My sis moved to Melbourne, Australia. Inconvenient to be sure, but it proved a great excuse to see at least part of a country I’d never visited. 10 days of 80-something weather in February was also attractive to a vagabond feeling stuck in a dreary pacific northwest winter. I went in knowing little about the city other than it gave the world AC/DC, The Crocodile Hunter, and Kylie Minogue (two out of three ain’t bad?) and has a reputation as an arts hub. Since my motivation for going was to see someone important, I did no research, made no plans, except for seeking out a George Costanza themed bar, and just took Melbourne as it came.
A bit of Vancouver, surfer California, antebellum architecture, Portland Hawthorne hipster, and a touch of the UK…all in good and bad ways. Much like my beloved Vancouver, it’s beautiful, friendly, easy-going, and comfortable while still being a huge city. Great food, high prices, and pretty views. But in its less Van moments, it can be Portlandy in self-referential hipster back-patting, celebrating an identity visitors and residents promote as “unique and charming.” I can only guess that those touting it as such don’t get of out of Oz much. Melbourne is considered Australia’s cultural capital—a tourist marketing tag rooted in the artsy pride you can find in other mustachioed urban icons. It trumpets an attitude that graffiti is compelling street art, mustache wax and steampunk goggles should be sold next to high-end clothing, and hippie wannabes making bracelets around the corner from expensive culinary hot-spots all form something quirky and cool. Meh.
But this modern cosmo-trendy image is from hipster appropriation of fading alternative scenes—a postmodern skin on cultural ghosts. The socialists, anarchists, communists, occultists, punks, headbangers, goths, hippies, beatnicks, bohemians and other organic weirdos and throwbacks who once championed an unwritten Melbourne Manifesto of Otherness are becoming curated memories—literally. A 2014/15 exhibition at State Library Victoria (a gorgeous place by the way) even “celebrated” this tradition, surely accompanied by wine-tasting and fancy cheese plates. Yet the counterculture remnant still thinks of itself as the soul of Melbourne. As it should. Those with a cultural memory still do too, even if it’s with a slightly condescending wink, nudge, and martini bar. The result is a rather sad-faced aging Melbourne counterculture wondering whatever happened to trying to change the world. I met one of those sad faces. It belonged to Drew Sinton.
I found Drew and his now famous store quite by accident. Searches for local heavy metal retailers were dead ends, but across the street from a vacant building once occupied by a metal/goth club was a store still very much in business: The Haunted Bookshop. It was a small and lovingly tended shop filled with books on everything from LaVey and Crowley to secret societies and government conspiracy theories. And not just recent pressings. Rare editions, collector’s items, even old pamphlets and newspapers born of both spiritual and political disenfranchisement sat behind locked glass doors. The jewelry selection was excellent. I may have bought a necklace or a ring…or both. There was a DVD selection of horror classics and rare cult films. You could also buy the TV series “Haunted Australia,” which Drew hosted. And I can’t forget the nightly walking tours of “Haunted Melbourne.” He hosts those too.
Drew stood at the counter chatting with a local about the US Presidential election and the just launched primary season. As a visiting American I had to chime in, politely of course. A long distance Bernie supporter with little knowledge of our admittedly complicated election system, he seemed less the ghost-hunting occultist of TV/magazine fame and more a polite aging leftist businessman running his curiosity shop with pride and quiet conviction while talking softly of eras gone by.
We discussed Anton LaVey and his forgotten legacy in San Francisco, the lost goths of London, and transitioned seamlessly to skyrocketing rents and box-store retail overlords. He is an encyclopedia of the alternative, embodying all that underground Melbourne once was and some wish still was. But as successful as he’s been in keeping a counterculture flame lit with his shop, tours, and TV hosting gigs, his face is sad. Not that he’s personally sad, but what he believes has happened to Melbourne certainly is. “They’ve grown up and become bankers or art dealers” he says of the old guard. “Kids today would rather play on smartphones than have radical ideas. But what can you do? Times change.” He’s the last of a dying breed, perhaps aware that he, like those he tries to unearth on his tours, is a ghost himself.
This all shed some light on why I was finding it hard to locate retailers catering to metalheads. There was one expensive downtown store with a good selection of shirts. That was about it. I talked to Drew about the metal gigs which came through the city and that people still come out of the shadows to see Helloween or Slayer, but he quickly pointed out how there was nothing thriving. No scene. No pulse. I found this odd considering that Melbourne is a throwback regarding music. Radio stations are still important (why, exactly?). There is a plethora of indie record labels still happy to let you know they’re alive. The quaint “support local music” mantra is still found on stickers. As I walked the city in the following days jazz, electronic dance, and of course pop seemed to be everywhere. Clubs blared the latest global hits and local DJ’s papered walls will generic invitations to the hip place to be on whatever night. Jazz clubs had more 20-something wine snobs in line than true aficionados, but that’s not my scene so it might have just been circumstantial. I did see one older guy in a Bela Fleck shirt though. Hey Drew…found a ghost for your tour.
But on my last night in the city I stumbled on, of all things, a local black metal gig, and come out of the shadows the scene did. The small show at the club/bar was quite well attended and though two of the bands failed to live up to whatever their imagination had spun, one of the bands proved there might be hope somewhere in the shadows (one out of three ain’t bad?). Hordes of the Black Cross are an exceptional black metal band with all the right parts working in all the right ways. Effortless authenticity and love for the style. Great merch. I bought a shirt. Support local music, right? They wore their bullet belts and scowls well. The bassist was a black-metal-chick pheromone storm without revealing an ounce of unnecessary skin. Corpse paint can be sexy when done right. They didn’t wear the full masks either. It was jagged. Imperfect. Ghastly. They looked and sounded like…ghosts.
I wasn’t expecting to leave a fan of anyone, but I did. Maybe the ghosts have a pulse after all, no matter how faint. But while the gig acted as a reminder that sub-cultural forces are still running behind the scenes, the audience confirmed that those forces will stay in the background. It was a crowd, not a community. Not the inclusive and passionate gatherings I’ve come to love elsewhere. There was a feeling in the room that this is where they’d all stay. Faces were not angry or aggressive nor were they impassioned or inspired with black metal scowls of their own. They were, unsurprisingly, just kind of sad. Another night. Another round.
I walked back to my hotel that final night, hoping to catch at least a few hours of sleep before sis picked me up for the airport at 4:30am, and thought about Drew, the hipsters, the art galleries, the sad counterculture faces. I think that sadness was contagious. It’s not that the “other” is being pushed back in Melbourne that’s sad, it’s that it doesn’t push back. Not that every scene member needs to open a bookstore or start a band, but it couldn’t hurt. Hordes of the Black Cross is trying. Drew Sinton is trying. I passed one of those expensive and thriving restaurants—Le Bon Ton, where I had an exceptional meal just a few days prior. In the window I caught a glimpse of myself. Not the tourist looking for awesome food, but my post-gig visage. Perhaps my more true self. Black metal shirt. Cuffs. Satanic necklace. Hair down and a little long for my age. Looked sad.
Hey Drew…found a ghost for your tour.
song of the day – “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police