Before time could change her: Dorothy Porter (1954-2008)
"My lyrics are almost like [the] skeleton of the building."
At Sarsaparilla, the team has been tactfully eulogising (if that's the right word) Dorothy Porter and her work, praising the intensity and power of her readings and wondering, idly, if she'd have been a good dinner guest.
I regret to say I've never heard or seen Porter read. Nor have I had dinner with her... But we did breakfast once or twice. And, best of all, had a late lunch, one on one, near her home in Clifton Hill.
With those alert, agile, shrewd eyes -- those unruly eyebrows -- she sizes me up like a boxer might. She's animated, opinionated, articulate, breathtakingly honest and open.Before you get any ideas, the breakfasting happened at a B&B in Castlemaine, where we were both guests of the Castlemaine State Festival.
But it was an opportunity for my professional admiration-from-afar to morph into something much warmer and much stronger.
A few years after I met Dot and Andy, around the time the Paul Grabowsky/Katie Noonan recording of Porter's song cycle Before Time Could Change Us came out, I persuaded my editor at the Financial Review that it was a unique opportunity to talk to Porter about poetry, love and sex. (The Financial Review is far-and-away the least press-release-driven media outlet I've ever worked for. But the availability of talent is, all too often, determined by what's about to tour or open or be released!)
Grabowsky and Noonan were getting all the press and Porter's name, inexplicably, didn't even crack the cover of the digipack. Here's a chunk of what was published and, after the jump, plenty that wasn't published.
As a lyricist, Dorothy Porter belongs to the Joan Armatrading school of plausible deniability. "I want to stress that this isn't some kind of diary," she says, early in our conversation, about the 16 songs she wrote for Paul Grabowsky and Katie Noonan's new double CD release Before Time Could Change Us. "I'm telling a story."
Asked for a suite of 12 love songs, with the original brief that each might correspond to a sign of the Zodiac, Porter came back with an arc of 16 songs... the ultimate concept album of adult love.
It begins with warbling, bird-song, stratospherically-high denial ("love is tripe... trust me, you're not my type") and a heady lack of caution, and ends with a very adult realisation that the break-up actually kept the intensity intact. Preserved it in amber.
Instead of the usual break-up/break-down stuff which runs the gamut of emotions from 'ex' to 'why?', Porter's lyrics make a sly nod to the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy's knowing, transgressive, urbane poems from the early 20th century -- intimate and realistic -- made famous in English by Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.
Indeed, Porter adapts the set's title from one of Cavafy's poems about two young men serendipitously separated by fate. (Porter changes "them" to "us".)
She calls it the "we'll always have Paris" effect. The fond afterglow. Then adds another caveat: "Again, I stress that this is not some kind of confessional album. This is something I was commissioned to do. And it's a story."
Despite setting clear and uncrossable lines about what I'm not to write about -- "that's my private life" -- Porter is, in many ways, the ideal interviewee. With those alert, agile, shrewd eyes -- those unruly eyebrows -- she sizes me up like a boxer might. She's animated, opinionated, articulate, breathtakingly honest and open.
Porter was a great listener, a quick thinker and a robust conversationalist. I never once feared putting words in her mouth. She chose her words carefully. Near enough wasn't anywhere near good enough.
It's a hard thing to explain, but once you have confidence in the interviewee, that they're not going to take on your ideas or phrasing or world view out of courtesy... or laziness... you can speak as you would to a trusted friend. They will tell you what they really think. So, instead of boring old Q&A, you get real exchanges. Ricocheting exchanges.
Here, Porter is talking about Cavafy's poem and the sentiment within it.
[Dorothy Porter:] It's about two young blokes who meet and then, as he said, life acted like an artist and separated them... And the poem suggested that their feelings for each other, the intensity, is already waning.
[CHRIS BOYD:] SO IT'S CAPTURED IN GLASS...
In amber. A "we'll always have Paris" effect, I call it.
I WAS THINKING ON THE WAY HERE THAT PASSION IS SUPPOSED TO LAST FOR 30 MONTHS. AND I'M JUST HITTING THE 28 MONTH MARK WITH MY PARTNER!
[SOUNDING VERY MUCH LIKE CLIVE JAMES:] I'M NOT GOING TO ASK YOU ANYTHING I WOULDN'T ANSWER MYSELF!!
SEX STILL AMAZES ME. I'M 45 AND IT STILL AMAZES ME. SEX, PASSION, LOVE, ...
I'm 51, Chris, and it still amazes me. Sex, romance, passion... Still amazes me. I think, though, the other side of this coin is... the other side of the Before Time Could Change Us coin is the love that does endure.
I think where love is most heroic is where love endures, is where love goes beyond the "we'll always have Paris" stage.
THE BIG QUEST OF MY LIFE HAS BEEN TO EROTICISE FAMILIARITY...
Mm, mm. Exactly.
TO FIND SOMEONE WHO STILL WANTS ME AFTER THEY'VE GOT OVER THEIR NEED FOR ME...
Or their delusion of you. I mean, a lot of these songs are about epiphany moments, moments of delirium, moments of joy, erotic limerance, that sort of thing. But it's also disillusion and bitterness as well. And that crash. And I think the hard part -- cos these songs are an odyssey, they're a journey, almost in a medieval sense... Almost a lover's pilgrimage...
MORE LIKE A GRIM PILLAGE...
Exactly! But it's... What is tough... the bleaker songs... is this absence, is that sense of being haunted, when -- at the end of a love affair -- absence is stronger than presence.
I think this is where -- why people can become stalkers. There's a sense that you cannot believe that it's over. You cannot believe that this glorious, almost sublime, presence of another person -- who ravishes you from head to toe -- in your heart body and soul, is gone. Or doesn't love you any more, or whatever.
I ENVY THE WIDOWED...
Well. Exactly. I think in some ways... In a way it's a cleaner break!
A PURER BREAK
You can visit someone's grave but the grave of someone's love for you -- because you visit it on your own -- if they've moved on, they don't love you anymore.
I wanted a sense that there was a mutual experience in this cycle. A mutual love. An absolutely mutual love.
Things go wrong, but there's a sense that -- it's not that dreadful sense that it's just a complete waste of time, scorched earth, because some people -- I think some serial romantics leave behind this scorched earth
The lyrics are gender non-specific. I wanted this not to be something about "a girl done wrong by a boy" --
I DID LIKE THE "PRICK OF THE KNIFE" LINE...
I didn't want the Tammy Wynette thing! I wanted this to be something that a Frank Sinatra could sing as much as Katie Noonan or whoever... or a kd lang. It could be about girls. It could have a gay male context or it could be about a man and a woman. It doesn't matter.
That's why I just wanted to open up have a really really fluid -- and gender fluid as well -- so in other words it's not saying this is about a woman who's been absolutely done over by a dickhead bloke. I didn't want that. Or this is a girl who's met another girl. I didn't want it to have a ghetto flavour either. I wanted it to be, really be as crystalised as lyrics that anyone who's been through this experience would recognise.
But at the same time I wanted it to have this stoical finish, hence the last song is Before Time Could Change Us. Maybe it's a secret lesson.
MY RULE OF THUMB IS THAT IT TAKES ABOUT A YEAR TO GET OVER EACH MONTH OF A REALLY INTENSE RELATIONSHIP! SO I'M GONNA BE 70 BY THE TIME I GET OVER "THE SPEECH IMPEDIMENT". ALTHOUGH I CAN SAY HER NAME, NOW, WITHOUT STUTTERING!
[Excited] Yeah, I know, I know. I think... I was reading in New Scientist people can actually die of heartbreak. It's not just the whole hype of having a broken heart, people can actually become ill.
Often in Victorian novels people die of broken hearts. Apparently people can become physically... not just psychologically depressed or distraught, but physically ill.
ONE WORD I LOATHE IS 'CLOSURE'.
I hate that.
I'M LOOKING FOR APERTURE. [LAUGHS]
[Laughs, too, most musically, pauses, then:] I'm looking for harvest.
WHOA! LET ME THINK ABOUT THAT FOR A SEC...
I think the whole point about... It's a rich experience. It's something that you draw on. In a way my lyrics are a bit anti-therapy.
IN WHAT WAY?
I suppose I'm saying there isn't closure. This is a living thing. Memories are living things.
THERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU DON'T GET OVER?
Some things you don't want to get over. Everybody's wanting you to get over it... Do this, do that, get closure... In terms of experiences, there are rhythms. In some ways you don't get over it.
[From there we got onto Gore Vidal...]
Porter's career, as a poet, and more recently as a verse novelist, is built on her fascination with the pathology of emotion and love. The pathology of the erotic, too.
Excited, she tells me she had read in New Scientist that people can actually die of heartbreak. "It's not just the whole hype of having a broken heart, people can actually become ill!"
And she's morbidly interested, today, in Gore Vidal's autobiography and, in particular, with his schoolboy romance with "a straight boy", an American Marine who died as a teen. Vidal, Porter explains, idolised his dead lover and refused to free up the emotional space that he occupied so decisively. "He [Vidal] has made a conscious decision to spend the rest of his life in mourning."
She laughs, blackly, that "this bloke will never let him down by marrying some woman that Gore doesn't like. It's safe." Vidal's a "wound that never closes" artist.
Inevitably, too, Porter is a great admirer of the greatest poet from Lesbos: Sappho... the first Western poet to describe love's delirium; its physical symptoms. Porter shares Sappho's vernacular phrasing and her directness. Her economy and force. Cop this, from Porter's song 'Haunted':
Your ghost is still driving
my four a.m. insomnia
Your ghost is still ruffling
in the solitary shower
Your ghost is still driving
a hard bargain
with my haunted heart
Now read it again, aloud. Whisper it. See what I mean?
Porter has always struck me -- from near and far -- as a bright, joyful, delighted person. That provokes a cool, twinkling, gap-toothed smile. "In some respects..." She's lost for words momentarily, and uncharacteristically, then says: "I'll put it this way. I get a kick out of things. I get a kick out of life."
And, yes, Cole Porter is a spectral presence in some of the songs, especially Taking You On. Porter rates Cole Porter's Night and Day as one of the great love songs of all time. But points out that it was a song for a character -- a woman character -- in a stage musical.
"A lot of the [greatest] love songs are in fact dramatic monologues. I think lyrics will be richer if they're not just autobiographical cris de couer but that they are fictionalised, that they are crafted like any other work of art."
Porter has two other projects on the go at the moment. She is adapting her libretto for the Jonathan Mills opera Eternity Man for Channel Four in the UK, and she has just finished the first draft of a new verse novel, a "police procedural thriller" about a serial child killer set in Melbourne.
Funny, no-one's asking her if that's autobiographical.
Next stop, Sappho:
[Dorothy Porter:] She's the first Western poet to describe the physical symptoms of love: that fainting, sweating delirium... The Greeks regarded love -- well, romantic passion -- as a form of madness.
[CHRIS BOYD:] GUILTY AS CHARGED!
Exactly. So that's, basically, my take on all of this
MY IMPRESSION OF YOU -- FROM AFAR, AND WHEN I FINALLY DID MEET YOU -- IS OF A REALLY HAPPY, JOYFUL PERSON... JOYFUL'S NOT THE RIGHT WORD. IT'S MORE OF A SLOW-BURN.
In some respects... I'll put it this way. I get a kick out of things. I get a kick out of life.
[THE SONG] 'IN THE RIP' REMINDED OF COLE PORTER!
Absolutely. Cole Porter is a huge influence on the lyrics... On much that's going on in this.
YOU COULD DO A LOT WORSE! HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THAT?
[...] I've been really lucky in that I can -- I've made a living doing what I love. Not a huge living, but a living. I think that's been a great blessing.
THE OTHER WORD I WAS GOING TO USE WAS ACTUALISED...
TRYING TO AVOID USING 'CONTENT'. DIGGING WHAT YOU DO.
Yeah. I've had my... My life's had huge ups and downs. I love the natural world, and I can to an extent live in the present. I get joy out of things, and people too. But, yeah. Cut me and I bleed!
PUNCH ME AND I PUNCH BACK.
A lot of the great -- like Cole Porter songs -- a lot of the great love songs and so forth are in fact dramatic monologues. They're not songs from the heart from the... well, obviously the heart of the lyricist-slash-composer is engaged.
But, for example, 'Night and Day', Cole Porter's 'Night and Day', which is probably one of the great -- probably one of my favourite love songs of all time -- and I think one of his best, is a song for a character from the stage musical The Gay Divorcee. And it's a woman character.
I think particularly, Cole Porter as a gay man, probably gave him... writing for a female character probably gave him a little more scope.
But I think lyrics will be richer if they're not just autobiographical cris de couer but that they are in fact fictionalised, that they are crafted as if -- like any other work of art --
[Then I bang on about Ute Lemper and Nick Cave, and Porter bangs on about Joni Mitchell (especially Blue -- from 'All I Want' to 'The Last Time I Saw Richard' -- "I was thinking of that when I was writing this as well") and Machine Gun Fellatio! Yes, she was a big fan.]
[Pressed, on who she would love to write songs for...]
I'm very happy with actually who I've got. But, let's say I had all of... the quick and the dead to choose from. Let me stress I'm very happy with Paul and Katie, and very blessed with Paul and Katie too. But I'd love to write... I'd love to have written for Sinatra. And I'd love to write, I'd love to have written some songs -- music -- lyrics for him.
Not familiar enough. Or kd lang. I think kd lang some covers on her last album of other people's songs. I don't think kd lang's own songs are crash hot, particularly lyrically. And I thought "I'd love to have a crack at writing you a song!" Amazing voice.
From the dead, Frank Sinatra, from the living kd lang.
DO YOU ADMIRE [FAMOUS AUSTRALIAN SONGWRITER] AS A POET?
Bits and pieces. Not particularly... Song lyrics are not the same as poetry. I mean they... And I think sometimes with a song, for me, that [has] too much of a literary flavour or is too complex lyrically, doesn't work as a song. You get smothered with words.
I suppose what I wanted to write were words that breathed, that let the music soak through them. And that are very... that are bullets and go to their mark very quickly rather than people going "what's this fuckin' about?" I didn't want a thicket, I wanted something much more translucent.
That's what I was after.
BEFORE TIME COULD CHANGE US
We could say
we left each other
with nothing but heartache
we could shrug the memory
of our love away
as just sex, tears and play
We could mourn
We'll never grow old together
but perhaps we'll learn
was a blessing
Before time could change us
we loved each other
like crazy tigers
before time could blunt us
we treasured every wild
and fleeting moment
in each other's hungry
Before time could age us
we had boredom passionately
and stopped oh so briefly
of our lonely drifting lives
We could say
we left each other
with nothing but heartache
we could shrug the memory
of our love away
as just sex, tears and play
But parting was a secret blessing
parting did us a lovely
before time could change us
before time took our love's savour
That's how I feel about Dorothy Porter's death. This woman, who had a 54 year love affair with life, broke up with her "life partner" while the feelings were still strong. Before they tired of one another. Before time could change her.