one who ever met the guy.
I was honoured to spend his last days with him.
Playing DJ on the vinyl and helping him in some small way.
As he passed Madness were playing in the background.
The song of course – “it must be love love love”
Richie always had a lot of love to give.
Rich had always been there for me in life. Whether it was kicking a footy, backyard or beach cricket or music, he’d always been full of enthusiasm and encouragement.
Richard was older than me by two and a bit years, but we’d spent a. lot of time together as kids staying at my Nans and always just felt extremely comfortable in each other’s company.
We’d introduced each other to so much music over the years.
I introduced him to ‘The Sex Pistols’ and he’d introduced me to ‘Judas Priest’.
I will never forget the two of us screaming our lungs out whilst singing ‘The Ripper’ together in the Balnarring Beach Public Showers.
It must’ve sounded God-Awful trust me.
But we loved it!
Over the years our tastes shifted and grew and became more defined.
One weekend not long after Richard had become a Dad, we spent some long nights catching up on each other’s music collections.
We both loved the song-writing and poetry of Billy Bragg.
“Have you heard the album he did with Wilco?” Richard asked me.
“Who’s Wilco?” I said naively.
“Oh we gotta put that on next.” He said, and that begun a love affair with Wilco’s music for me that has continued to grow stronger every year since.
“They used the poetry of Woody Guthrie”, Richard said.
My ears pricked up.
I’d only just read ‘Bound for Glory’ a couple of years before whilst at Uni and thought it was one of the greatest novels I’d ever read.
“Bound for Glory is an absolute Masterpiece!” I said.
“Woodie Guthrie has one of the most authentic and natural voices I’ve ever read.”
I was thinking now about Derrida and his writings on the author and the idea that we are never closer to the author than when we hear someone speaking their story, creating the very thing right then and there in the moment of their animation. As close to the inspiration and source as we could ever hope to be. I’m talking now of Derrida’s ideas about written words being dead on a page, waiting for the reader to bring life to them. Not dead so much as Zombies, neither dead nor alive, like a virus needing a host to breathe life back into those dormant ideas sleeping there on pages,
and how the spoken word in comparison is so full and rich with life.
Guthrie’s ‘Bound for Glory’ seemed an exception. The author’s voice feels very much alive and present– the passion still feels close to it’s source.
Back when I read Derrida’s ideas I couldn’t help think about my own writing and how my writer voice seemed somehow more contrived than my spoken voice.
I love to write because there’s that slight little extra bit of time you have in the process of communicating which gives space for embellishment, and for the poetry to not only enter but to brew for a bit and add to the flavour and aroma of the whole thing.
In doing so though, the question remains; do I lose something of the authenticity that is more simply and naturally there in the spoken word?
I always speak my words out loud as I re- read them, to see if they excite the mouth with their movement on the way out – I guess it’s a test of some sort – but who knows it may just be a vanity?
What’s that expression? “He loves the sound of his own voice!”
A little too self-conscious perhaps?
Maybe, but I’ve always loved reading the musings of other artists and understanding their own creative process – I’ve always thought it like a fantastic baton that gets passed from one generation to the next – from Prometheus to the present – poets stealing fire from the Gods to spark a flame in the minds of the young that they themselves may carry that torch for a while inspired as they are to run with it.
Reading Woody Guthrie reads as I imagine he spoke –a very natural easy flow to his voice– simple yet right on target every time- from the heart and to the point - sparks flying off every page and that is a rare gift.
“Writers can only dream of writing so poetically, so economically and without any pretence.”
I was erupting now with passion as I spoke to cousin Richard, jamming as we were around the magic, deep beauty and spiritual purpose of a great song or poem.
“Anything too silly to be spoken should be sung”, I quoted Oscar Wilde.
Anyway back to Wilco, apologies I get easily side-tracked, there’s just an infinitude in every direction, every thought sparks another and so it goes and goes and goes……so anyway where was I?
Yeah well then as soon as the album ‘Mermaid Avenue’ came on I was mesmerized, and no song touched me more than ‘California Stars’.
That unmistakable pocket Wilco sit in – that truly American sound.
When Rich was diagnosed, his incredibly inspiring wife and soul mate Rosie, decided to put on a music festival for Richie called ‘BrownFest’. She organized a bunch of his favourite local acts including the Melbourne Ska Orchestra and started putting it together. Unfortunately, every time it was scheduled, Melbourne went into another lockdown and it got postponed.
When Rosie asked me to be involved, I started planning my set list. I knew I had to play ‘Venus in bikinis’, Rich had always loved that song. I’d played it to him when it was only a single verse and a chorus and in his usual encouraging fashion he’d said, “You gotta finish that one Cuz”.
I thought over all the music we’d shared and ‘California Stars’ came to mind.
It’s a song about longing.
A song you can pour your heart out singing.
“I’ll put that one on the list” I thought.
I’ve always felt so full of longing, from childhood up.
My parents divorce left me longing for the kind of happy families I saw on the box, then my Pa’s passing, brother’s passing, Mum’s passing, Nan’s passing, too many friends to mention passing, all of this has filled my life with longing and of course the lost love stories – longing seemed to fit me like a second skin. Life and longing have always seemed inseparable.
I’d played a few gigs during that time with a couple of new players in the line up, (being that Covid had scattered my usual band half way across the country). I’d really enjoyed the way the new players (Brett Canning on bass, Dave Sanders on drums, Dylan Curnow on piano, Alex Mcleod on lead guitar and moi) all fit together. Sonically it just felt really natural and easy. I wanted to try to capture that sound and feeling.
I’d written an album of songs during lockdown, but had really struggled to make peace with them and haven’t finished them yet as a result. I’d never before experienced so much self-doubt around my lyrics, and so that album is still kind of laying around unfinished and somewhat forgotten, but that’s another story altogether.
I wanted to go into the studio with the new line up and try to capture the sound.
I’d done a bit of work with Dylan Curnow on my song ‘Sasika’s Revenge’ which we’d been playing live for a while and audiences always seemed to respond to the shuffle, so I felt confident we could take that one for a bit of a walk.
We spent one day at our Christian Pyle’s Recording Studio in Goonengerry.
I love the atmosphere out there.
It’s my favourite studio I’ve ever recorded in.
There’s magic there.
The creativity and colour just dances and sings itself off the walls.
It’s comfortable but also inspires that safe and natural creativity of free play.
We did two takes of California Stars and went with the second.
I’m always looking forward to the next time I can spend a day out there with the boys.
It’s definitely a happy place.
I wanted to record a version of ‘California Stars’ for Rich and send it to him to thank him for all he had given to my life.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to share the finished mix with him, but I can feel his pulse in the heart of the whole thing whenever I listen back to it.
I reckon he would’ve appreciated our version and I hope you do.
The filmclip idea began just as a little fun.
I just thought I’d make something simple to accompany the song in hope a few more folk might actually give it a listen if they could watch something simultaneously.
I asked my partner Bella if she’d mind filming me singing along to the track whilst I laid back on my bed.
Since becoming parents we have so little time to achieve anything for ourselves, so it was a bit of an ask, but she agreed.
Placing myself inside a tv seemed to give me a nostalgia for a lost time.
It took me back to my childhood where everything seemed much more innocent and uncomplicated.
Straight away my heart could feel the longing and the flight that comes from such reverie.
“The song longs, the clip should long too”, I thought.
Then the idea came to me for multiple screens and an interrupted transmission.
Back in the 1970’s I recall watching ‘Gigantor’ and “A Hard Days Night’ cartoons on the old black and white tv before school and over breakfast. It was completely encapsulating as a four year old – it was magic to my developing mind.
I recall also how excited the whole family were when we got our first colour tv.
It was a real big deal that’s for sure!
I also remember though that it was always a constant battle to get the aerial in just the right position, otherwise you’d get a screen full of white noise and static snow.
In making this clip I wanted to revisit that static and try to use it creatively.
I wanted somehow to revisit that thing that used to really disappoint, annoy and aggravate me and to try to find some beauty in it – a transcendence of some sort – my own little piece of alchemy.
The affect just took me back to that innocent and magic filled time. The snow also looked kind of like stars, California Stars and it seemed fitting.
The multiple screens spoke to me of our current world, the complete overload of screens we live with.
Our attention spans being shortened, overloaded and shirt circuited by constant distraction and multi-tasking.
It seems ironic to me that we have so many screens open at once craving connection when each one of those screens seems to alienate us further still.
All of this seemed like a good premise for a film clip for song that sung of longing.
I was all set to launch the clip and song when once again my family world would be thrown into a spin.
My 3 and half year old Son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, probably as a result of a virus – or rather as a result of his immune system’s response to a virus.
It has been a very steep learning curve and an enormous amount of stress and work in trying to balance a little boys whimsical eating habits with the strict regime of a medical team who strongly suggest he have 9 to 10 exchanges of carbohydrate a day (there are 15 grams of carbohydrate to an exchange) and then insulin to match it.
Their expectations are based on the old food pyramid we all learnt about back in school. But it’s complicated, small children can be fussy eaters and don’t always eat what’s put in front of them, and if he eats protein and veggies, he is less likely to want or need that much carbohydrate, but once you’ve given him his insulin, he needs those carbohydrates or he’ll experience hypoglycemia.
Which has been happening way too regularly for any parents liking, whilst the medical professionals get their doses right.
It's been massively stressful to say the least.
And you mourn for the ease of the life you once had.
My son himself has been amazing about the whole thing.
It’s incredible to see how well he bounces back from all the hardship.
He is truly inspiring.
So yeah, there’s that – which only adds to the longing I guess– longing for health, longing for calm, longing for less stress and more joy and a simpler life.
Type 1 diabetes is unrelenting, it’s life long, 4 insulin injections a day, constant testing of blood, the never ending measuring of Carbs and balancing against your insulin dose. It’s a challenge to say the least.
I’ve learnt a lot though, I’ve learnt about insulin, and glucagon, the exocrine and endocrine system, the immune system and islets of Langerhans Cells and pancreatic juice ???? (couldn’t they come up with a more scientific sounding term for that? Pancreatic Juice? It sounds made up for sure!)
And of course I’ve learnt more about crying and putting on a brave face, and laughing and making the most out of any situation.
Boy there’s nothing quite like a trip to a Children’s Hospital or a Paediatric ward to give you a fresh perspective – seeing as you do the everyday struggles of others is very sobering.
People getting on with life best they can under very challenging conditions.
It’s most certainly been the year of the pancreas for me, from Easter 2021 to June 2022 has that little gland given me a schooling.
The pancreas’ role is to maintain constant blood sugar levels - I’ll tell you what, without a functioning pancreas life seems a hell of a lot less sweet that is for sure.
So what’s the message?
Is there a message?
Is there something here to learn from loss and longing?
Life tempers us over time smoothing out our jagged edges as we learn to accept just how little control we have over anything.
How sweet is the sunlight on your face after a storm? After a flood?
Is there something to learn here from the virus of the written word?
Something about how Wilco lifted Woody Guthrie from the grave to sing for us once more?
Ah how we suffer to love the sweetest of all longing.
Pancreas from Greek – Pan = All
Kreas = flesh
So….. ‘all flesh’
What’s that supposed to mean?
I’ve no idea!
It’s beyond me.
All I know I guess is love and longing.
Life – the suffering beauty of love and longing.
“I’d love to rest my heavy head tonight on a bed of California Stars. I’d love to lay my weary bones tonight on a bed of California Stars.”
Check out the clip at
With heart always,