Guitar Wolf played at The Tote last night, a typical rocker bar in the Smith Street area of Melbourne. But there was nothing typical about this pre-New Year's sweat and noise fest. With nearly an hour and a half of leather-clad, sweat-drenched three-chord madness, GW proved yet again why Japanese rock is the heir to the punk throne long since left abandoned in favor of studio-driven drivel. Mildly familiar with the names of Guitar Wolf's songs, I still couldn't tell you a single song that they played last night. I doubt anyone else at the show could've, either. But it just didn't matter, to me or, judging by the equally-sweat drenched crowd, them. Clad in leather pants, a motorcycle jacket - no shirt - and so much perspiration that it looked like he'd been doused in vegetable oil, GW barely stopped to pass out. Falling over from exhaustion numerous times, he crowd-surfed without stopping the auditory onslaught. He belted out lyrics that sounded more like the engine from a chopper than something human, and didn't even blink when an audience member jumped up on-stage and then dove off into the roiling mosh pit. You'd think that not being able to understand the songs might make the show boring, but with GW, and punk in general, it was an asset. This virulent, infectious strain of charismatic energy is so rare in the rock scene these days, yet it epitomizes the fuel that drives the aggressive rocking-out that is punk.
The Great Ocean Road stretches along the southeastern coast of Australia, starting a bit south of Melbourne and ending around 400 km west, a bit before reaching Adelaide. As with much of my Country Victoria experience, it reminded me more of California than almost any other place I've been. The stereotypical and, indeed, quintessential Australian landscape is one of two things. Either it's a barren, flat, red excruciatingly hot desert, or it's the tripartite and tranquil coastline scene where the azure sky meets the even deeper blue sea and is framed in the foreground by a barren, golden beach. But what's little known about this country, close to the same square mileage as the United States, is that it is also rife with forests. The north boasts of tropical rainforests as lush as those in Brazil, and in the south, just inland from the ocean, are dense forests of gum trees and others that thrive on the frequent coastal storms. So look off to one side of the winding GOR, a first cousin to California's Highway 1, and there's your Australian ocean with nothing standing between you and Antarctica except for a bit of water. On the other side sits a forest so dense that the national park service here has even created a tree-top scaffolding and walking path, so tourists who aren't acraphobic can stroll 40 meters above the ground and see how vigorous the ecosystem is here. One of the first towns we stopped in was Anglesea. Nobody seemed to know whether this was a typo of "angel," the founder's last name, or a comment on its relationship to the land it sits on in relation to the water. But then again, I didn't really ask around, either. We took a break in Angelsea for the same reason that travellers take breaks in quaintly named joints all around the world: the bathrooms. These public toilets, though, were actually worth a photo. Both the men's and women's were painted in gender specific hues, blacks and greens for the one and blues and pinks for the other. The painted subjects were also gender specific. A gentleman such as myself couldn't comment on the women's facilities, but the men's had house repair implements such as drills, saws and ban-saw blades, and a quote. "One only needs two tools in life: WD-40 to make them go, duct tape to make them stop." All along the GOR, and the pseudo-official stretch that leads up to the wooden arch naming the road to be what tourist signs for the previous 25 km have already announced, about a half dozen beaches dot the landscape. These go on for miles, sometimes, with plentiful surfing and other watersports. It's a wonder that Australians ever leave their homeland for other beach resorts, the ones here are so enchanting. Further west down the road, driving at the limit of 100 kph, you can easily zip by Cape Otway. Except for the koalas I saw in the trees next to the road there, that's exactly what you should do. Visiting the cape includes a $10 fine, I mean, fee, and unless you're willing to pay to visit the lighthouse, it's a turnoff best not taken. Past that, however, are the gems in this winding crown. The 12 Apostles, followed by the Loch Ard Gorge and xxx. Originally called the "Sow and Piglets," the Apostles are the remnants of the cliffs of the limestone coast, long since eroded away, leaving only these towers in the middle of the ocean. Except that there never were 12 of them to begin with, and now there's even less. Official counts on various websites put the total closer to seven or eight, depending on whether you count the remaining towers of another fallen limestone structure subtly called "London Bridge." The morning we arrived we got there in the middle of an intermittent rain storm, buoyed by the heavy winds whipping around the cliffs. The sand, usually a light yellow, showed gradations from brown to tan, depending on how water saturated it was. And despite the pounding rain and the wafts of fog and cloud that shouded the area in a light mist, the Apostles' towers and the cliffs stuck out like heads in a cannibalistic soup. Darkened by the rain, the striations of sediment in the rocks came into sharp relief against the roiling green sea - sometimes a blue calm enough to see straight down to the ocean floor. By the time we moved a few kilometers up the coast to the Loch Ard Gorge, named for the ship that got wrecked nearby in the 19th century, the sun had poked its head through a few clouds. The gorge is a small inlet with aspirations of lakehood, so narrow is the opening to the ocean. But at the beachhead facing the tight opening that points south to the sea, there is a sandy front perfect for picnicking if the weather cooperates. And at hundred or so feet below the road, rainwater has probably contributed as much to the gorge as the ocean, with hundreds of stalactites lining the caves below. It was a humbling scene, as the dramatic beauty of nature's works always is. Nothing impinges on arrogance and invulnerability like watching rocks billions of years old melt away as if they were made of wax. Nothing else, either, makes you pray for Darwinism to take its proper path as watching tourists clamber over barriers and frolick atop the wave-drenched rocks of The Grotto. Its beauty far outstrips its name, but sadly the morons who decided that the barriers are placed there to keep the chickens in their coop did not slip, fall and horribly maim themselves for life. Next time, perhaps. Of course, there were differences between the coasts of Northern California and Southern Victoria. But sometimes, it sure seemed that those were limited to the signs along the Great Ocean Road that repeatedly warned drivers to stay on the left in Australia.
What's the one thing that could've delayed a road trip down the Great Ocean Rd. to South Australia? No, not insanity and a great love of fish. Art and a great love of free wine would be far closer to the truth, though. One of the Financial and Menu Adviser's close friends was having a exhibition opening last night, and so the FMA delayed the beginning of our trip until today. Fortunately for both of us, these opening night galas ply the discriminating art patron with free wine and munchies - truly, the only way to handle the stuff. Since it was at the FMA's alma mater, the "art" was all industrial design concepts and whatnot. Most, as with any art, were crap. One that stood out in particular was a shoe that had a seam going from the ankle to the sole, opening like a gaping maw and lacked laces, velcro or any other tightening measure on the top of the foot. It was a design for a sneaker, or trainer as they say here, that would probably go over very, very well in Japan, where slipping on and off your shoes occurs several dozen times a day. Not much else stuck out through the haze of two-fisting glasses of white wine. Today I'm off for Adelaide, so there probably won't be any updates until I return in five or six days. There will be stories of beautiful scenery, charming locals, kangaroo on the road and hopefully on my plate, as well. And perhaps a few more wineries will be visited by bicycle - you can never spend too much time in a ditch.
It's pretty hard now to ignore yesterday's riots in a suburban Sydney beach town, but you wouldn't know it from this morning's The Age newspaper, which ran only one article on the story. The front-pager credited the violence to alcohol, extreme patriotism and racist intent. The anger of the crowd, which happened to be mostly young white males, was so virulent that they even attacked an ambulance that was helping the victims of the violence. The victims were generally those who looked to be of Middle Eastern descent, although the rioters also targetted those protecting the attacked. Later Sunday evening a revenge mob of about 60 Arab-looking men broke car windows in another neighborhood. Disappointing though this all may be, it doesn't come as a shock. Not because people get scared when threatened, and scared people often do stupid things. Not because racial tensions have been riding high all over Australia in the wake of anti-terrorist laws clearly aimed at deterring extremist Muslims and "Industrial Reform" laws that null many long-standing worker's rights, being blamed by its authors on needing to make Australia more internationally competitive. The truly disappointing thing about all this is that the police had a clear warning about what was coming down the pipe. There was a spate of race-based violence the weekend before, where two Sydney lifeguards at North Cronulla beach were attacked - but it's not clear whether this was done by a Lebanese-Australian gang or a white "youth gang" that was known to operate there. Regardless of who did what, the response to the building racial tension was a cell phone text message that was passed around last week. It led to at least 5000 rioters showing up at Cronulla beach on Sunday. That's the clearest bell I can imagine announcing a violent riot. The police and the politicians knew it was going to happen. The cops knew the area had a small precinct, and that the nearest large one was 15 minutes away. The politicians knew that something was coming - and the elected leaders said and did nothing except act like ostriches. They knew that opportunistic, premeditated violence was heading their way. A small group of extremist Muslims in Melbourne attacked a TV news crew immediately after the first arrests under the anti-terrorism laws. A TV news crew? The aforementioned beaten lifeguards? Is it the Aussie way of handling violence by pretending it doesn't happen? Are people here so anathema to Americans that they can't be asked to learn from our mistakes? And after all is said and done, 16 people get charged. Sixteen? From a riot topping 5000, in the largest racially-motivated violence this country has seen in 140 years? This is hardly "hooliganism," which implies a capricious origin. This is thought-out and pre-meditated, and the involvement of the remnants of the White Australia policy cinch it as being dangerous, threatening and anything but spontaneous. It's hard to believe that anybody is shocked by the failures of the community leaders and policers to do their job, but if Australia has truly gotten beyond its racist origins, it sure has a long way to go.
As cities go, Melbourne isn't particularly old when compared to the ancients in Europe. And although this may come to shock to some Americans - who might not even be able to place Australia on a map - it is old enough to have structures protected by the ubiquitous "historical building" laws. Who cares, right? Every modern city in a Westernized country has something to keep its past alive long after the expiration date on the books. But Melbourne is also smart enough to take an innovative approach to maintaining its historical sites in a way that's more than just formaldehyde for bricks. Throughout the city, heritage-worthy structures have been incorporated into newer, more modern and (one assumes) safer structures. So if you walk through the impressive lobby of the Rialto Hotel, you can clearly see that the foyer links two brick buildings. Similar in design, yet differences in pattern and slight coloration distringuish the two from being identical. Or if you walk through the Melbourne Central mall, it's hard to miss the Shot Tower Museum. The brick structure towers up from the basement levels to what looks like several hundered feet above the first floor, and now houses a state-of-the-art museum that focuses on the development of Melbourne. Above the Shot Tower is a glass dome that floods the main promenade with natural light - something missing in so many shopping centers. Even if you pick a street at random, there are good chances you'll see some edifice or facade going back 130 years, but immediately behind - and sometimes next to and on top of, as well - are newer buildings that make use of the land while preserving the feel of the city. Melbourne has been called one of the most livable cities in the world, and with such dedication to maintaining the character of the town while not ignoring or killing off the city's future, it's easy to see why.
Last night I found myself at a great little wine bar called "Deco" in North Fitzroy. Yeah, "great" and "wine bar" don't exactly go together. I hit the place with my Financial and Menu Adivser and her friend, who lived nearby. I've never been one for coming up with excuses for drinking, but if you're looking for one its that I needed a break after researching visas for continuing the trip. Deco, though, had a John Hammond cover of Tom Waits' "16 Shells from a 30-Ought-6" playing on the stereo and the owner was wearing a Beer Lao T-shirt. Any joint that plays up the art deconess of New York City while blasting one of the few good Tom Waits and bedecked in Southeast Asia's finest means you're dealing with a guy who loves the wackiness of it all. So I spent the past few days on this fabulously quaint 56k Internet connection trying to research the best way to go about getting visas - about as exciting as watching soap scum do the macarena. Nevermind. If I could find dancing soap scum, I'd be mighty impressed. Anyway, it turned out that the only visa I needed to arrange here in Australia is the India one. Thailand doesn't require visas, Cambodia's can be bought in Thailand very easily, possibly even at the same time as purchasing a one-way bus ticket to Siem Reap. Vietnam and China can be arranged in Phnom Penh, and Laos can be gotten in China. While that all sounded confusing - I wasn't sure I followed it the first time around - it's cheaper to do it this way. I don't have to send off my passport to Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory five times, taking months to finally get my passport back. And some countries, like China, require you use your visa within three months. I'm not even going to be thinking about crossing the border until April. By the way, for those not in the know, the ACT - Australian Capital Territory - is the DMZ Down Under, a neutral ground where Melbournians and Sydneysiders can peacfully trade trinkets and admire each others interpretative dances. Apparently, years ago The Powers That Be couldn't decide which burgoeoning powerhouse to make the nation's capital in, Sydney or Melbourne. So instead, they decided to build a new town in the middle of nowhere. And looking at a map, Canberra really is nowhere.
A few months back, I found myself in the small Orange County, CA, town of Dana Point. It was a kind of willing banishment, if you will. Like Napoleon's St. Helena, without the never-return and dying at the end bit. Dana Point, notable for being so far south as to be closer to San Diego than L.A., was also remarkable for something else. They had a lantern fetish. Specifically, they had a street-naming compulsion that led them to name a plethora of streets with a color followed by the word "lantern." So they had a Blue Lantern, and a Golden Lantern. There was Silver Lantern, Lantern Bay Drive (sadly lacking a color) and even Violet Lantern - one in ten, isn't that how the saying goes? Anyway, after much searching totalling dozens of minutes, I finally came across Green Lantern St. For a comic book and pop culture junkie as myself, this was a delightful and photo-worthy surprise. What a find, I thought. It's not like Wonder Woman Ways or Superman Streets or even Lois Lanes lurk in every city. Then I got to Melbourne, and discovered that the Australians are way ahead on this game. There's Batman Avenue, not to be confused with Batman Street. Batman Hill Hotel. The Kangan Batman TAFE Institute - a techinical college. Batman Park. There's a book called Batman and the Aborigines. There's a dance, the Batusi. (Just kidding about that one.) Heck, according to this website, Melbourne narrowly missed being called "Batmania" instead. John Batman, whose name is pronounced "BAT-min," as opposed to the more commonly known "BAT-MAN," is the explorer who became the first native Australian of European descent to found a state capital city, and the first to settle an area. Although whether he arranged to rent or buy outright the land seems to be up for debate, it appears he was one of the first explorers in Australia to treat the Aboriginals with some kind of dignity by attempting to rent the land from them, even if his policies had a contradictory effect. (This modicum of information has been gleaned on a slow internet connection, so if any Australians or other historians wish to correct me, please go right ahead.) There are other names here that speak to modern Australia's dual Aboriginal and British heritage. Wagga Wagga is the actual name of a city, although it's pronounced as if "wagga" was written once. Melbourne has suburbs of Canterbury, St. Kilda and Prahran ("Puh-RAN"), but going further afield it becomes suddenly the names that sound even stranger than the British crop up with increasing frequency: Ouyen, Bendigo, Yarrawanga, Nocundra, Thargamindah. I'm barely scratching the surface of the pronunciational differences. We're not going to talk about how confusing it can be to hear someone describing a great fillet of fish - with a hard "T" at the end. So just by virtue of the names alone, visiting Australia is like looking at a cultural relfection in a funhouse mirror. The similarities are striking, but so are the differences. And if you're lucky, hilariously so.