Songs about Brisbane – 7: John Kennedy’s ’68 Comeback Special
If there’s one thing I find genuinely irritating about Brisbane’s music scene (and that list is a lot shorter than most people would think), it’s that everyone is always trying to give it an angle. We are The Next Big Thing, The Cultural Backwater, The Experimental Sound Capital. We’re on the cusp of greatness, forcing our acts out of the city or, as one former Brisbane-based musician told me, just plain cursed. There’s always some kind of dramatic context to Brisbane.
This is the main reason why I love John Kennedy’s ‘Brisvegas’. Released on Kennedy’s 10th studio album Someone’s Dad in 2007, I’ll happily describe ‘Brisvegas’ as a cracking tune regardless of subject matter but it’s Kennedy’s breezy handling of his troublesome relationship with Brisbane that really makes me love the song. Kennedy has more reason than most to be bitter about Brisbane but at no point does ‘Brisvegas’ descend into accusations or self-pity.
“Went back home to see my family/Booked a gig at Ric’s Cafe/The friends and fans of yesteryear were all dead or stayed away/It’s like as if I threw a party and nobody came/So Brisbane is it you or me – is it you or me to blame?” Kennedy opens, sounding every bit like the Costello acolyte he’s been positioned as over the past 20 years, before eventually concluding “…I must have sang my song about leaving Brisbane one too many times”.
The singer-songwriter left the city in the early 80s with his band JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis to seek success in Sydney and, since that point, has eked out a modest solo career with a variety of backing ensembles (the most recent being the ’68 Comeback Special) but was never caught up in the wave of post-Pig City nostalgia that elevated all too many of his contemporaries to more popular recognition.
The lyrics may sound somewhat depressing but, with Kennedy’s sharp delivery and the song’s mid-tempo country backdrop, they take on a light-hearted air of contemplation which changes the dynamic completely. There is an undercurrent of dismay to Kennedy’s songwriting but it’s bittersweet and good-humoured – not elitist and entitled. The chorus of the song? “I love you, Brisbane. I don’t want to fight.”
The reason I love the song is Kennedy’s refusal to take an explicit stance on Brisbane. There are clearly plenty of emotions tied up in the situation for Kennedy and the songwriter makes explicit references to several Brisbane-centric images and ideals (Grant McLennan, Spring Hill, Ric’s Cafe) but at no point does Kennedy attempt to capture Brisbane. Indeed, in the line “Then I found my old town Brisbane was leaving me behind”, Kennedy admits he doesn’t really know his city anymore.
There are no angles to ‘Brisvegas’. It is not a song about how great Brisbane is or its conservative values or anything else. It’s merely one man’s reflection on his relationship to his former hometown. This is how people should always talk about Brisbane – not as some two-dimensional entity of contrived importance or mythology, but as a city. You live in it, you do things – that’s all it is and all it should ever be.