All posts tagged death

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Dying Wish: In-home palliative care nursing’, February 2017

    A feature story for The Weekend Australian Magazine, published in the February 11 2017 issue. Excerpt below.

    Dying Wish

    Few terminally ill Australians get to spend their final days at home. When it happens, it can be the greatest gift of love.

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Dying Wish: In-home Palliative Care Nursing' by Andrew McMillen, February 2017. Photo by Justine Walpole

    It begins with the lighting of a candle, the bright tone of a ­ringing bell, and a card plucked from a deck of Buddhist prayer cards then read aloud: “Now may every living thing, young or old, weak or strong, ­living near or far, known or unknown, living or departed, or yet unborn – may every living thing be full of bliss.”

    On this Monday morning in a northern suburb of Brisbane, six clinical nurses and support staff are gathered around a table inside a building known as Karuna House. Its walls are painted pale blue, its ceilings are high, and pinned to a corkboard are dozens of booklets gathered from funerals and memorial services. These are some of the organisation’s recently deceased clients, for the nature of Karuna’s work is to offer support to ­people who are terminally ill, providing in-home palliative care services to about 50 families at a time. ­Written in red on a whiteboard is the number four – the tally of clients who died the previous week in mid-November; the same as the week before.

    In a corner of the room beside an open ­window sits Camille Doyle, 40, who listens intently while making handwritten notes on a printed page that shows her clients’ names, addresses and current assessment: “stable”, “unstable”, “deteriorating”, or “terminal”. This fourth stage is followed by bereavement, which involves caring for those left behind. Today Camille will visit four homes; by now, she knows these people ­intimately and the routes to their houses so well that she doesn’t need a map.

    On a bushy block in Samford Valley, 25km north-west of Brisbane CBD, sits a large timber house owned by a married couple of 49 years. When Camille knocks on the door at 11.30am, she is greeted by Sandra Huelsmann, a 73-year-old grandmother who wears pearl earrings and a ­silver heart necklace. “Hello, Millie,” says Sandra, smiling. They hug, and Sandra welcomes the nurse into a home she has visited regularly for the past six months, an unusually long relationship for Karuna. The longer duration reflects the complex nature of this particular palliative situation.

    On an adjustable bed in a room towards the front of the house is Tony Huelsmann, a retired dancer, choreographer and dance instructor whose skills were once in high demand at schools throughout Melbourne and Brisbane. Sandra was one of his dance students. He was 30 when they met, seven years older than her, and it was love at first sight.

    Born in Germany, Tony has spent much of his life in Australia. Now 80, he is dying from complications associated with several internal and ­external cancers, including a rash of angry red squamous cell carcinomas that have colonised the skin of his swollen upper thighs. These painful sores require daily dressings, performed by a personal care worker, while Karuna’s rotating ­roster of nurses help with symptom management, bed-baths, toileting and bedding changes, as well as emotional support for both husband and wife.

    Since May, Tony’s world-spanning life has been confined more or less to these four walls while Sandra cares for his every need. At night, she snatches sleep where possible. It is their wish for Tony to die at home and they are both determined to see this wish fulfilled.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian. Above photo credit: Justine Walpole.

  • Matters Of Substance story: ‘The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia’, July 2016

    A feature story for the May 2016 issue of Matters Of Substance, the quarterly magazine published by the New Zealand Drug Foundation. Excerpt below.

    The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia

    Stories of personal suffering, where debilitating symptoms are eventually eased by medical cannabis, are appearing ever more frequently in the news. Andrew McMillen argues it is these sorts of stories that have engendered compassion in Australia, eroding the stigma around medical cannabis use and paving the way for science and more evidence- based legislation.

    Matters Of Substance story: 'The Snowball and the Avalanche: Medical Cannabis in Australia' by Andrew McMillen, July 2016

    The story of medical cannabis in Australia is much the same as in other countries around the world that have tiptoed this path before us. Here across the ditch, as in New Zealand, the United States and many other advanced economies, it is a situation where two strange bedfellows have been pitted against one another: stigma and science. For many years, because of their preconceived attitudes, staunch opponents of illicit drug use have remained wilfully blind to the benefits of medical cannabis experienced by sick people. Here, as elsewhere, this is not a campaign for the impatient. Change is slow, often painfully so, as it relies on a willingness for opponents to reconsider their positions in light of compelling evidence.

    In the last few years, though, the situation has appeared to change rather quickly and dramatically. The appropriate image is that of a single snowball rolling down a hill, gradually gaining mass and momentum until it forms an unstoppable avalanche. To this end, a raft of touching personal stories have been told in the national media. As a result, many state and federal politicians have sensed a shift in public sympathy towards sick people who are attempting to access medical cannabis without further complicating their lives by crossing paths with the criminal justice system.

    Support for plant-based medicine has gone mainstream, as evidenced by a July 2014 ReachTel poll that found that almost two-thirds of Australians believe cannabis should be made legal for medical purposes. It is telling that compassion is the driving emotion here, rather than fear – long-time advocates might well wish they had cottoned on to this tactic earlier.

    These personal stories don’t come more dramatic and heart-wrenching than Dan Haslam’s. In fact, his journey to accepting and using medical cannabis has become emblematic of changing attitudes to the drug across Australia. Dan was the snowball, and his descent down the hill began when he was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in February 2010 while living in the regional New South Wales (NSW) city of Tamworth. There, the then 20-year-old eventually discovered that the only treatment that soothed his nausea and stimulated his appetite while undergoing chemotherapy was cannabis. His parents wished there was another way. The fact that his father was head of the Tamworth Police Drug Squad made this desperate decision even more ethically and legally tortured than usual.

    To read the full story, visit Matters Of Substance.

    Further reading: my book Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, published by University of Queensland Press in 2014.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane’s Story Bridge’, September 2015

    A story for the September 5 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Over Troubled Water

    The Story Bridge is a beautiful Brisbane landmark – but it’s also a site of untold misery

    The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Over Troubled Water: Suicide at Brisbane's Story Bridge' by Andrew McMillen, September 2015

    It was raining on the morning that Troy Aggett decided to end his life. Shirtless and ­shoeless, the 39-year-old drove from Logan, 25km south of Brisbane, to the Story Bridge, the city’s key visual icon linking the suburbs of Fortitude Valley and Kangaroo Point. He obeyed the speed limit and all traffic signals on the way there. “There was no urgency to what I was doing,” he says. “There was no rush.” He hadn’t slept the night before. It was March 22, 2012, a Thursday, when he parked near the bridge at around 6.30am and hastily wrote an apology note to a long-lost friend: “Sorry I couldn’t catch up.” Helpfully, he placed his driver’s licence inside the note, so that police could identify him.

    While the rain fell steadily, Aggett strolled up to the 1072m-long bridge, which is traversed by 30 million vehicles annually. Though scared of heights, he paused every now and then to look over the edge. When he found the highest point over a pathway in Captain Burke Park below, he stopped and checked out the drop: 30m onto a hard surface. He didn’t want to land in the ­Brisbane River, as people have been known to survive the watery impact. All that stood between his troubled life and his certain death that morning was a 138cm-high fence.

    Aggett had reached this point of despair after 19 months of sick leave from his job as an ­Australian Federal Police officer, where he had turned whistleblower against what he perceived to be a poisonous and corrupt culture, triggering a drawn-out court action which he ultimately won. He was near rock bottom, having lost everything he cared about. “It was just a private moment; I wasn’t trying to cause a scene, I wasn’t trying to get people involved,” he says. What he didn’t count on was that a passerby – an off-duty member of the Royal Australian Air Force – was quick enough to grab his arm as he swung over the barrier, locked elbows so that Aggett couldn’t drop, and began a conversation. Soon, two police officers were on the scene to hear his final wish: “Just bury me when I’m done. A pauper’s funeral; I don’t care. Just scrape me up nicely, and put me in a box. That’s enough.”

    This story has a happy ending. After three hours of negotiation – most of which took place while Aggett stood holding on to the outside of the railing with three fingers of his right hand, near-naked and shivering – he gave permission to be strapped into a bright red firefighter’s ­harness and brought back over the railing. Within moments he was covered with a fluorescent yellow raincoat to shield him from the cold. Spent from the exertion of holding himself in a precarious position all that time, he dropped to the bitumen. A policeman leaned down and pressed his head against Aggett’s, while nearby officers comforted him with pats on the back. A female officer lent over the barrier and gave the thumbs-up signal to paramedics who had gathered beneath a tree in the park below to shelter from the steady rainfall, stretcher at the ready. A fire engine with its cherry picker ladder extension that had been waiting out of sight, in the shadow of the Story Bridge, was no longer needed. Raincoat-clad police officers waiting nearby were at last able to breathe a sigh of relief.

    On that morning, some two dozen emergency services staff were focused solely on bringing Aggett back from the brink. His life was all that mattered. What’s remarkable about the scene, however, is that its final minutes were captured by a member of the public who happened to be filming from a high-rise apartment across the Brisbane River, on the outskirts of the CBD. A zoom lens framed the scene in extraordinary detail as the amateur director shakily panned to ensure that every emotion was writ in high definition. The care and compassion on display in the four-minute video is humbling. It was uploaded to YouTube on the day of the incident, tagged: “Australian trying to commit suicide”.

    Aggett found the footage around two years later. He has watched the video of this low moment in his life several times, enthralled and a little embarrassed. Today he’s 43, healthy, married, running his own flooring business, and able to speak frankly about that day on the bridge. “I keep an eye out for people who do jump: where they jumped, how many jumped, whether it was successful or not,” he says between sips of a cool drink at a Brisbane cafe, his wife by his side. “It’s just curiosity, I think. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like I’ve got a connection to these people now. I know what they’re going through, inside.”

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

    World Suicide Prevention Day coincided with RUOK? Day on September 10 2015; details at wspd.org.au. For help, contact: Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, Headspace 1800 650 890, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636, Survivors of Suicide Bereavement Support 1300 767 022.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Weekend Australian Magazine story: ‘Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates’, March 2015

    A story for the March 7 issue of The Weekend Australian Magazine. Excerpt below.

    Tall Poppies

    It supplies up to half the world’s legal opiates, but Tasmania’s poppy industry sees danger ahead.

     The Weekend Australian Magazine story: 'Tall Poppies: Tasmanian opiates' by Andrew McMillen, March 2015

    Perched in a corner of Keith Rice’s office, atop a cupboard and behind a bright yellow hard-hat, sits an old white sign that warns of grave peril.DANGER. Prohibited area. KEEP OUT. Trespassers ­prosecuted.

    In front of it, an updated version includes a skull-and-crossbones captioned POISON. In bold red text, the bottom of the new sign reads: ILLEGAL use of crop has caused DEATH. This recent shift in tense — “may cause” to “has caused” — came after three deaths from poppy misuse in the last three years here in Tasmania. Clearly, something had to change, beginning with the signage that borders roadside poppy crops.

    Rice, chief executive of Poppy Growers ­Tasmania, keeps glancing at the sign as we chat over coffee on a cool Launceston morning. A tall 66-year-old with tanned features and thinning white hair, he’s talking me through the complex web of politics, painkillers and, more recently, protectionism in which he has been involved for nearly 30 years.

    Above Rice’s desk hangs a wall calendar ­bearing a colour photograph of green countryside flanked by snowy mountaintops, as well as the name of Tasmanian Alkaloids, one of two pharmaceutical companies to have invested heavily in the poppy industry. It has been a big earner for the state, which grows up to 50 per cent of the planet’s legal ­opiates — from which morphine, codeine and thebaine can be extracted — that relieve the pain of humans throughout the world in the form of medicines such as OxyContin and Nurofen Plus. The warning signs are required by law to be displayed on all ­roadside paddocks to deter would-be drug experimenters from picking poppy heads and brewing the ill-gotten plants into a tea. “It’s a dangerous crop because you don’t know the alkaloid content,” says Rice. “Thebaine is like strychnine in your system.”

    Tasmania produces around 90 per cent of the world’s thebaine, which causes convulsions in humans at high doses. In the past two decades thebaine production has eclipsed the old fav­ourite, morphine. A more effective painkiller, ­thebaine is also much more dangerous, as two Danish backpackers found last February after stealing 40 poppy heads from a farm near ­Oatlands, in the centre of the state. The pair brewed the plant into a tea; one of the drinkers, a 26-year-old male, fell asleep and never awoke. In November 2012, morphine toxicity also killed a 17-year-old who stole five kilograms of poppy capsules from a farm at Lewisham, near Hobart, and consumed a poppy tea. In February 2011, a 50-year old man died in similar circumstances in the Launceston suburb of Ravenswood.

    Tasmania’s $100 million dollar poppy ­industry is hidden in plain sight: drive north from Hobart towards Launceston in the ­summer and rolling fields of white, pink and purple flowers dot the landscape. At its peak a few years ago, 30,000ha of poppies were planted in a season; that number is now closer to 20,000ha per year due to a dip in world demand following changes in US prescription policies arising from drug abuse.

    The pharmaceutical companies who pay farmers to grow their products have a long ­history on the island, but mainland state ­governments have been paying attention to the economic consistency of Tasmania’s poppy crop, too. Last September, then federal health minister Peter Dutton wrote to his state and ­territory counterparts asking them to revise a 43-year-old agreement that has restricted poppy production to the island. Soon after, legislation was passed in Victoria and the Northern ­Territory that allowed the narcotics to be grown under strict licensing conditions following small-scale commercial trials during the 2013-14 season.

    It’s a worrying development for Tasmanian farmers who for more than four decades had cornered a secure and lucrative market. The path of Tasmania’s poppy industry so far has been one of prosperity and productivity, with the occasional pothole when misuse of the crop has caused death, or when heavy rains have ruined crops or a mildew outbreak occurs, as it did last November. The great unknown is how big a pothole the mainland expansion will be in the state’s proud history of painkiller production.

    To read the full story, visit The Australian.

  • The Weekend Australian album review: Death Grips – ‘The Money Store’, May 2012

    An album review for The Weekend Australian, originally published on May 12.

    Death Grips – The Money Store

    By combining the ethos and aesthetics of punk-rock and electronica with hip-hop, Californian trio Death Grips have established an entirely unique sound.

    On this debut album, producer Andy Morin, percussionist Zach Hill and vocalist MC Ride work largely with dark, abrasive tones which imbue the act with a menacing edge.

    Much of this can be attributed to Ride, whose combative style of rapping sits high in the mix amid rolling waves of electronic percussion and a galaxy of fleeting samples, including muscle car engines (‘Hustle Bones’) and Venus Williams’s impassioned scream (‘System Blower’). Rarely is Ride’s voice unadorned: most of the time, it’s run through distortion and delay filters or looped on-the-fly to create a consistent wall of sound.

    Death Grips’ experimental style sits so far outside mainstream hip-hop that they’ll be easily dismissed by most. The rewards for those with patience are significant, though: The Money Store is the musical equivalent of randomly surfing the internet while wired on caffeine.

    The three discover interesting sounds, stretch them out of shape, mash them into three-minute shocks of beautiful dissonance, then discard them. The album’s 13 songs each contain distinctive moods and themes.

    From the sinister lyrics of album closer ‘Hacker’ (“I’m in your area / I know the first three numbers”) to the overdriven guitars in ‘I’ve Seen Footage’, there’s never a dull moment. Highly recommended.

    LABEL: Epic Records
    RATING: 4 stars

    The music video for the track ‘The Fever (Aye Aye)‘ is embedded below.

  • Vale Andrew McMillan, Darwin-based journalist and author: 1957-2012

    Darwin-based journalist and author Andrew McMillan [pictured below] died yesterday, January 28 2012, aged 54. I received word via a text message from Andrew Stafford just after I went to bed, around midnight. I wrote back, “Holy shit. Thanks.” Then I lay awake for the next hour, cursing myself. I was to meet him in Darwin, six days later.

    I first became aware of the eerie reality that I was following in the footsteps of my near-namesake soon after my work was nationally published. Looking at my email history, the first mention of his name is in a note from Australian writer Clinton Walker on August 12, 2009.

    andrew,
    this is so funny because only lately been in touch w my old friend from bris old rock writer andrew mcmillan, you must be aware of your precedence, and a fine one it is too […] i had a look ata bit of your stuff and really enjoyed it and wanted to say goodonya and keepitup. clinton walker

    In February 2010, I was emailed by the international label manager/A&R at Shock Records, David Laing.

    hey Andrew,
    I assume you’re the same AM who used to write for RAM? If yes, first of all, thanks for all the great writing that was hugely influential on me in my teenage years fromthe 100th issue of RAM (my first) onwards… also, I’m responsible for a few releases that you may have an interest in if you care at all for the styles of music you used to write about – including a couple of compilations called Do The Pop! that trace the incluence of the Saints and primarily Radio Birdman into the local real rock’n’roll scene in ’80s, and also some reissued from the Hitmen – and I’d love to send you copies if you’re interested in seeing them…
    Thanks and regards
    dave

    Then in May 2010, in an email conversation with Brisbane writer Andrew Stafford:

    By the way, are you aware of yet another rock-writing Andrew, your namesake in fact, Andrew McMillan? Slightly different spelling – but Andrew, along with Clint Walker, was one of the original rock journos in this town, and arguably the most original. Started Suicide Alley (later Pulp) fanzine with Clint – the first rock fanzine in the country – and later wrote Strict Rules, his fantastic account of Midnight Oil’s tour through Aboriginal communities in 1986, leading to the Diesel and Dust album. A fascinating man and a great writer, well worth your checking out. – AS

    Then in November 2010, in an email conversation with Australian singer Carol Lloyd of the band Railroad Gin:

    It may freak you out to know that in the 70’s, Railroad Gin were often reported on by a guy who wrote for Rolling Stone, Juke etc. who was called Andrew McMillan….! He’s now a novelist based in Darwin..saw him when I did a panel thing with Noel Mengel at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

    I wrote back, “By the way, I am aware of Andrew McMillan! We’ve not met yet, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually.”

    The sad reality is that this will never happen, now.

    In recent months – having reached a point in my writing career where I felt up to the challenge – I became more interested in exploring the concept of meeting this man, this well-known writer with whom I share more than a few parallels. I knew that he was ill, first with bowel cancer, and now with liver cancer. On November 25, 2011, I emailed him for the first time:

    Hi Andrew,

    I don’t believe we’ve ever emailed, but I’ve certainly been aware of you for a few years now as we have almost exactly the same name. I’ve been mistaken for you many times! More on me at the web address in my signature..

    How are you? Last I heard was that you were in a poor state following the removal of a bowel tumor – I think this is the last thing I read about you, just over a year ago. Judging by your Facebook page, seems you’re doing much better now. I caught your recent interview on the MusicNT website, too. Good stuff.

    I wanted to ask a favour. I’d like to visit you at your home in the new year, and interview you extensively. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a young journalist like myself to talk about writing and life with an older bloke who almost shares the same name with me.

    Is this a possibility? Is this something you’d be interested in? Or should I bugger off?

    Happy to chat anytime mate. My number below.

    He replied the next day:

    Hi Andrew,

    Tickled to hear from you. The first I heard of you was via a flurry of emails from fans who read a piece in the The Australian and wondered what the fuck had happened to my style. I was bewildered. Then in 2009 when I was due to appear at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival I found myself on the bill of a Queensland music festival with old mate Christie Eliezer etc talking about music journalism. A strange call, given I’d rarely concentrated on music writing since about 1985. I accepted the invitation but got no response. Obviously they had the ‘en’ in mind.

    I get emails occasionally congratulating me on reviews of records I’ve never heard. And calls from people seeking contact details for band managers I’m supposed to be best mates with. I plead ignorance; they, no doubt, hold my ignorance against you.

    That said, I’m intrigued by the concept of a music journo called Andrew McMillen coming out of Brisbane. I was first published in 1975 and got out of there in 1977. Never looked back.

    I’m now dealing with liver cancer and all kinds of shit, so my time appears to be short, hence forming a band The Rattling Mudguards and having much fun on the way out.

    I trust your transcriptions are accurate so I’d be happy to entertain you in Darwin in January.

    Cheers,

    Andrew McMillan.

    * Patron, Life Member: Northern Territory Writers’ Centre
    * Acting Chief Of Staff (1991-2011): DARWIN’S 4TH ESTATE
    www.myspace.com/darwins4thestate
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ryZ36Ts0Gg&feature=email
    * President For Life: Darwin Foreign Correspondents’ Association
    * Founder: John Jenkins Society (est. Hotel Darwin, 1989)
    www.andrewmcmillan.com.au

    The Christmas period passed. I finished reading Andrew Stafford’s copy of Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour, Andrew’s account of the 1986 tour of remote Aboriginal communities shared by the Australian rock groups Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band.

    (To further confuse matters, a handwritten note on the book’s first page reads, “To Andrew – welcome to Strict Rules. Best wishes, Andrew McMillan.” It’s for Stafford, not me, but plenty of people thought otherwise when I showed them.)

    It’s an excellent read; profound, beautiful, and heartbreaking, by turns. You can read an excerpt on Midnight Oil’s website. Drummer Rob Hirst wrote the foreword for a re-released version of the book in 2008; it was first published in 1988, the year I was born.

    McMillan captures the feel of the Australian desert better than any writer I’ve read. For the first half of the book, he refers to himself in the third person, as “the hitch-hiker”. (The book is dedicated to Andrew’s mother, father, and “the people who pick up hitch-hikers.”) It’s a cracking read, and the pace never wavers as he explores the logistics behind the tour, the nightly performances to mostly-bewildered locals, the history of the land, and the people who live there. After I finished, all I could think was: I wish I read this sooner.

    On January 2, I emailed Andrew to arrange my Darwin visit.

    Hi Andrew – happy new year. How are you?

    I want to check with you re timing for my planned excursion to Darwin. Are there any particular days or weeks that we should avoid? My January is filling up pretty fast so it might be best to look at early-mid Feb. What do you think?

    He replied the same day:

    At this stage my diary is free for 2012, apart from putting the finishing touches to an anthology (selected works 1976-2011) and the live album my new band The Rattling Mudguards recorded in October with Don Walker on piano and the Loose Screws on backing vocals.

    Apart from that, everything else is dictated by my health. I’m fairly confident, despite the prognosis, that I’ll still be around in February and look forward to meeting you then.

    I asked him whether I could stay at his home, and about the exact nature of his prognosis. On January 3, he told me:

    You’re welcome to camp here unless I’m in need of a full-time carer by then. Hopefully that won’t be the case.

    The prognosis? They got it wrong last year when they said I wouldn’t make through the footy season. The latest, a month ago, gave me three months max. I aim to beat that. I’ve got a few things to finish off yet.

    On January 16, after getting caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of freelance journalism for a couple of weeks, I emailed Andrew after working out my ideal travel dates.

    Hey Andrew,

    How are you? A quick note to let you know that I’m intending to fly to Darwin on Thursday February 2. Not sure how long I intend to stay yet; up to a week is my best estimate at the moment. I just wanted to check that this date is OK before booking flights.

    The next day, Andrew said:

    Feb 2 sounds good. If we run into problems, friends within the neighbourhood and without have offered to put you up for a few nights.

    I’ve attached an old RAM story from 1981 I’ve dug up for my anthology. I transcribed it a few nights ago. Would you mind proof-reading it for words that are obviously out of place? I figure it’ll be a neat exercise for you, giving you a clean sense of how I was writing 30 years ago and how we move on.

    I was honoured to proof-read his old work, about an Australian band named Matt Finish. The same day, January 17, I replied:

    Flights are booked for Friday Feb 3, returning Wed Feb 8. Arriving around midday on the Friday. I’m seeing (and reviewing) Roger Waters do The Wall on Feb 1 and didn’t fancy the early flight on the 2nd. So 3rd it is.

    A good read on Matt Finish. Had never heard of them. I’ve attached a doc with a couple of comments down the right side, but no changes to the main text. Just a few small things that I noticed.

    I was chatting to Jim White of Dirty Three today for a story I’m writing. He asked whether I was you. He remembers your writing from RAM.

    Do keep sending through some stuff to read ahead of my visit. I finished Strict Rules a couple weeks back (borrowed Andrew Stafford’s copy) and loved it.

    That was the last I heard from Andrew. On January 24, I followed up my last email and asked, “Is everything OK – or as OK can be, given your situation?” Four days later, he died.

    I feel foolish for having not ventured north earlier, for not having appreciated the urgency of his situation. Upon receiving that text message last night, I felt immediately that this mistake will be one of my biggest regrets.

    I have no idea how our meeting would have unfolded. I was looking for inspiration, for insight; I wanted to learn about writing from a man who has written his whole life. It saddens me that we only ever exchanged a few casual emails. I was looking forward to days of conversation, of introspection, of self-analysis, of advice, of inspiration.

    Vale Andrew McMillan. I hardly knew you. I wish I did.

    Written by Brisbane-based journalist Andrew McMillen, January 29 2012.

    Above photo credits, respectively: Bob Gosford, Glenn Campbell, Bob Gosford.

    Update, January 30: ABC News NT have uploaded a fine video tribute to Andrew on their YouTube channel. It runs for two and a half minutes and can be viewed below.

  • A Conversation With Reggie Watts, American musician and comedian

    Reggie's hair causing storms to brewI spoke with musician/comedian Reggie Watts the week before his Brisbane Powerhouse show on May 23. For FourThousand, where a condensed version of this interview appeared, I wrote that “you should expect elements of beatboxing, poetry, live vocal looping and physical theatre among a highly improvised show that’s won Watts fans across the world.”

    In my review for Rave Magazine, I wrote that “Watts’ absurd humour is most potent when operating on a seeming stream-of-consciousness: his finely-tuned comedic mind happily deadpans rapidly-fired high-brow concepts and phrases, much to our amusement.”

    To get an idea of what Watts is all about, watch this video. Note that our conversation is directly transcribed, with little editing. Let me know how that works out. It’s also my first attempt at aping Wooooo Magazine‘s interview style.

    R: Check 1-2! Hi!
    A: Hello!
    R: Hey, whasuuuup?
    A: Hey Reggie, this is Andrew!
    R: [robot voice] How are you doing, Andrew?
    A: I’m good dude, how are you?
    R: [normal voice] I’m doing alright.
    A: What kind of mood are you in?
    R: Well, I don’t know. I was just showing my friend some things on the computer, and some effects pedals. So I guess I’m in a good mood.
    A: I’ve got two sets of questions for you, so it’s up to you to choose which one you want.
    R: Okay.
    A: I’ve got the serious, or the stupid questions.
    R: Serious or stupid questions. Hmm. That’s a hard one. I guess, maybe.. the stupid ones?
    A: Okay, we can try that.
    R: Depends on what ‘stupid’ means.
    A: Well, these are just random questions that I’m going to throw at you, to see how you respond.
    R: Okay, let’s do that. Sounds like fun.
    Reggie in wolf form, howling his ass offA: Do you have a power animal?
    R: Do I have a power animal?
    A: Yeah. An animal you think of in tough times, to get you through.
    R: I usually think of… wolves.
    A: A wolf?
    R: Yeah. My power wolf.
    A: That’s cool. Mine’s a dolphin.
    R: Oh, really? Dolphins are awesome!
    A: Yeah! They remind me of freedom, and I can just escape to that world and pretend I’m swimming in the ocean with my dolphin-friends.
    R: And they’re intelligent.
    A: Yeah, exactly! And I’ve heard they really like sex.
    R: They do like sex. They’re totally.. they’re awesome. They’re the closest to ‘us’ in the sea.
    A: Okay. How do you feel about baked beans?
    R: When I grew up, baked beans were essentially something you associate with poor families. You know, if you were poor, you got baked beans. So when I went to London for the first time and had the proper English breakfast, which includes baked beans, and I was like “whaaat? Why am I eating poor people food?” Which is a horrible thing to think, but that was just my programming. Now I really like them! It totally makes sense to me. I actually enjoy baked beans. It’s really weird.
    A: It’s a bit of a staple here in Australia as well. It’s not really associated with poor people, it’s just like a breakfast snack.
    R: Yeah, exactly! It’s not a poor people food at all here. It’s normal people food.
    A: What is your ideal breakfast?
    R: My ideal breakfast is probably the Swedish breakfast. It has sour milk, which you can’t really find anywhere except Scandinavia. And muesli. And toast, with fish. And you pull herbs right off of a little bush and have that with the fish.
    A: Whoa.
    R: Yeah, it’s pretty weird. But it’s a great breakfast and I always feel really good after eating it.
    A: You seem to prefer the cold breakfast over the hot breakfast.
    Baked beans: not just for poor peopleR: It depends. Sometimes I feel like eggy-weggs. But for me, cold breakfasts are a little more efficient than a hot breakfast. Those are more involved. The hot breakfast is something you sit down with and really HAVE the breakfast. Whereas if it’s muesli and soy milk, or yoghurt, you can just take it with you and eat it. You don’t feel like an asshole.
    A: Yeah, you can eat it in front of the computer, or whatever you want to do.
    R: Exactly!
    A: Whereas the hot breakfast, I associate that with, say, reading a newspaper.
    R: Yeah, you take your time. When you have time for breakfast – have a hot breakfast!
    A: Do you read newspapers?
    R: I don’t. I read all my news online.
    A: Me too. Did you ever read newspapers?
    R: I never did. I tried to, but I couldn’t get into it. I know people who just love to crack open that newspaper and smell the ink, but I just found it unruly. Every time I open up a newspaper, I just feel like doing a bit with it, like a gag. The sound of rustling paper – I just want to keep doing that perpetually, and never find whatever I’m looking for, and keep folding it endlessly. To me, the newspaper is more of a ploy than an actual informational tool.
    A: Would you ever date a blind girl?
    R: I would date a blind girl. Yeah. Why not?
    A: If she was a total babe.
    R: Absolutely. Yeah!
    A: What about a deaf girl?
    R: A deaf girl would be great, too!
    A: Do you think you could accurately portray your personality to a deaf girl?
    R: Absolutely, because a deaf girl can see. If she was deaf AND blind, then you’d have a little bit of a problem. But I’d probably hug her a lot, and she’d probably really respond to that.
    A: Yeah, she’d be really into touching. The tactile.
    R: Yeah. I guess I’d just have to find a new way to relate to someone. But human beings are pretty adaptable.
    A: Right on. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do today?
    R: If I knew I was going to die tomorrow.. (speaks slowly) I would probably get.. like, a bunch of heroin, and do that, and then just talk to people on beaches, and have girls come over. Or something like that. (laughs) And have someone record it all, and then have someone remix it later.
    A: I took a look at your Vimeo page, and I saw that you’re getting into uploading videos on there.
    R: Yeah.
    A: Are you recording anything while you’re here in Australia?
    R: I might. Sometimes when I travel I feel like recording a lot. But so far I haven’t really felt compelled. I’ve taken some little videos with my phone that I might upload at some point. Sometimes I get really addicted to uploading. But I’m better at uploading photos, I definitely put photos up all the time. Videos are a little bit more involved. They take longer, it’s not as fun. Whereas a photo I can take it and upload immediately. And a video is just like (groans) “ughhhh”.
    Mass Effect. Watts is a fan.A: Do you play video games?
    R: I do like video games. But I don’t have a lot of time to play them. What usually ends up happening is that I find a video game and I just play it straight, for like a week, and then I’m good for a year. The last game I played – which they’re making another version of, I can’t believe it – it was an amazing, amazing game called Mass Effect, for the Xbox. If you like science fiction, especially 70s-style science fiction.. it’s futuristic, but it has a kind of Eno-vangelist sci-fi soundtrack. The plot is heavy, and deep, and the characters are amazing. It’s a really incredible game.
    A: So you prefer sitting in front of a TV to play games, rather than handhelds?
    R: Handheld’s alright. I have a DS. It’s good for travelling, but I would prefer to be immersed in a projected game. I’m going to get some HD head-mounted display goggles, and hook the video game console up to that so I can be really immersed. Just lay back on the bed and go for it!
    A: God damn, they make those?
    R: Yeah, they’re actually pretty cheap! You can get some high-def ones for $800 American dollars. Pretty fuckin’ cheap.
    A: So you’ve tried it out?
    R: Yeah. They’re great, they’re really light-weight. You wear them, and you have the stereo vision because there’s a separate monitor for each eye. It’s great.
    A: That’s awesome. Do you play poker?
    R: I don’t. I don’t like poker.
    A: You’ve tried to play?
    R: I’ve tried to, but it’s not fun. When everyone’s betting, it just seems overly, unnecessarily complicated. I would play poker just as long as I could make fun of poker the whole time. If I was allowed to, if people weren’t taking it too seriously. It’s such a silly game. Everyone’s monitoring each other. I understand that people are into the strategy of it, but at the same time, it’s just ridiculous.
    A: Yeah. It seems a pretty funny thing to devote your life to, being a professional poker player and learning how to watch other people play.
    R: Yeah. There’s an art to anything, but when I look at poker, I just think (groans) “Oh god.”
    A: “You guys are lame.”
    R: Yeah! “You guys suck!” (laughs) I don’t think that, it’s just funny to think about what people take seriously.
    A: Do you think people take you seriously?
    R: Probably not! I think they take me seriously in that they believe that I exist. But.. some people do. It depends on the context. When I have a conversation with someone, it’s pretty real, but when I give interviews and I’m in a weird mood, I might just fabricate a lot of things. But let the interviewers in on it. Just because I find that amusing.
    A: If you couldn’t rock an afro, which hairstyle would you have?
    R: I would probably do a mohawk. Some kind of weird, shaved-on-one side, spiky-on-the-other future punk-rock look.
    A: A giant mohawk? Like three feet high?
    R: Not quite a straight mohawk. It’d have to be something a little weird.
    A: Is there such thing as a free lunch?
    R: Absolutely. I have them all the time! (laughs)
    A: Who is your favourite Looney Tunes character?
    Tasmanian Devil: not schizophrenicR: That’s a hard one. I don’t know if I’d want to be him, but the Tasmanian Devil is pretty hilarious. I guess the most.. intellectual of the characters would be Bugs Bunny, so I’m gonna say that even though it’s pretty generic. He was the most balanced, and in control. He tricked people. I like that about him.
    A: Do you think that the bunny or the devil could potentially be your back-up power animals?
    R: I think that the devil could definitely be a back-up animal (laughs) He’s kind of like Animal from The Muppets. Basically, when he stops, he’s Animal, and then he just turns back into a brown tornado.
    A: Do you think he’s schizophrenic?
    R: I don’t think he’s schizophrenic. He’s just got a lot of energy. And he’s got a caveman mentality.
    A: How’s your hotel?
    R: It’s an awesome hotel! It’s very civilised. It has a laundry machine, and a dryer, a microwave, a little kitchen, and a nice shower.
    A: Is Trent [Barton, Zero Hour Collective] taking care of you?
    R: Oh yes. He’s a professional.
    A: So he’s not letting you wander out of his sight, so you can go and explore Sydney’s slums?
    R: No, not yet. I’m sure that will come in the future. As they all get more successful, I’ll get worse living conditions.
    A: You’re here for six weeks, aren’t you?
    R: Yeah, I leave on the 11th or 12th of June.
    A: You’re involved in the Sydney Festival, right?
    R: Yeah, Vivid Sydney. It’s kind of confusing, because there’s three things going on: Vivid Sydney, Smart Light Festival, and Luminous, the Eno festival. It’s a little confusing. I think next year, they’re gonna have to work on their branding. I get what they’re doing artistically, because I spoke to the directors recently, but I shouldn’t have to think about it. But whatever, it’s going to be a great festival. Their intentions are pretty humanitarian.
    A: Sweet. Do you Google yourself?
    R: I do, all the time. I use Google Alerts.
    A: Oh really? That was my next question. So you’re down with the technology.
    R: Yeah, man.
    A: You know what’s being said about you.
    R: Yeah. I’ve always loved communications technology. I’ve been rocking smart-phones since the first smart-phone. I’ve been using organisers since the concept of organisers came out. Commodore 64s, scientific calculators.. I’ve always had some kind of a computer or storage device, and once networking became online, then I was totally down with that.
    Windswept Watts, Dungeon Master.A: So when this interview is published online, you’ll be the first to know about it through Google Alerts.
    R: Yes! It’s fascinating. It’s a good thing, because there’s so much stuff out there. I think everyone should put an alert out for their name.
    A: When was the last time you cut yourself while shaving?
    R: Man, the last time I shaved was a long time ago! I would say, maybe, seven or eight months ago.
    A: Did it hurt?
    R: Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t, you know? (puts on British accent) If it’s a light graze, then it doesn’t hurt as much. (laughs) I don’t know. Probably not. No. I’m going to say no – okay, yes, it does, it hurts. Sorry. (laughs)
    A: Do you believe masturbation is a sin?
    R: Well, I grew up Catholic, so probably at first, I did. But not for long, it didn’t really stop me as a kid. I was pretty.. haywire, as they say. But I don’t think so. I think it’s necessary! (laughs)
    A: I just can’t get how those devoutly religious people do it. Or don’t do it, in this case.
    R: It’s just about self-control. That’s all. Why else would someone deny something that happens naturally? It’s like if you wanted to start a religion and make up arbitrary things that people can’t do. Like, “you can’t pick up coins from the ground”, or “you have to avoid low-hanging branches”. Things of that nature, and then people accept it – “yes, of course!” – and then you give these stupid reasons for why you shouldn’t. And some people might start to believe that. It’s just the power of belief that gives the strength to limitations.
    A: Alright, I’m done with the stupid questions, so I might move onto some more serious ones now.
    R: Alright.
    A: Is that okay?
    R: Yup.
    A: Okay. At what time of day are you most productive?
    R: Sometimes it’s late afternoon, sometimes it’s late at night. So if I had to give you an hour, it’d be 9pm.
    A: Do you stay up late?
    R: Yeah, I usually go to bed at around 3am.
    A: Cool. Me too.
    R: Yeah. It’s the best time.
    A: Are you a procrastinator?
    R: Definitely.
    A: How do you deal with it?
    R: I hate it, sometimes. I just end up getting in trouble, being late, or not completing something.
    A: Have you gotten better?
    R: Yeah. It’s an ongoing battle with myself. The best way to deal with it is to just be on time. Keeping a timely manner is the best way to avoid it, but it’s hard for me, because I like waiting until the last minute. It’s just my personality.
    A: Did you go to university?
    R: I went to Cornish College Of The Arts in Seattle, Washington, for about two and a half years. I studied Jazz Voice.
    A: Did you leave your assignments until the last day?
    R: Of course. Always. Sometimes I didn’t even do ’em.
    A: You procrastinated so hard that you didn’t hand it in.
    R: Exactly. Which then moves beyond procrastination..
    A: Into, what would you call it.. failure?
    R: Yes, failure. (laughs)
    A: When someone meets you for the first time, how do you describe yourself?
    R: (pauses)
    Reggie on live loopA: Or do you just assume that everyone knows who you are, instantly, because you’re a mega-celebrity?
    R: No, no! That would be horrible to constantly assume that. “Don’t you know who I am?!” I don’t know, I guess I call myself an abstract musical comedian.
    A: So when you tell people you’re a comedian, do they ask you to tell them a joke?
    R: Sometimes, yeah.
    A: Does it shit you to tears?
    R: Not really. I either tell them that I don’t do jokes, or I just make up a really stupid joke that doesn’t make any sense. And they’ll be like “wow, I shouldn’t have asked that.”
    A: “This guy’s not funny at all!”
    R: “I don’t get it, how does he make a living?”
    A: I was watching the promo video on the Zero Hour site, where you explain that you investigate the absurd side of comedy. Does that come easily to you?
    R: I think so. It’s the way I’ve always seen life. I’ve always seen things as silly. Goofy. Even death, at times, can be goofy.
    A: I watched that CollegeHumor video of yours, which deals with a pretty humorous topic in a pretty serious way. Or at least it appears to be serious. Would you consider that video to be absurdist humour too, because it takes a non-serious topic into a serious context?
    R: Absolutely, yeah. It’s all about context and contrast. You take something serious and you expose how it’s actually absurd if you look at it through a different lens.
    A: From what I’ve seen, your act uses a lot of swearing. Does that come easily, too?
    R: I like swearing, but I like using it because it really gets the idea across. Or if you overuse it, then it becomes ridiculous. The audience wonders when it’s going to stop. It’s a fun thing to disarm people with, or to shock them into understanding that it’s not shocking. It’s just stupid.
    A: People get offended by certain words, and then if you overuse them to the point of absurdity, that says to people, “well, they’re just words, why are you getting so pissed off?”
    R: Yeah, you take the power away from it. And then sometimes people get angry because of that! “Oh, now we can’t complain about it, because it doesn’t mean anything!” Well, I’m sorry!
    A: “I’m sorry for being so clever!”
    R: Yeah. “You should have thought of it first!”
    A: How did the CollegeHumor [“What About Blowjobs?“] collaboration come about?
    R: CollegeHumor was co-founded by my former roommate, Jacob Lodwick. I met those guys through him. They’d come to my shows, and we’d explore the idea of doing something together. “What About Blowjobs” came about as a result of that. It was good!
    A: It was good. Do you ever experience gear failure on stage?
    R: Sometimes, yeah. But it’s just an opportunity to do something different, until it’s resolved.
    A: Because you’re all about spontaneous performance: “no two shows are the same”.
    R: Absolutely.
    A: Do you ever sabotage your own gear to put yourself at a disadvantage?
    R: (laughs) It’s kind of hard to do that. “Oh, I know who did that. I know what the problem is!” But no, it happens on occasion. It’s fine, I like it.
    A: When you go and see a show, what do you like to see?
    R: I like to see anything that’s really good. It can be serious, humorous, weird; dance, poetry, anything really, as long as it’s coming from a place of mastery. Of clear vision, or clear voice. That’s all that matters to me. Sometimes an idea isn’t fully developed, but it’s still great.
    A: Is your show an attempt to capture that clear voice?
    R: Kind of. The clear voice is the unclear voice in my show, but it’s a form of that, for sure. In my own way.
    A: What’s awesome about touring the world?
    R: Getting to know the world better.
    A: What sucks about touring the world?
    R: Not being able to stay healthy on the road, because you’re not living a consistent lifestyle.
    Yeo Choong: Fresh, good.A: How do you deal with that?
    R: You don’t, you just try to do the best you can.
    A: Suck it up!
    R: Yeah, try to take a long vacation.
    A: Okay, last question. What do you fear?
    R: What do I feel?
    A: Fear.
    R: I guess I fear irrelevance, and dying from some stupid health condition.
    A: In what kind of way do you want to die?
    R: I don’t want to die at all, but I don’t know if that’s possible yet. (laughs) But along the way, I want to do the best to treat myself well, and limit the possibilities of death happening early.
    A: Awesome, great outlook.
    R: Thank you.
    A: You’re up in Brisbane this week. The band supporting you are pretty kickass, you should check them out. They’re called Yeo & The Fresh Goods.
    R: Oh, cool man. I’m definitely looking forward to it.
    A: Thanks for your time, Reggie.
    R: Thank you! Goodbye, sir.

    Well, I hope that was mildly amusing. It was fun to do something different, right? More about Reggie at his site. He’s on Twitter, too.