From the Australian Newspaper Saturday April 17, 1999. (Big Weekend)
Paul Kelly acknowledges his influence and European rock fans went bananas over his group in the 80s, but former Triffids lead "singer' and lyricist, David McComb died in Victoria this year to little fanfare in his home town of Perth.
Tony Barrass, of the Writers Group, traces the rise and fall of a music hero
I knew him as a gentle young man,
I cannot say for sure the reasons for his
decline, we watched him fade before
our very eyes,
and years before his time. "
-Tender Is The Night, from the album Born Sandy Devotional, 1986.
IT IS both tragic and ironic that all too often we ignore our brightest stars until well after they've faded into the black. Dave McComb was not a household name but some suggest that no other West Australian recaptured in music the exhausting isolation of the WA bush as well as the fourth son of a Mosman Park surgeon and his geneticist wife.
The Triffids, the rock band McComb led, went on to become one of the biggest acts in Europe during the mid-1980s while inspiring the likes of Paul Kelly, arguably our most treasured songwriter, and a generation of now 30-something West Australians in a way few have.
Dave McComb died in February, just a few days short of his 37th birthday. A second heart, his transplanted, last chance at life, stopped. The coroner is still investigating the death and there is a suggestion that a car accident a few days earlier in suburban Melbourne was the catalyst. No one seems to know what happened. If they do, they're not saying, what is important is to acknowledge the outstanding talents of a troubled yet highly intelligent young man whose words often mirrored his life.
While heavily laden with irony, the title of a 1984- single, Beautiful Waste, could have summed up McComb's very existence. His words and the band's sound were purely, uniquely West Australian. On the cover of The Triffids' biggest album, Born Sandy Devotional, there is an aerial photograph of Mandurah circa 1961, showing a hamlet on a sandy river mouth. On he back cover of In The Pines (1987), recorded in a shearing shed on Woodstock, a property owned by the McComb family at Jerdacuttup, just outside Ravensthorpe in the south-east of the State, The 'Triffids stand in the bottom part of the picture, a wide open road stretching off beyond them to East Mount Barren, which borders the Fitzgerald River National Park near Hopetown. Lonely, harsh, haunting.
Well the drums rolled off in my forehead,
And the guns went off in my chest,
I Remember carrying the baby for you,
Crying in the wilderness,
I lost track of my friends, I lost my kin,
I cut them off as limbs,
I drove out over the Flatlands,
" Hunting down you and him.
The sky was big and empty,
MY chest filled to explode,
I yelled my insides out at the sun,
At the wide open road. "
- Wide Open Road, Born Sandy Devotional.
After school, they'd all hang together, these sons of the establishment. They came from privileged, well-moneyed backgrounds. Serious reputations.
There was Dave, son of plastic surgeon Dr Harold McComb and his wife, Dr Athel Hockey, a renowned geneticist, Richard Gunning, son of Perth judge Ivan Gunning, Phil Kakulas, son of
Professor Byron Kakulas, the award-winning neuro-pathologist, Allan (Alsy) Macdonald's late father, Bill, was professor of child health at UWA and his mum, Dr Judy Henzell, a well-known paediatrician. Julian Douglas-Smith's dad, Colin, was a gynaecologist. Byron Sinclair's dad was a psychologist. They went to Christ Church Grammar School, Alsy and Byron to Hollywood High. "There was a whole stack of us," recalled Dave's close friend Julian Douglas-Smith, whose father delivered Dave and his older brother and fellow
Triffid, Rob. "We were all just into music. We'd have these long, in-depth discussions about the make-up of our imaginary band which would go on for hours. -Waiting for the local newsagent to get the latest edition of New Musical Express was a most excruciating period. "Dave was always the coolest of us all. While "everyone else was playing sport, he'd be the one sitting underneath a tree reading something heavy. He hated sports but he had a brilliant brain, a sponge that would soak up everything, particularly 'literature," Julian Douglas-Smith said. Tony London, now principal at All Saints College at Bull Creek, who taught the young McComb. English in the !ate 1970s, said David was an extra-ordinary student.
He was one of those young people in class to whom you could, as a teacher, defer and refer," he said. "He was an alternative voice in the classroom and was an extremely creative writer. He often had a wry smile on his face. Indeed, he had a marvellous sense of irony." When they were about 15, the boys started recording their work on battered old tape decks in bedrooms, sleepouts, lofts and cellars. Most days after school they'd head to Thomsons Record Bar in Hay Street where theyd drive the 2 1 -year-old sales- woman mad with their constant requests and questions.
Dixie Battersby is now State manager for EMI Records: "They all used to come in and go through the albums. They were always just hanging around. They'd go for the more unusual stuff which was coming out of America or England, Graham Parsons, that sort of stuff, which wasn't getting any airplay around Perth. "Sometimes I'd slip Dave an album without the boss knowing and told him that he could take it home, but he wasn't allowed to scratch it. They'd do their own recordings on those old tape decks, and come in and play them for me. I remember once Dave brought in some of his words on a lyric sheet ' and they really blew me away. They were far beyond his years." Originally called Daisy, then Blok Musik, then finally The Triffids (after the John Wyndham novel), the band, with Rob McComb, a classically trained violinist, played parties and school dances and became regulars at The Stoned Crow in North Fremantle and the Broadway Tavern in Nedlands. Audiences were mesmerised by McComb's steely, haunting voice and intense lyrics. The Triffids stacked violin, at that time rarely seen on a rock stage, on top of crashing guitars, thumping drums and whimsical keyboards. McComb, full lipped and thin-hipped in his black stove-pipe jeans, pointy shoes, paisley shirts and black waistcoat, was the centre of attention.In January 1982, Dave, Rob, Alsy, a keyboard player named Margaret Gillard and Will Akers, the bass guitarist who worked part-time at Thomsons, headed east. By July, their biggest gig in Melbourne pulled 20 people, most of them friends and relatives. But after spending most of 1983 in the pubs and clubs around Surry Hills in Sydney the band, was starting to attract a significant following. Halfway through the year, Jill Birt, a youngster who grew up in Tambellup, replaced Gillard who had, returned home " months before Martyn Casey, a clever, talented bass guitarist, took over from Akers.
Their first album, Treeless Plain established ' the band ' as a small but promising player in the Australian music scene and by the end of 1983 The Triffids had set their sights firmly on London. By August 1984, they were in the UK attracting significant crowds and encouraging reviews in influential music publications such as Melody Maker. It was not long before they made the cover of the influential New Musical Express, the same mag, just a few years before, they had stood waiting for outside Claremont newsagents.
They returned to Australia and began their first national tour. The crowds were bigger, the booze backstage more plentiful and expensive. McComb, meanwhile, was evolving into the archetypal rock star. Cool-headed and suave, he had become the darling of underground. After picking up a bespectacled pedal and lap steel guitarist named Graham Lee, the band headed back to London and a few months later recorded ' their most critically acclaimed album, Born Sandy Devotional, which would be released a year later in Australia. The Europeans went bananas. In Belgium, Holland, Germany, France and particularly Scandinavia, The Triffids were big business. The fickle European rock press devoured the unusual sounds and, intriguing lyrics that captured Australia's intimidating landscape and in Belgium, they played to 70,000 fans. Midnight oil, then one of the biggest names in Australia, were billed below the band when Peter Garrett and his men were tackled the continent.
"No foreign pair of dark sunglasses,
will ever shield you from the light,
that pierces your eyelids, the screaming
of the gulls/feeding off the bodies of
the fish, thrashing up the bay until it was
red, turning the sty a cold, dark coloured ,
as they circled overhead. "
- The Seabirds, Born sandy Devotional
Jetting between Australia and London was now a regular occurrence for the band. While they weren't rolling in money, they were making enough to live on and the lifestyle was a dream come true. In Europe they were rubbing shoulders backstage with the likes of Peter Gabriel, The Pretenders, Iggy Pop and The Eurythmics. Island Records, whose cliental included U2, Bob Marley, Tom Waites and Steve Windwood, signed the band to a three-year deal worth about $100,000. Not a lot of money in rock star terms but enough to guarantee that The Triffids could record the acclaimed Calenture (1988) and Black Swan (1989). Returning to Australia for 'the Australia Made concert with INXS, The Divinyls, The Saints, Jimmy Barnes and Mental As Anything, The Triffids had finally attracted the attention of their peers, the music media and the fans. Before he played Subiaco Oval in front of 30,000 Sandgropers in 1987, McComb told music historian Glenn A. Baker: "We haven't turned our backs on Perth. It still plays quite an important part in our music and our lyrics. You can't judge Perth by its glossy image, sure, it's a very yuppified city, but there's lots of people, like me, who hate windsurfing. I despise water sports. There's more to Perth than 96FM, beach parties, Rottnest and yachting."
In the meantime, Born Sandy Devotional reached number 27 on the UK charts and the Scandinavian rock press voted it Album of the Year. Sounds rock paper voted The Triffids "the best live band in the country". On August 14, 1989,.on Alsy Macdonald's 28th birthday, the band played the Australian National University. After seven hectic years, they decided to have a three month break.
By this stage, Alsy and Jill had fallen in love and Dave had met his long-term girlfriend' Joanne Alach. The younger McComb also wanted to expand his writing and do something solo. The days of The Triffids were over.
Dave, well-travelled, mildly successful and relatively well connected, then moved back to London where he stayed for three years with Joanne, painting, visiting art galleries, writing songs, poems and fiction. By the time he had returned from England in 1993, McComb's health was deteriorating. "His intake of drugs and alcohol took a serious turn after the band," say Alsy Macdonald. "Perhaps because he was feeling insecure about the direction he was going to take-perhaps he realised air a couple of years that; the band gave him a considerable amount of security and guidance which he wasn't able to find a replacement for."
By early - 1994, McComb was seriously ill. Respiratory problems complicated a heart condition which had since been disposed. The circulation in his legs was poor, resulting in him often sitting on stage during solo performances. Despite this, he signed a deal with Mushroom Records and released the dark and moving Love of Will, a 1 3 track CD. Not long after, Dave McComb got a new heart.
But the two didn't get on. Constantly uncomfortable, Dave buried himself in his music and writing while doing guest spots on Radio National as a film and television commentator and contributed to Triple 'J's arts program. What was once a 1.88m, angular, commanding frame became a podgy bent-over physique, hindered by hernia and propped up by walking sticks. On February 2 this year, in his Bank Street, Northcote, house, Dave McComb's heart stopped.
His death barely raised a ripple in the mainstream press, but Rage, ABC TV's all- night video show, did a tribute to McComb and The Triffids and Triple J did a similar retrospective on his life. The grief within the Australian music industry was deep and real. Without question, McComb, described in the 1980s by New Musical Express as "one of the least superficial pop authors of the decade" had a significant and substantial influence on Australian "I remember one night at the Burswood Casino, it must have been in about 1990," recalled Steve Gordon, a WA music notable. "The Western Australia Music Industry had this big event at the showroom and someone announced the winner of the most outstanding WA contribution to the national and international music scene. It was The Triffids.
"There was a young woman who was working at the show serving drinks. All of a sudden, she put down her tray, walked up on stage in her Burswood uniform and collected the prize. It was Jill Burt, the keyboardist. While the rest of the music industry was sitting around in black ties and tuxes, the only person from the band who was there to accept the award was serving them drinks. It was very telling."
At his low-key Melbourne funeral a few days after his death, they played the prophetic, moody Leaning, off McComb's last album, Love of Will.
"Well his hands are cold,
and there 's a shadow on his heart,
sometimes you can 't even see him but
you know he's there beside you in the dark,
pain behind the eyes,
electricity across the skin,
Sometimes you can't even feel him,
but if you leave an open heart
you 'll know that he 'll come in .
I was quite convinced,
there was no one there at all,
but I felt someone touch me,
and I think I know what for
Now I'm leaning, leaning,
safe and secure from all alarm, '
yes, I'm leaning, leaning,
leaning 'on the everlasting arms. "
- Leaning, Love of Will, 1994.
I don't know that Dave ever became that big that he could be forgotten in the first place, "Alsy MacDonald said when considering whether history would treat his friend well. "I don't really know if he's been discovered in the first place, but when he is, I think it will be instantly apparent how important his type of writing, his words, were in the1 980s in Australia. At some stage the future when people have cause to read his words and listen to The Triffids again, it will surprise them and hopefully delight them how significant that music was for the time it was created."
The Triffids have all moved on. Alsy is now a lawyer for the Equal Opportunity Commission in Perth, clean cut and happy. His wife Jill, the keyboardist and mother of their three children, is about to become an architect. Rob McComb has returned to teaching in Melbourne and Phil Kakulas plays double bass for Black Eyed Suasions, a band Dave Co-founded in1989. Martyn Casey plays bass for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, one of the country's top bands. Graham Lee makes a good living as a guest musician, Julian Douglas-Smith works as a sound engineer in Leederville while Richard Gunning continues to make a name for himself as a painter .In a few months, Dave McComb will return to the brown, flat plains of Jerdacuttup. His family will bury his ashes in the pines that pepper Woodstock, the- family property. And heart will at last be as one with an earth that inspired such a remarkable young life.