Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Fall - Cerebral Caustic (Expanded Edition)

By May of 1995, my military tour in Christchurch, New Zealand was winding to a close.  I'd already moved out of my rented house in Casebrook at the end of March, and all of my household goods had been crated and were aboard a cargo ship somewhere in the Southern Pacific Ocean.  The command had 
moved me back into the Airport Gateway Motor Lodge on Memorial Avenue, a short distance away from the airport and the command headquarters of the Naval Antarctic Support Unit (NASU). The Airport Gateway was where I lived for the first few weeks after arriving in country; I was placed right next door to the original room I'd occupied a couple of years earlier. So my New Zealand adventure definitely seemed to be coming full circle.

I'd already gone back to the States in early April, for a week-long "Officer Transition Seminar" being held at a base in San Diego. I didn't want to go, since I considered it a total waste of time and travel resources. The course was ostensibly for junior officers who were leaving the service, but who were still relatively undecided as to what they wanted to do out in the civilian world. By that time, I'd already received word that I had been accepted to the several graduate schools I had applied to, and had already locked in on the University of Virginia as where I'd be commencing my MBA studies that coming fall. So my immediate post-Navy future was all set for the time being, and as I predicted, the course was a boondoggle and of no value to me. I spent the mornings and early afternoons of that week striving to pay attention to career advice and strategies that really didn't apply to me, then running out to my rental car and driving two hours north to Long Beach to hang out with old friends, having fun with them every night, capped off with an epic Vegas run that weekend with my friends before I flew back to Christchurch. Life was going pretty good for me at that point.

Back in New Zealand, I still had
my car, my gold Porsche 928, there with me.  I was planning on having that shipped back with my other furniture and other belongings earlier that month, but an unusual opportunity arose.  A local film production crew had put out a casting call for local Americans to appear as extras in a film being shot in nearby Lyttleton.  The director Peter Jackson, fresh off of his breakthrough critical success with the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, was tapped by Universal Pictures to helm his first
big-budget movie, The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox.  Jackson was allowed to film in New Zealand, just so long as he made the setting look similar to a Western U.S. locale (this involved mainly switching around/transforming a lot of the local road signs and driving on what, for New Zealand, was the "wrong" side of the road). With the majority of local Yanks being involved with/employed by NASU, this meant a large group of us went in to audition for walk-on roles, at a space the production company had established in downtown Christchurch. I went in, hoping for one of these stand-in-the-back supplementary parts, but to my surprise, the crew asked me if I'd like to have a (very) small speaking part, which I happily accepted. The producers were also looking for American-style left-hand drive cars to feature in the film; when they discovered I owned a Porsche of that kind, they got very excited, and started making inquiries into featuring my ride in some of the scenes.

On the day that I and several other local Americans were slated to shoot, we gathered under a cold, wet mid-fall April sky (remember, the seasons are reversed in the Southern
Hemisphere) in the parking lot of the Wunderbar, a funky, quirky little bar and local concert venue in Lyttleton.  The Wunderbar's parking lot had been commandeered by Jackson's crew, and covered with trailers containing costumes, makeup facilities and electrical equipment. I was there for two days... and in all I can say that my first experience on an authentic movie set was a miserable one - a lot of sitting around, eating whatever Craft Services put out in terms of food for the cast and crew, then being herded around here and there like the inconsequential cattle the staff regarded us as, and enduring endless reshoots. I never came within spitting distance of Michael J. Fox or any of the other principal actors, and my much-anticipated speaking part was removed before filming even began. I made it into a couple of background shots, but apparently these ended up on the cutting room floor. Seeing the film after it came out, I didn't see or recognize any of my other local compatriots in any scenes either. It seems that they really didn't need us after all.

After all of the initial hullabaloo about my Porsche, the production company never got back to me about using it in the movie. I waited a couple more days to hear from them, then gave up and made arrangements to put my car on one of the last ships that would get it back to the States so it would be there waiting for me when I got there in early June. For the remainder of my time in Christchurch, I used one of the NASU vehicles to get around, a a beat-up old right-hand drive pickup truck decidedly less eye-catching than my own car.

The new Supply officer who was to take over my duties had arrived in mid-April, and by early May I had pretty much transitioned most of my duties to his responsibility. I still had some final work to do, but I was feeling a bit at loose ends. Before I left the region, I wanted to make one last run over to Sydney; I'd been to Australia a couple of times already for some R&R, and always had a good time there. I went there the year before with my buddy Tim, who ran the NASU Navy Exchange, and we had an excellent time - attended an Aussie Rules Football match, went to the top of the thousand-foot high Centrepoint (Sydney) tower, and visited several of the pubs and venues in the Rocks district, the city's Party Central. When I asked him if he'd like to go back with me on my farewell trip, he quickly agreed. We booked accommodations, the command cut our travel orders, and by the early morning of May 17th, we were over the Tasman Sea, en route to Sydney International Airport.

Our arrival later that morning was somewhat of a disappointment.  The hotel we booked sight-unseen overlooked the water at Circular Quay and looked swank in the advertisements, but when we got there to throw our bags down, we found that it was minuscule. To this day, it remains the smallest fucking room I've ever stayed in that managed to squeeze in two beds, a desk and a TV. We were both pissed, but sucked it up, since we figured we weren't going to be spending too much time in it anyway.

The first thing we did in town that afternoon was jump on the Sydney Harbour Tours ferry out of Circular Quay for a swing around the length and breadth of the waters surrounding the city.  The boat took us right
under the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House (where I had attended a show almost a year earlier), and out almost to the entrance on the Pacific.  While on board, we began chatting up these two twenty-something Dutch girls who were also visiting the city.  While their final ferry destination differed from ours (we were going to get off at Taronga Zoo), they seemed pretty receptive to our dialogue, and elicited promises from them that we would all meet up later that evening at a bar on the Rocks that Tim and I had found during our previous visit.  We were both feeling pretty large by the time we walked through Taronga's gates.

Initially, I wasn't all that jazzed about spending my first hours in Oz walking around a menagerie.  But the zoo, the largest in Australia, turned out to be incredibly cool, full of (what was for
us) exotic animals like emu, platypuses, wombats and koalas.  We spent hours wandering around the place, taking everything in; it turned out to be a highlight of the trip, and highly recommended, should you ever find yourself out that way.  But as fun and interesting as it all was, as the afternoon wore on, Tim and I were anxious to get back to our shoebox hotel room and get ready to meet up with those chicks from Holland later that evening...

...which, of course, turned out to be a bust.  The girls never showed; I'll assuage my pride here, and charitably assume that they got lost and couldn't find the place we recommended (yeah, I'm sure that's what happened...).  No matter; there was booze available there, along with music and madness, so Tim and I settled in for an extended drinking session that concluded with us stumbling out of a cab back at our shit-ass hotel in the wee hours and drunkenly passing out in our beds.

We woke up late the next day, close to noon; the combined effect of drink, our extended walkabout and the time zone difference between Australia and New Zealand doing us in.  I wanted to get some shopping in while I was there, to pick up some souvenirs for myself and for people back in the U.S.  So we went into the city for those retail errands.  During our excursion, I happened to walk by a local record store, so I popped in to see what was new.  I was very surprised to find a brand-new CD by my favorite band, The Fall, in the bins - a new work titled Cerebral Caustic (In hindsight, I guess I shouldn't have been THAT surprised, as The Fall tended to put out a new album every year or so...).  Anyway, I immediately bought the disc, intending to listen to it later, and brought it with my other purchases back to the hotel in the late afternoon.

Tim and I were looking forward to heading out again that night and seeing what was what with the local female population, but we had to get something to eat first.  We ended up at, of all places, the Hard Rock Cafe's Sydney location (probably because it was something semi-familiar, and we couldn't be bothered with coming up with something different).  We spent the early evening eating burgers under a display case featuring what was purported to be Sid Vicious' actual leather jacket, which was kind of cool.  Then we headed out, walking the streets around Darling Harbour toward the Rocks once again.  En route to the
district, traversing down George Street, we came upon what appeared to be a wild, crowded bar called Jacksons On George, and decided to stop in for a gander.

I walked in to this jam-packed venue, and instantly met the eyes of an absolutely lovely woman standing halfway across the large room.  Not to say that I'm "all that"... but for whatever reason or vibe I was putting out, she froze in her tracks and seemed to completely lock onto me.  To me, she was... well, I've used this Raymond Chandler quote before, but I'll use it here again to describe her: "Whatever you needed, wherever you happened to be—she HAD it."  Her laser-beam eyes never left me as I played it cool after meeting and acknowledging that first glance.  I walked across the room towards the bar on the far side with Tim in my wake, passing close by her - but not TOO close.  Didn't want to appear overeager!

Ordered a couple of beers for myself and my buddy, all the while keeping a sideways look in her direction; she remained locked onto me.  Excellent...  Our drinks arrived, and after a couple of minutes of chat, I told Tim I was going to go out into the crowd and "mingle" a bit.  And SOMEHOW, I ended up right next to this girl, and we began dialoging.

Her name was Viv, and she lived in a distant suburb of Sydney, but was there in the city spending a long weekend of fun and clubbing with a girlfriend.  I told her my deal as well, then brought both her and her friend over to where Tim was holding up the bar for an introduction.  My buddy quickly sussed out what the situation was and assumed the role of 'wingman' in regards to Viv's friend... not that it helped my cause; the other girl was not about Tim AT ALL.  However, Viv and I were hitting it off like gangbusters.

We all spent a couple of hours together at Jacksons On George before moving down the street to a couple of other local pubs, with Viv and I enjoying each other's company more and more... in inverse proportion to her friend, who began to grouse about the hour, how tired she was, etc.  It seemed that any further progress would be blocked for that night.  Viv told me that they had plans the following night to visit Reva, a dance place in central Sydney, and asked me if I would meet her there.  I said that I would, all the while thinking "Try and stop me!"

The next day, the 19th, was pretty much a blur to me - I was looking forward to the evening.  I'm sure that Tim and I did some stuff around town, and I think I might have listened to my new CD; I simply don't recall.  What I DO recall is arriving at Reva slightly after the appointed time (my buddy had begged off, preferring to do his own thing that night) and finding Viv there with a couple more of her girlfriends.  Once again, she seemed very happy to see me; as such, she and I didn't stay at Reva for very long.  I spare you the details; suffice to say that we had a fun night together.

The next morning, I made my farewells to Viv, and staggered/dragged myself back to my Circular Quay hotel for a couple of hours of shuteye before Tim and I had to catch the flight back to Christchurch later that day.  All in all, I was pretty pleased with the way my final visit to Oz turned out...

...Except that as it turned out, it wasn't my last trip to Australia while I lived in that region.

Before I left Sydney, I'd provided Viv with my phone number in New Zealand (remember, cellphones weren't really affordable or widely available yet in the mid-1990s), and shortly after I returned there to my motel room in Christchurch, I began hearing from her.  Apparently, she had REALLY enjoyed my company there in Australia, and was eager to see me once again, so much so, that she was willing to foot the entire bill on a swank weekend for two in downtown Sydney, including a round-trip flight from where I was and a room at the Four Seasons (she had come into more than a little money recently, and was amenable to splurging).  Needless to say, she didn't have to lobby me very hard... six days after getting back from Sydney, I found myself running to board another late-night plane going back in that direction.

But before I left, I took the opportunity that week to unwrap and listen to my new Fall CD.  Cerebral Caustic marked band leader Mark's ex-wife Brix Smith's return to the band after a five-year hiatus (a situation I detailed in a previous post).  Brix immediately brought her music aesthetic back into the group; half of the songs on this album were co-written by her.  But, in my opinion, I can't say that her return infused the band with a shot of innovation or energy.  Cerebral Caustic was the second in a series of mostly "meh" albums that The Fall put out in the mid-90s, in the wake of 1993's
critically acclaimed and commercially successful (Top Ten on the British charts) disc The Infotainment Scan.  There were flashes of brilliance on Cerebral Caustic, particularly in songs like "Rainmaster", "Life Just Bounces" and "Feeling Numb".  But all in all, to me, the album just felt like sort of a generic and by-the-numbers Fall release, without any real drive or inspiration behind it. 

Perhaps this was due to band turbulence and stresses on Mark caused by Brix's quasi-return (she didn't move back to England, but stayed mostly in her new home in Los Angeles, flying in for the group's recording sessions and gigs).  Already a heavy drinker, Mark began hitting the bottle big time during this period, leading to periods of incapacitation, warped judgements and angrier-than-usual outbursts.  He unexpectedly fired keyboardist Dave Bush just as the recording sessions for the album were being completed (for years, there were rumors that he wiped all of Bush's contributions to the record and had them rerecorded).  And later that year, he booted stalwart guitarist Craig Scanlon, who had been with the band since the late '70s, for equally unknown reasons.  Releasing an album in the midst of this turmoil was probably not a good idea... but Mark was going to do what he was going to do, and no one was going to make him do otherwise.  But this instability remained, and was carried through the next two lackluster Fall albums,
1996's The Light User Syndrome and and 1997's LevitateAs I wrote before, The Fall didn't really get its shit back together until 1999's The Marshall Suite, recorded with almost an entirely new band after the remaining early members quit the group after the Brownies punch-up/debacle during their American tour the prior year.

In any event, that was my take on the latest Fall album as I arrived back in Sydney that Friday night and found Viv waiting for me at the airport.  The next three days were excellent; we had an amazing time running around the city and canoodling back in our gold-plated hotel suite.  Dining out, dancing, shopping, seeing the sights, checking out the high- and low-lights of Sydney, all the places that she knew about that I had missed on my earlier visits - it was just nonstop fun.  When Monday rolled up, far too quickly for us, I was very unhappy to leave the place, and her.  But, regretfully, duty called, and I got back on the plane that morning, heading back to Christchurch.  I will say that I flew back home to New Zealand with a big smile on my face...

That smile quickly faded upon my arrival at Christchurch International.  I sauntered off the plane and into Customs for what I figured was going to be another routine "wave me through" check-in... but I was stopped as the desk by a steely-eyed Customs officer, who demanded to see my official documents.  It was only then that the realization struck me: I'd spent so much time in New Zealand - living in the neighborhoods, going to the shops and pubs, learning all of the side streets and short cuts - that I essentially considered myself a local.  As far as I was concerned, Christchurch was my home.  But in the eyes of the entities running the state there, we were little more than official long-term guests, representatives of the U.S. government traveling on American passports.  As such, we required authorized documents - official travel orders - from a recognized U.S. facility there (such as an embassy or a military base) in order to leave and return to New Zealand without any undue hassle. 

In my zeal to get back to Sydney to hang out with Viv that weekend... I kind of forgot to get that sort of documentation from the NASU Administrative Department. So without that official OK, the airport official regarded me not as a fellow Kiwi, but as an undocumented scumbag trying to slip into the country.  He starting making noises about "deporting me back to Australia", which wouldn't have been good at all.

I tried explaining to the guy that I wasn't a tourist, but I actually lived there, and showed him my New Zealand driver's license and Bank of New Zealand ATM card, among other items, as proof.  But that cold-blooded bastard wasn't buying it.  Finally, I told him I could clear this situation up with one phone call, and used the phone at his desk to call the NASU Main Office.  Oddly, there was no answer... so I tried again, with the same result.  It was then that the realization struck me - it was Monday, May 29th... MEMORIAL DAY - and the office was closed for the American holiday.  Damn.  I had no idea what the home phone numbers were for anyone from NASU who could assist me.  In a word, I was screwed.

It was only then that the Customs official's attitude softened somewhat; I guess he figured out by then that I hadn't been
BSing him about living there.  Instead of sending me back to Sydney on the next plane, he would provide me with a ten-day Visitor's Permit, to get me back into the country and give me time to get things straightened out.  This was the perfect solution for me - especially as my last day in New Zealand was scheduled for June 8th, only nine days away.  I gladly accepted the stamp in my passport, and made my way out of the airport as quickly as possible.  But I spent my last few days there as a "visitor" in my own country, as it were.

That's how that situation ended... but it wasn't the end for Viv and I.  After I got back to the States and entered grad school, she and I stayed in touch constantly through letters and the occasional phone call.  During the break between my first and second years at UVA, we decided to meet somewhere mutually convenient for both of us... so in the latter part of the summer of 1996, we reconnected in Maui for a week, which was as epic and awesome a trip as I've ever had, even surpassing my last sojourn with her in Sydney a year earlier.  After that vacation, I didn't see her for many years, although we remained constantly in touch.  She still lives near Sydney, and got married a couple of years later to Joseph, a local Aussie-by-way-of-New-Zealand, a staunch and outstanding guy.  And I got to see them both a few years ago, when they came over to New York City for a visit and I met them there.  We're all great friends now, and any such feelings I may have had for her - longing, lust or whatever - have long since fallen by the wayside.

She's still piping hot, though... and on occasion I think back on the days when we first became acquainted, twenty-five years ago this week, and smile a secret little smile of remembrance.  These occasions to reminisce occur more often then not when I hear a song off of Cerebral Caustic, which I've been playing slightly more in recent years and starting to semi-appreciate, even if my initial mediocre assessment of it hasn't changed all that much.  It was all great fun, way back when, but that's life... and like the man, Mark E. Smith himself, once said:

" just bounces so don't you get worried at all;
And life just bounces so don't you get worried at all."

No worries indeed.

And to alleviate your worries - yes, I AM offering up this album for your listening pleasure! 

Here's The Fall's Cerebral Caustic, Castle Music's 2006 expanded edition of the 1995 release originally put out on Permanent Records on February 27th, 1995.  The first disc contains the original album lineup; the second disc includes a four-track Peel Sessions recording from December 17th, 1994 (hence the prevalence of all the Christmas songs; however, the Peel Sessions version of "Numb At The Lodge" crushes the album version ("Feeling Numb"), IMHO...), ten early mixes/rough tracks from the album (which prove that the rumors regarding Dave Bush's contributions being wiped were unfounded), and a couple of promo items, including a brief interview with Mark and Brix.  Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:

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  1. I'm fond of Cerebral Caustic. Can't really say why. It's certainly not associated with fond memories of jetting from one island to another to meet up with a lovely lady such as your Viv. The Aphid is funny, and so is the seesaw riff of Life Just Bounces. I often think of Mark's line "People hate beauty - I cannot fathom it."

    1. There's just something beat down and draggy about the album to me. I listen to tracks like "Feeling Numb"... then I hear them kicking ass on the same track in a Peel Session and wondering "Why didn't they record the original that way?" There just seems to be a lack of energy put into most of the music on this disc; as I said, it seemed to be "by-the-numbers' Fall, rather than any Great Leap Forward.

      Thanks for the great comment, as always!