It was a dream partnership: a poet who thrived on rock music and a rock musician with a poetic soul.
In 1994, Tim Finn read Dorothy Porter’s genre bending verse novel The Monkey’s Mask. He loved the book. But there was something else. In those short, punchy lines of poetry he perceived a natural lyricist. He reached for pen and paper and wrote to Dorothy suggesting they collaborate on some songs.
Dorothy Porter was in thrall to music. It was the rock music of the 1960s, she always said, that made her a poet. She had listened to and admired Tim’s work for years. The prospect of a collaboration with him was irresistible.
And the time was right: two artists with limitless imagination and eager for creative risk-taking.
For the first time in his life Tim had his own studio. Located in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, he was in an exploratory phase, extending his musical boundaries into strange and new territory. While his focus during 1994 had shifted from performance to composing, he nonetheless had formed a new band with two Irish friends. The band was called ALT, deliberately evoking the alternative music that was its domain. The more experimental musical space in which Tim found himself was also reflected in the fact he was the group’s drummer.
At the same time, he was observing changes in the way young people were approaching popular music. The Gen Xs were open to music from times other than their own. They were listening to Janis, to Jimi, to Jim Morrison, and they were as excited by this music as had their parents been thirty years earlier. The idea of having these past gods infusing new work started to emerge. Musically, it was a time when anything seemed possible.
In the suburb of Elwood, just a few kilometres from Tim’s studio, Dorothy Porter was between books. The Monkey’s Mask had become a best seller – a rare anomaly in the world of poetry. Not tempted to write The Monkey’s Mask 2 despite considerable pressure to do so, Dorothy was in no hurry to embark on her next book. With time on her hands and her ravenous imagination on sabbatical from any specific project, Dorothy, like Tim, was ripe for anything.
In December 1994, the two of them met for the first time. Tim shared with Dorothy his musings about Janis, Jimi and Jim and other greats of the 1960s and 70s. These were the gods of Dorothy’s own music pantheon, and they would figure in the songs she would write.
But for the central theme she chose love – not warm, fuzzy, walk-off-into-the-sunset love, but blind, explosive, knock-you-off-your-feet love. The exquisite ecstasy of an unspoiled, idealised love had been a recurring theme in Dorothy’s work – as had its aftermath of pain and misery when the beloved turns out to be all too human.
Dorothy Porter wrote most of the lyrics in a six-week period of white heat during December-January, 1994-95. An explosive new love begins in the Victorian town of Ballarat of all places (‘Will Ballarat ever be the same’). Some of the lyrics are laugh-aloud funny: ‘I’m always sick or sober, I’m just a boring little dag’. Others reflect the pain and poignancy when love grabs you by the throat: ‘Today I want to swim in black water…black water tastes sweeter than stale happiness.’ With each song she added a note regarding musical style; ‘dark, slow and dreamy’ (Off the Planet), ‘bitter-sweet, brooding & slow – smoky’ (Talking in my Sleep), ‘punchy, staccato beat’ (New Friends).
For Tim, Dorothy’s words and imagery were ‘intoxicating and liberating’. He went into his studio and, like Dorothy, he wrote in white heat. The result is an astonishing variety of music that is as breath-takingly original as the words. From the joyful rock of ‘Like Janis’ to the eerie, evocative murkiness of ‘Black Water’ each song has a distinctive quality and power.
There was no specific discussion about what they would do with the songs, although Dorothy, long confined to the tiny poetry world, had visions of going gold, then platinum and ultimately taking on the world. In the autumn of 1995, Tim invited twenty-two-year-old Abi Tucker to the studio. He had heard her sing at a concert in Sydney, an explosive rendition of the 1960s hit ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’.’ Both the voice and the presence of this young singer were a perfect match for the songs.
Abi had just finished work on Heartbreak High, and was soon to leave for London where she would land a music development deal with EMI. She was thrilled by Tim’s invitation.
Dorothy, Tim and Abi went into the studio one autumnal evening. What emerged were the earliest versions of the songs that now comprise The Fiery Maze. Abi, hoarse from a cold, let herself rip, Tim let her have her head, and Dorothy at last saw poetry displayed in neon as she always thought it should. (She was often heard to say that poets should play huge venues just like rock stars.)
They taped the songs, but with no plans for a commercial recording, Tim, Dorothy and Abi went their own way. As the years passed. Dorothy continued to listen to the songs, and at some point, responding to an inexplicable but insistent urging to preserve the songs, Tim transferred the original recordings to a digitised form.
Early in 2008, Tim proposed that he and Dorothy shape the songs into a rock musical. She loved the idea and plunged in. But just as the project was gathering momentum, Dorothy Porter died.
Six years later, in 2014, Abi Tucker contacted Tim, to inquire about ‘those songs’. It was ‘Black Water’ in particular that wouldn’t leave her alone, a song she describes as ‘a cracker’. She wanted to hear it again, she wanted to sing it again. Tim contacted me and The Fiery Maze, a show that charts a wild, risky destructive love affair came into being.
Twenty years have passed since the songs were written. Inspired by the great gods of rock music, these songs tell a universal human story of love. They are seductive, lyrical, brilliant. They are The Fiery Maze.
The Fiery Maze is playing at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne from 20th August to 5th September, with previews on 18th and 19th August. Further information is available from the Malthouse website www.malthousetheatre.com.au
(Performance photographs taken during rehearsals 12/8/16. Tim Finn is on keyboards, drums and guitar, Brett Adams on guitars, Abi Tucker is singing.)