November 05, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: The Song of Griff Whispers

"I told you we should have gone to the Leigh Bowery thing," I said.

We were hiding in the sunroom, in the dark, watching the party through the door which opened onto the lounge.

Griff Whispers was nowhere to be seen. I was drinking a glass of Ardbeg which I'd stolen from his hand after he poured it for his wife. I thought she was going to have a go at me but instead she made Griff pour her a Japanese whisky from the cabinet.

Griff Whispers' wife was dressed like a politician from the future; Mon Mothma chic. Griff himself was wearing a grey three-piece suit with a black shirt, accessorised by black eyeliner, and a ring through his septum.

When my girlfriend saw him, she’d said, “That’s Griff Whispers? The Griff Whispers?”

“Mmhm.”

“The hardcore guitarist? Cro-Magnon noise? Homoerotic fights in the mosh pit?”

“Yep.”

She went over and said hi. I watched her talk to Griff Whispers. He made her laugh. She smiled, was delighted. I was fixing myself another drink when she came back.

“He’s…like a puppy. He’s so sweet and young. He’s like a puppy that only wants to please you.”

“Uh-huh.”

*

"How do you get into hardcore noise?" Josiah Blandford thinks for a second. "Well, it depends on the kind of music you listen to - and then there's the question of your limited skill. You realise you're never going to be the Stooges - four lines and two chords is about your limit."

"You listen to records and you think, ah, I didn't know you could get those tones out of a guitar, and then you try to find them for yourself."

 

Josiah is guitarist with Brisbane hardcore punk outfit The Meat - "hard music isn't always about being macho" - and he sometimes goes by Griff Whispers, a nickname bestowed by bandmates mocking his inability to grow much facial hair.

"We've got no delusions of grandeur," he explains. "I'd be happy if we played once a month, toured once a year, and maybe the tour would even pay for the next recording."

Being in The Meat is kind of like being in a social sports team for Josiah. Some of his bandmates are friends from high school; playing together is also about keeping the gang alive.

*

Griff was clever. He was a bigger freak than we were, but he’d stuck to the black-tie dress code. This was a “classy” Hallowe’en party themed around the Seven Deadly Sins, with a tasting menu, one course for each transgression.

The Paleobotanist was hosting and her dinner parties were legendary. Last year they’d layered an ornamental plastic skull with Italian cured ham and laid it among the antipasti. They said everyone who ate of "Prosciutto Man" was connected by a dark, unspeakable bond.

My girlfriend and I had been planning on going to this Leigh Bowery party instead, but we opted for gastronomic debauch. In the Bowery spirit, though, we ended up cross-dressing. I stayed scruffy but painted my lips and nails, borrowing one of her Korean dresses. She, glamorous as ever, wore black tie with a twist - black jacket over a white blouse and a necklace made out of a men’s necktie.

Most people at the party had made an effort. One guy was dressed like an old-time gambler with dollar bills tucked into his waistcoat: Greed. The Paleobotanist herself was Envy, a vision in green - and another friend, who hadn't thought through her costume either, meditated on the ruby ring she was wearing before declaring she was Wrath.

They had all looked us up and down when we arrived.

“What sin are you supposed to be…Sloth?”

I was aggrieved - who else had gone so far as to shave their wrists for tonight’s soirée?

I said as much.

“My beauty routine’s improved hugely since I started shaving my face,” said a drunk woman out of nowhere.

I looked at her.

“Just a single blade," she said. "It takes care of the peach fuzz. And I get a few gross long black hairs here,” she added, stroking the underside of her jaw.

My girlfriend rubbed my arm. “Matt’s getting bristly again already. That wouldn’t happen if you waxed,” she admonished me.

My arm looked weird, slim and freckly. I guess I must have been hairier than I’d thought.

“I can’t even grow a beard,” said Griff Whispers. “That’s how I got my name.”

He jutted out his chin like he was daring us to touch his face.

We heard the flush of the cistern in the bathroom and knew his wife would be coming back. I took the opportunity to relieve him of the Ardbeg and disappear into the sunroom. We knew from previous experience that bathroom trips in that house sometimes went horribly wrong.

*

"As a kid, I used to finger pick on an acoustic guitar I shared with my dad," Josiah says. "My older brother was a surfer, which in the 90s meant watching a lot of surf vids, always soundtracked by terrible punk music. You listen to that until you stumble on something like Crass."

Josiah's encounter with the politically and musically uncompromising world of early 80s UK punk sent him down a different path. Then he met Jimmy, future singer with The Meat; they were introduced by a mutual friend after Josiah had made it into a special group for gifted and talented kids.

"I'd heard of Jimmy by reputation before I ever met him," he admits. "When we were finally in a class together, some kid was rude about him, the teacher stepped out for a moment, and Jimmy bounced this kid's head off the duster rail on the blackboard. The teacher came straight back, asked what had happened, and no-one said anything."

"Jimmy seemed like the thirteen-year-old version of Joe Pesci from Goodfellas."

"We kind of took a journey from pop-punk to playing this intense Midwest Hardcore: incredibly macho, dumb music which is also full of unrepentant homoeroticism."

Josiah sends me a video from a recent Meat gig in the city of Ipswich, just outside of suburban Brisbane. "NSFW," he warns in the accompanying text message.

I'm reluctant to watch, but I do - and it's later, when we're sitting together, that he explains the full story.

"We're used to a bit of violence and shoveyness in our gigs," he says. "And you get used to certain signals."

"This guy in the crowd was looking pretty belligerent. He took his shirt off, and I thought, 'Uh oh.'"

"Then he took his shoes off too - and I thought, is this an Ipswich thing? Do they fight barefoot out here?"

"When his pants came off too, I decided I just had to appreciate the moment. Dude stripped completely naked and just thrashed around the dancefloor."

After the song ended, the man had collected his clothes and composed himself. The gig went on. At the end of the night, he came to find Josiah, and thanked him. He was an army veteran who had been “pretty messed up” by his last tour of duty. Josiah shook his hand uneasily and then, when the man walked away, looked at his own fingers. Their power was only beginning to manifest.

*

I didn’t remember Griff bringing his guitar, wasn’t sure where he’d found an amp or plugged it all in. We couldn’t see from where we were slumped. All he did was crunch out the same repeating riff over and over.

My girlfriend is more musical than I am. “E flat to A,” she tells me. “Not pretty.”

“The devil’s tritone,” leers Envy / the Paleobotanist, a singer herself.

Griff Whispers keeps playing, over and over, but no-one tells him to stop.

Someone gives a nervous little giggle.

Griff closes his eyes and presses his finger harder into the strings.

I’m dizzy drunk and trying to tell my long-suffering girlfriend why Kanye West’s “Monster” is the best Hallowe’en song. She is watching Greed and Wrath smiling at each other, entwining their fingers.

Griff's chords have the quality of a spell. Imagine them summoning things from the depths. Hallowe'en is the festival of things that are usually left buried. Under Whispers' charm, drunken talk would lead to confessions and slips of the tongue and words that could never be taken back; those we have shunned would make their way to our door and clamour for entry to the party. Play for long enough, and even the dead in their graves would begin to rise: casualties of war, people drowned at sea, all the lives wasted by a violent colonial history. 

I finish the glass of stolen Ardbeg and choke a little on the peatiness, imagining what would happen if Griff played right through All Hallow's Eve. What would come unburied in the heart of Brisbane.

I'm very glad that it is Josiah, and not Griff, who is real right now.

*

Josiah is a boyish thirty, but he's been playing the game long enough to reflect a little on the hardcore scene.

"I used to think that girls just didn't like hardcore music when I was younger. Slowly I realised that the mosh pit wasn't maybe the most welcoming environment, a bunch of knuckleheads playing at being cavemen. I really appreciated the release - it's cathartic - but I got increasingly uncomfortable about it being this male space that forced women out. I've never totally resolved that question in my mind."

"The Meat gigs are still a bit shovey but there aren't punches or crash tackles any more. You start to wonder, have we changed? Am I getting older? I go to work the day after a concert with a stiff neck. Have I gotten so old I need to stretch and warm down after a gig?"

For a while he even quit the punk scene, moving to Tasmania with his wife to do environmental work. He had a job in a wildlife sanctuary, rehabilitating animals which had been hit by traffic.

"Wombats are pretty chunky animals. They're marsupials, so the babies - the little joeys - live their mother's pouch. If a mother wombat gets hit by a car, that's forty-five kilos of muscle. Mum might die, but the children live on and you can rescue them from the pouch."

Wombat joeys crave attention and affection, so they would follow their keepers around, fixating on their legs as if they were the joeys' mother. 

"That's fine when they're little," says Josiah, "but at the age of eighteen months, wombats turn on their own parents, even in the wild."

"They're not quite at their full mass, but when they're just about to be released, they'll be about twenty kilos of muscle, capable of running at thirty kilometres an hour. You have to wear these things like cricket pads to protect you."

Josiah said being in Tasmania without the band made him feel "antsy", and he was glad to return to the Brisbane hardcore scene - but in our conversations, he never seems happier than when he's recalling his time as surrogate mother to a bunch of orphaned marsupials.

For a moment, thinking of his tussles with adolescent wombats, the hardcore guitarist is lost in memories of Tassie. There's a tender smile on his face. Then he laughs and comes back to the present, connecting the wildlife sanctuary to the Brisbane mosh pit.

"I guess whatever you do, you never regret a good crash tackle."

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