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INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Adam Gibson: Exploring the feeling to find its own form—a lifelong journey through music and words

From watching his famous Big Band leader father play, Adam Gibson found his way into music via a path which combined words and music, but was not conventional ‘song’. Rather, he found another form in which to create something unique… .

Written by: Adam Gibson

I feel like my father Bob Gibson was born in a bandleader’s tuxedo. In my mind’s eye I can see him up there on a stage, baton in hand, bathed in stage-light glinting off his glasses, arms held aloft as he conducts his big band through a rousing tune, perhaps Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, perhaps Woody Herman’s version of The Golden Wedding. It could be at Festival Hall in Brisbane or the Sydney Town Hall or the Sydney Opera House or the United Nations concert hall in New York.

Bob Gibson – family archiveA life played out upon a stage, his ‘Bob Gibson Orchestra’ and various forms of his ‘Big Band’ taking the spotlight across decades, reaching in reverse from his death in 1999 right back through the years, playing the Trocadero or Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney or the Palm Grove or Earl’s Court in Melbourne—the ‘best band in the country’, showing the way through the Big Band and Swing era in Australia in the mid-20th century, his signature arrangements of the tunes and songs of the day lighting up the sprung dancefloors and burning bright beneath the lights for a generation. Later it was as musical director for his best mate Bobby Limb’s popular television show, The Sound of Music, or conducting the orchestra for The Ford Show, where his band formed the main backing outfit for Louis Armstrong on his Australian tour of 1956.

By the time my brother Simon and I were born in the late 1960s, our father was in his mid-50s and had been a musical star in Australia for decades. Of course, we had no idea of that as small children. As we grew up, the big names of the era were just familiar faces passing by. They were the people we met day-to-day—Ted Hamilton, Bobby Limb, Dawn Lake, Helen Reddy, June Bronhill, Jack Neary, Betty Parker—dad’s friends who called up on the landline, famous people in whose houses we stayed and with whose children we played. And there would always be a concert occurring at some point, my brother and I exploring in wonder the hotel rooms we stayed in, the smoky backstage rooms we often went to sleep in, the sound booths and the ‘green rooms’ of the Opera House or Her Majesty’s or the State Theatre in which we ran amok, as if we owned ‘em.

Bob Gibson with Simon and Adam

Music and performing just seemed the natural thing for people to do. It was an unquestionable part of life. Didn’t everyone know this? Didn’t everyone’s dad have a big band which played on stages across the world or who arranged such advertising jingles as the iconic Happy Little Vegemites tune? Wasn’t this normal?

No, of course it wasn’t, and I now realise how fortunate we were to be born into such a world. We saw the best musical minds of the generation in Australia up close, and our father was leading the band up there on stage, tuxedo on like a second skin, a quick wink every now and then to us and mum Joanie down in the audience. This was the role model I was presented with. There was a clear pathway from normal day-to-day life onto a stage; it wasn’t something daunting or impossible—it seemed an eminently achievable thing to do. Indeed, it was almost something expected.

Thus, at about age fourteen I began saxophone lessons, tootling away under the instruction of great Australian saxophonists Dave Rutledge and Ronny Nairn, practising endless scales on an alto sax with a pair of socks shoved down the bell, hoping the neighbours of our North Bondi home weren’t getting too annoyed. However, despite that upbringing of swing and jazz and classical music, mine and my brother’s tastes were piqued early on by punk and alternative guitar-based groups, notably The Clash and Midnight Oil, along with other bands that were springing up in coastal Sydney in the ‘70s and ‘80s, from Radio Birdman to the Celibate Rifles and The Sunnyboys and onto the alternative guitar pop of The Hummingbirds and the Happy Hate Me Nots. Soon after that, my brother (playing drums) formed a surf/punk band with a bunch of local mates— Bondi, in the late ‘80s, still being an unkempt working-class place where garage bands could form and blast out loud guitar music accompanied by longnecks of beer in the hot afternoons after a day’s surfing.

That band, The Few, later morphed into a more free-flowing affair we named Raindance Orange, allowing me to join on saxophone, my still-rudimentary skills not a problem as I followed melodic lines rather than actually playing solos—more X-Ray Spex than Charlie Parker, let’s just say. And it was during this time that I also began to focus on writing down the words that were coming into my mind. I began filling notebooks with poems, scraps, half-ideas, random thoughts. A teenage rites-of-passage reading of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road blew my mind and coincided with the revelatory realisation that it was possible to write about the ‘Australian’ things I saw around me, thanks directly to the first four Midnight Oil albums.

Jack Kerouac, photo by Tom Palumbo c. 1956, Creative Commons

Here was a band talking about things I knew. They were talking about the great ‘long coast road’ of my surfing dreams, they were talking about Lismore in the night, they were talking about frangipani and ocean-sky-blue and ‘the promise of a swell or a girl’. This was a real revelation to me. A torrent of ideas was unleased. The Oils gave me the key to suddenly realising I didn’t need to be American or English to be valid—it was possible to be Australian and write/talk about Australian things and give them due credit. Marrying with the idea of ‘music’, my words soon became lyrics for the original songs we were constructing. Coastal-oriented juvenilia this stuff may have been—songs about ‘acid rain’ and loves lost in the salt-sea night—but it felt thrilling and relevant, giving me the first glimpse of a pathway to express the creative urges I had within.

And, as we practiced a couple of times a week in our house’s downstairs room, our dad, getting into his mid-to-late 70s now, wouldn’t bat an eyelid (or cover an ear) as we blasted out these songs with big amps and a full drum kit, with no sound insulation whatsoever on the walls. In fact, I now look back and realise how proud he was that we were making music at all. It wasn’t his style of music, of course, and every now and then he’d pop his head over the bannister and say, ‘that guitar is out of tune’, but I now realise he saw that we were doing something for the pure joy of music. Making a noise, feeling our way through chords and chaos and volume towards something that felt right.

But amongst all this, as my bandmates’ proficiency with their instruments grew by the week, my own playing seemed to stall—I practised and practised but I soon realised something. The genetic hand-me-down of pure natural musical ability may have reached my brother but, to be honest, it missed me. I had the urge, I had the desire, I had the feeling but, to my frustration, the gift eluded me. I concurrently realised I also didn’t possess a natural or confident singing voice and this was overall a profound and difficult realisation, something I struggled to come to terms with.

And yet, the artistic gene seemed to flow easily towards the written word. I found I could express things that others seemed to feel meant something, that articulated our world in a certain successful way. It was at this point that I became further obsessed with the Beat Generation of American writers and from that, two important factors came to me. In the madness of his life, Kerouac had written novels and poems which changed a generation, and it was within a piece called Rules for Spontaneous Prose that the line which has ever since been my mantra was contained. Kerouac’s ‘Rules’ are a mish-mash collection of wisdom and advice, aphorisms and poignant suggestions for budding writers and artists. The key one for me is: ‘Something you feel will find its own form’. Wow! This made absolute sense to me, and I put my absolute trust in that. I knew that I felt something I needed to express but I just didn’t know the form of it. Yet.

It was Kerouac again who provided me with an idea of what that form may be.

Scouring the racks of guitar music and punk and various independent obscurities at Waterfront Records in the Sydney CBD one afternoon around 1989, I came across a record entitled Poetry for the Beat Generation. This was a release by Jack Kerouac accompanied by US pianist and TV icon Steve Allen, Kerouac mostly ‘speaking’ his poems with subtle and sympathetic backing by Allen on piano. I bought it and very quickly I was obsessed with it. Here was Kerouac speaking directly about his life in a spoken word form, a raw and rhythmic cadence that blended with the music to form a compelling whole. It wasn’t poetry like the T. S. Eliot or Coleridge we had read back in school, the words locked to the pages and seemingly getting older and dustier with the passing years. Rather, it felt free and alive and vital, the words carried further by the music, and vice-versa. It was a huge revelation for me, hitting with a punk-like power akin to The Clash or Sex Pistols, in the sense that it provided me with a breakthrough idea.

Suddenly, something that I had long felt was presented with the form in which it could be articulated. I could marry my love for the written word with my love for music and it didn’t need to depend necessarily on musical virtuosity or singing ability. I could write my words, I could ‘speak’ them and, if I found the right musicians, I could possibly create something new, something different, something right for me. An excavation process began; I filled dozens of books with thousands of words, unintentionally creating a vast archive of material for later use. In the early 2000s I began playing bass in a band called Modern Giant with my brother and friends. At the same time I kept exploring the ‘spoken word’, developing my skills in the Sydney performance poetry scene, getting up on endless stages in inner-city pubs and at random events, performing to rowdy crowds, gaining confidence and experience in my writing and performance, hitting upon what worked and what didn’t, finding my overall ‘voice’ amongst a milieu of word-lovers and associated barflies and boozers.

It was during a rehearsal with Modern Giant that all of this finally began to properly coalesce. The band had been playing mainly guitar-pop songs written by singer-guitarist Gynia Favot, singer-guitarist Andy Meehan and my brother Simon. During a break in rehearsal, I played a bass line and Gynia, just mucking around, followed on guitar. I said, ‘Keep playing that!’ Thus, she did. I stopped playing bass and began ‘speaking’ one of the poems that I’d been performing at open mic nights. The rest of the band filtered in and began playing and, suddenly, the feeling I had long sought had found its form. That ‘poem’ became a ‘song’ called The Band’s Broken Up, and it became a vital part of our set, along with several other spoken word tracks, often with verse-chorus song structure. Combining with the pop-rock of the other songs, the band developed a split-personality, gaining traction thanks in equal measure to both aspects. A door opened and everything started to become clear.

Modern Giant – The Band Has Broken Up, Popboomerang Records

 However, for miscellaneous reasons, Modern Giant ended within a couple of years and I found myself at a loose end. I loved what we’d been doing with the band but decided to head to Paris to pursue my writing dreams, aspiring to write a novel. These longer-form writing ambitions were however largely drowned in wine in the Montmartre nights. For eight months I barely saw a pure beam of sunlight as I lived in a tiny apartment near the Sacré-Coeur. An earlier novel manuscript I’d written called Blinding Sunlight had been shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award and had attracted interest from publishers. For one reason or another, it didn’t get over the line, but I was encouraged by a major publisher to ‘write another novel and we’ll see how that goes’. Thus, I set out with this  intention, following every cliché and going to Paris to give it a crack. Paris offered crowded Metro trains, late nights in smoky bars and a deep eventual loneliness that no amount of red wine could conquer. And I barely wrote a word.

Things weren’t feeling right, so when an offer came to relocate to Northern Ireland I took the opportunity gladly. The house where I was to stay was located in a tiny village called Dundrum, in County Down. It was February and it was freezing and, for whatever reason, the writing began to flow again. The only problem was it wasn’t writing for my intended novel. It was fragmentary stuff, snippets of ideas, poems, stanzas for song lyrics, all with some underlying sense of longing for sunlight, longing for warmth and fresh air and an open landscape. Essentially, it was a longing for Australia. Echoing Hemingway’s idea about America, I had to go to the other side of the world to be able to see Australia more clearly. But seeking to not stem the flow of words after months of inactivity, writing-wise, I just let it go, my visions of, and desire for, that landscape of home growing every day. So I kept writing every day to capture that.

The icy February of 2007 turned to a damp March, my time in Europe was coming to an end and I was left pondering my options as I felt the cold seeping deeply into my bones. It was time to go home to the blinding sunlight and within two days I was on a plane back to Australia. Flying via Singapore, the plane took a route diagonally NW to SE down across the country and I remember opening my window-shade to see the deep red earth of the Kimberly down below. The longing for the Australian landscape that I had held within, which I had put on hold for months in Europe, broke inside me and I felt an overwhelming excitement about my own life and the possibilities that may be present in my home country. I peered out the window, mesmerised by the deep fissures and tracks of rivers, the fuzzed green-white outlines of salt pans, the red corrugated unknown ranges, the jig-sawed plains, the fly-blown wilderness that looked like it was all baking in the purest sun.

Aerial view of MacDonnell Ranges and soil erosion, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory. October 1986. Photo by Robert Kerton

My eyes were aerial mapping the land, I felt, lodging the cracks and lines and earth deep within me. And then I remembered an old phrase. ‘The Aerial Maps.’ It was a name I’d toyed with years before for an earlier band project but had pretty much forgotten about it. But right at that moment, it came back to me, and with an attendant clear vision. Suddenly, all those things I’d been writing felt like they had an outlet. By the time I’d landed in Sydney, the whole concept had formed in my head. A band called The Aerial Maps in which the core was spoken word stories (mostly) about Australia, about the landscape and people and other attendant visions I’d had thereof. It all made complete sense and felt right.

Within a few months I had gathered a collection of people, led by key collaborator Simon Holmes from one of my favourite bands, The Hummingbirds, and my brother. I briefed them on the concept of ‘spoken word with music’ and booked a few days in Damien Gerard Studios in Rozelle, Sydney. In less than a month, we had recorded eleven tracks and we suddenly realised we had made an album, which we titled In the Blinding Sunlight, and which was later released by a Melbourne label Popboomerang in 2008.

We subsequently went on to play a heap of shows as The Aerial Maps, with various members coming and going, with myself, Simon Holmes and Sean Kennedy becoming the core of the band. Tours of Melbourne and Brisbane and all points in-between. It was a niche thing we were pursuing—spoken word storytelling with musical backing—but it seemed to work, and a lot of people seemed to be into it. In the Blinding Sunlight found its way into various nooks and crannies, the band receiving correspondence from all over Australia and, to our ongoing surprise, further afield from places such as Scandinavia and Italy and Brazil. Something had struck a chord.

On the back of that, we recorded a second album, which came to be a narrative/song-cycle record called The Sunset Park, released in 2012. Again, we toured a lot and played many shows, and I felt the whole idea of the band was validated. After a couple of years, however, my brother moved overseas, Simon Holmes moved out of central Sydney, Sean started working full-time as a producer at the ABC and I got busy with other things, meaning The Aerial Maps went into an unintended and extended hiatus. During this time, I formed another band called The Ark-Ark Birds, playing a bunch of Maps tunes but also newer stuff co-written with my brother. Then the unexpected happened—in 2017, Simon Holmes passed away.

After a period of shock and devastation, I realised that you aren’t afforded too many things in life that feel truly ‘special’. To me, The Aerial Maps was one of those things. Under that banner, everything I’d been striving to do with music and words and performance for years just felt correct and aligned. Thus, with Simon Holmes’ former Hummingbirds’ bandmate Alannah Russack on board, along with Crow’s Peter Fenton, plus Mark Hyland and my brother, I reignited the band. In a quick burst of inspiration, we recorded an entire new album, Intimate Hinterland, which ended up being released in late 2021.

That album was launched to a full house in inner-Sydney in November 2021. And as we played that show, I realised that I was only a couple of years away from the age when my father was when I was born. And there I was, ‘leading’ a band up there on a stage. Sure, the music was vastly different, and it wasn’t the Opera House or Her Majesty’s, and the entire world had changed since Bobby’s passing in 1999, but something felt strangely ‘full-circle’. I’d excavated my life and experience to discover a way to express the creative drive I had within, along with striving to honour my father’s memory, and whilst I wasn’t wearing the old bandleader’s tuxedo, something felt true and right and correct. And natural. I had the clear realisation that something I had long felt had truly found its own form. And I reckon my dear old dad would be beaming at that thought, all these years later.

‘The Aerial Maps’, latest photo.  Left to right – Mark Hyland, Adam Gibson, Alannah Russack, Peter Fenton with drummer Jasper Fenton _

Adam Gibson is a Sydney performer, lyricist, musician, and artist whose work covers music, spoken word storytelling, songs, installation art, performance works, sculpting, video work, painting, and photography. His work is fundamentally ‘landscape-based’, being influenced by the land and travel and the sense of being ‘in’ and/or part of different environments, and the stories of the people who inhabit such land, with Australian stories, language, and vernacular turn of phrase being very important. He is lead vocalist for the band The Aerial Maps, who have released three albums, plus he has released two albums with Adam Gibson and the Ark-Ark Birds. The most recent Aerial Maps album, Intimate Hinterland, was released in late 2021 to critical acclaim.

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