No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church

January 01, 1970

 (Verse Chorus Press)




Robert Dean Lurie really likes the Church.


In fact, Lurie is the sort of fan who writes, with perfect
seriousness, “The Church’s concert on the University of Minnesota
campus in June 1990 was quite possibly the first spiritual experience of my
life.” He goes on to describe himself as a person who spent high school
scribbling down Church lyrics in notebooks, who catalogued Xeroxed press
clippings and, later with the advent of the Internet, spent hours on
Church-related message boards.


In the summer of 2003, Lurie had an opportunity that
obsessive fans the world over might salivate over. To research No Certainty
, he travelled to Australia
for a series of interviews with Church founder Steve Kilbey, guitarist Peter
Koppes and assorted contemporaries.  (He doesn’t
seem to have talked to Marty Willson-Piper.) 


As a result, there’s a hero worship dynamic to the book that
is its primary strength and occasional weakness. It also must have been obvious
from the start. Kilbey, who met Lurie for one interview, then agreed to a
series of them, ended their first encounter by observing: “I’ve been in your
shoes. I’ve met my heroes. I’ve felt the disappointment when I realized they
were human beings. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, Robert, even
though I think no one will ever read this book. No one will want it. No one is
interested in me or the Church.”


Well, no one except Lurie…


And that, paradoxically, makes the book interesting on
several levels. For one thing, Kilbey is an undeniably fascinating character,
moody and mercurial at best, a bit psychotic at worst, at various times in the
band’s history an egomaniac and a Buddhist, a heroin addict and a devoted
family man. Lurie’s unblinking interesting in everything about his hero
necessarily sheds light on the band’s process and personality.    


Yet there is also often a
disconnect between what Kilbey is telling Lurie and the worshipful light that
Lurie places him under.  The chapters on
Kilbey’s heroin use (starting about 1990, as the band frittered away the
massive success of Starfish), for instance, are extraordinarily neutral.
“Steve credits the fluid, rhythmic sound of Priest=Aura to the band’s
use of opiates,” Lurie writes – yes, heroin addiction has an upside — while
dispassionately observing that Kilbey, at about the same time, left his live-in
girlfriend and two infant daughters to pursue his addiction.


You might call it journalistic
objectivity, except that these relatively straightforward reporting passages
alternate with more personal reactions to the Church’s music. Nearly every
chapter concludes with several pages of track-by-track descriptions of whatever
the band had been working on during the period in question. Lurie makes an
attempt to integrate narrative with criticism, but there are still frequent
gear-shifts as we go from considering band member dust-ups, romantic
relationships, drug buys etc., to line-readings and music reviews.


Still, you can’t fault Lurie’s
attention to detail. The book, based on many hours of interviews, exhaustive
reading and a lifetime of simply paying attention to the Church, is detailed
and correct enough to win rave reviews on Church fan sites like Hotel Womb. Yet
he often focuses so hard on the band and its personalities as to fail to create
wider context. In one of the few sections where he does this – and one of the
most interesting to me — Lurie probes the different perceptions of the Church
in the United States and Australia.
In the US,
the Church was seen as part of the semi-underground college rock phenomenon,
alongside bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements. But in Australia, they had broken their
first single on a top-40 television and signed almost immediately to a major.
Down under, bands like the Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens were considered
underground – but definitely not the Church. But in other sections, other bands
hardly merit a mention, and non-musical events (which surely have as much
influence on the Church as other bands) don’t even make a ripple.


And yet while Lurie’s fan-hood
never completely disappears, the intensity of his contact with Kilbey, the
immersion in detailed research eventually transforms his love for the Church
into a less mystical kind of experience. “In getting that access, I too had
traded something away: the all-consuming passion, the fanaticism that had so
animated my teenage and early adult interests in this band,” he says. “The
understanding that my favorite band was comprised of complicated and fallible men,
rather than gods, came as both comfort and inspiration.” Er, yeah, and
also as breaking news.


Super fans will love this book,
but I’m not sure it will win The Church many new converts.












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