I’m too busy to write today so I’m posting this story I wrote in 1999 when I was a columnist for Rhythms magazine in Australia.
Percy Grainger – So Tough
Last month the editors of Rhythms asked me to write a story about Percy Grainger. A new movie called “Passion” about Grainger, one of Australia’s most celebrated composers has recently opened, and along with the release of the soundtrack, it’s a fair bet that more than a few people will have by now been exposed to his work, and his eccentric and extraordinary life.
“Percy Grainger was born on 8 July 1882 at Brighton, Victoria. His father, John
H. Grainger, was a well-known architect whose designs included the Princes Bridge in Melbourne. Quite precocious at an early age, Percy made his first concert tour when he was twelve. Soon afterwards, he went to Germany with his mother Rose to further his training as a pianist and composer. Between 1901 and 1914, Percy and his mother lived in London where his talents flourished.”
I copied that paragraph verbatim from the Grainger Museum home page on the Internet, because when I went to the Library to do some research on Grainger, I could find not one book about him on the shelves. I guess they were all out that day. I did however, find a book about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, which I took home to read at the weekend.
If the truth be known, I’d really rather read about Brian Wilson because, being the philistine ignoramus, rock and roll fool that I am, I can relate to him better.
Having said that, let’s take a look at both characters because there are similarities. They were both genius composers and they were both weird.
In 1914 Grainger moved to America and became an American citizen. During the war he worked in army bands and it was then that he wrote his most famous piece “Country Gardens”.
In 1928 he married the Swedish artist Ella Strom, although it must be said that his mother had a great influence on him and they shared a unique relationship, no doubt given a good amount of mileage in the movie Passion, which, by the way, I have not seen. Grainger was a health nut, a devotee of flagellation and the creator of some bizarre inventions, among them a kind of a primitive synthesizer which he dubbed “The Free Music Machine”. This was a device for generating music in which the score the machine read consisted of a folded strip of brown paper, which Grainger called the Kangaroo Pouch System.
Grainger liked to eat health food and run or walk to his performances even though they might be miles away. He liked the exercise. He also believed in the superiority of the Nordic race, and as result attempted to invent a new language which did away with all traces of non-Anglo Saxon expression. For example the word restaurant became “eat-house”, a doctorate a “know-all-title” and so on??
Grainger lived for most of his life in White Plains New York and died in 1961, which coincidentally was the year that The Beach Boys made their first recording, a little tune called “Surfin”.
Surfin’ was written by a 19 year old Californian college student called Brian Wilson.
The Beach Boys were originally called The Pendletones, but were renamed by a record company promo guy to fit in with the burgeoning West Coast surf scene.
While Percy Grainger had a special relationship with his mother, (they were accused of having an incestuous relationship, which ultimately resulted in her committing suicide), Brian Wilson had a tortuous and difficult relationship with his father, Murry. By the mid eighties Brian Wilson had become an overweight, drugged out, paranoid caricature of a human being.
In his book, Brian talks about snorting $2,000 worth of cocaine a week, eating grotesque amounts of food and drink, and during a week long engagement in Las Vegas, consuming 44 grasshopper cocktails in the space of a single day.
Percy Grainger had strange sexual habits. He enjoyed whipping himself and sticking safety pins through his nipples for example. Brian Wilson had no sex life to speak of, he was always too whacked to perform in the sack, and preferred just about anything to human contact. Grainger wanted to have the flesh flailed from his corpse when he died and his skeleton put on display in the Grainger museum (it didn’t happen).
Wilson, on the other hand, asked his gardener to dig a grave for him in the backyard during a particularly bad period of drug induced depression.
I have a CD of the soundtrack of Passion which features the music of Grainger performed by The Passion Orchestra conducted by David Stanhope. It sounds like classical music I guess, but what can I say, I’m not an expert, that’s about the limit of my understanding of the genre. While I was looking for some Grainger stuff on the Internet, I came across a site where I could download the entire Smiley, Smile album by The Beach Boys. This is the legendary concept album, recorded in 1966, which spawned one of the most recognizable songs in the history of popular music, “Good Vibrations”. Good Vibrations was written in three separate parts, required seventeen sessions and six weeks, and cost between $50-$70 thousand. It also featured an experimental instrument called the Theremin, which was invented in 1919 by a Russian physicist, Leon Theremin. This quote from Grainger could well describe the motivation behind Wilson’s construction of Good Vibrations. “As music does not stand complete at any one moment (as architecture does), but unfolds itself in time – like a ribbon – rolled out on the floor – I consider a flowing unfoldment of musical form to be part of the very nature of music itself.”
Just another normal guy.
While I was trying to finish this article, I took a break to fix an annoying leak in the bathroom of the apartment that I rent. It is now nine o’clock at night and the washer, or the thing that stops the water from flooding out, whatever that is called, has fallen down behind the tiles of the shower recess without any possible way of extracting it without attempting something worthy of the Three Stooges and smashing up the whole bathroom. Doing that would kind of make me happy.
My interest in Percy Grainger at this point is just about next to zero, not that it was much in the first place, so I will attempt to wrap this up with a few observations by way of some comparisons with a musical art form that I am more familiar with, that of the other genius who I have mentioned, Brian Wilson. (with apologies to “The Late Show”)
1. Percy Grainger and Brian Wilson were both American citizens.*Brian is still the current publisher and editor of Rhythms. He has a weekly radio show on Melbourne’s RRR .
2. Percy Grainger invented the “Free Music Machine”, Brian Wilson liked to “Free Base Cocaine”.
3. Percy Grainger and Brian Wilson were both full of “weird ideas”. The latter was actually told that by fellow band member Al Jardine after they had cruised the block 25 times, because Brian refused to stop the car unless Al promised Brian that he would “drop some acid”.
4. Percy Grainger invented a new language and an early, primitive music synthesizer. Brian Wilson invented new ways to lie about taking drugs.
5. Percy Grainger’s mother’s name was Rose. Brian Wilson’s Father was called Murry. Murray Rose was a great Australian swimming coach. (ok, so it’s Murry, not Murray, what do you care?)
6. Grainger’s library at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne contains over 4,000 volumes. Brian Wilson would consume over 4,000 calories in one snack.
7. Percy Grainger liked being beaten with whips. Brian Wilson liked squirting cans of whipped cream into his mouth and then inhaling the aerosol from the can.
8. Percy Grainger’s movie is called Passion. The Beach Boys once released an album called “Carl and the Passions”.
9. Percy Grainger was arrested on suspicion of being a vagrant at least three times. So was Brian Wilson. (and so was Brian Wise*)
10. Percy Grainger wore clothes that he made out of dumb beach towels. Brian Wilson liked to claim that he made the Beach Boys out of some dumb guys.
11. Does anyone know how much it costs to call a plumber at this time of night?
Ian Stephen 1999.
Happy New Year Everybody!