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Andrew Stafford’s Something to Believe In: the tale of a critic, journalist, and birdwatching enthusiast

Like Clinton Walker’s Inner City Sound before it, Andrew Stafford’s Pig City stands apart from the sparse body of flimsy and forgettable tomes stacking the history of Australian music. Like Walker’s work, Stafford’s has since become a kind of bible, totem and point of pride amongst those in love with Australia’s musical roots.

It was first published in 2004 and while its author has no doubt been busy since, he’s been a little less than forthcoming with its follow-up. Arriving some 15 years later, Something to Believe In is Stafford’s second book.

andrew stafford something to believe in

Photo: Richard Waugh

Part memoir, part companion to Pig City, Something To Believe In chronicles Andrew Stafford’s personal journey as a writer, journalist, music critic, and birdwatching enthusiast.

It starts slow, with Side A chronicling Stafford’s childhood. Much of these opening chapters follow the arbitrary ‘What Dad Was Like’, ‘What Mum Was Like’ and ‘Grandpa Fought in The Big One and I’m Proud’ accounts which litter Australian biography. Fortunately, there’s music threading through all of this too. It’s something which gradually weaves itself more and more into the narrative of Stafford’s adolescence and young adulthood. And it’s here, when he turns on to music, birding, and makes the markedly anti-careerist move into the world of journalism, that his story builds its momentum.

Stafford is serious about birdwatching, by the way. It’s through this passion for the winged ones that he was introduced by a colleague to the music of Midnight Oil. Challenging the pop orthodoxy he’d been devoted to since age 12, The Oils were his gateway. As Stafford puts it, “For the first time I heard danger.”

Through Australia’s premier punk politicos Stafford fell in with alternative culture and after The Oils’ initial impact, he continued to be drawn further into this world. First by Brisbane’s community radio station 4ZZZ and The Parameters’ Pig City, then by The Velvets and the Ramones, then by Iggy Pop, then by The Go-Betweens, then The Apartments and then – Stafford’s writing reflects a categorical mind.

The author is no friends-to-the-stars type looking to share on the road anecdotes or bask in reflective glory. With few exceptions he’s never been overly close with the objects of fame, a fact helped in no great deal by Brisbane’s isolation. Something instead presents Stafford as a person in love with music but also possessed with an inherent moderation which prevents him from hurling himself headlong into rock’s excess.

Yet despite the distance this creates between him and his musical subjects, Something to Believe In is often relatable. Humbled by lean years of modest living, Stafford plays the part of a fan whose life has not been all that different to his readers’ own. His intimacy with idols goes little further than their records. No indictment. This is simply is the way he is, and it’s only through this relationship that something like Pig City could be conceived.

Most of what has been said so far has been about Side A of the book. Side B is different. A visceral and emotional journey, it starts with Stafford wandering hospital halls and gardens in a descent into depression, self-harm and a troubled psyche. This closing half also details the genesis of Pig City, Stafford’s ambitious idea of combining Brisbane’s musical, historical and political roots into something more than a dry retelling. Or as the author puts it, “An extended love letter to my adoptive hometown.”

Despite Stafford’s warmth towards Pig Cty, the impact of his celebrated work is surprisingly downplayed. Pig City as a larger cultural event threw focus onto Brisbane’s history. There’s little doubt much of the credit for the city’s coming of age in the last decade and a half, at least in a musical sense, can be shared between Powderfinger’s discography and the pages of Stafford’s literary debut.

Something to Believe In continues to sketch out Pig City’s much needed historical snapshots of Brisbane music, even if here it’s only an occasional rundown of some otherwise forgotten band or brief recollections of venues like The Beetle Bar, Ric’s, The Zoo and the Step Inn, all of which have either faded from existence or otherwise diminished from any kind of significance. For a Brisbane local, a pang of nostalgia is all but assured.

Stafford is modest. This may come from being somewhat of a teetotaller but despite his sobriety, he may be more like his musical muses than he supposes. At the core of Stafford’s story is a creative mind frequently skirting between disaster and greater things. As his life progresses it becomes increasingly punctuated by mood-altering medication, failed relationships and tinnitus.

It’s in this area that more than a few have lost their way, but Stafford’s gravitational drifts towards oblivion seem offset by the emotional anchor of his familial bonds. As the story progresses it becomes apparent why his parents figured so prominently in the book’s opening chapters. Despite the turmoil caused by his mother’s decline into dementia and Stafford’s own struggle to reconnect with his father following his parents’ divorce, both continue to provide a lifeline. And on a lighter note, if the writer can be said to have had a lifelong mission, it’s to get his dad interested in one of his CDs.

Australian culture at large does not boast a dense history of celebrated authors. Those who write about music are scarcer still which is why, whenever the smallest slice of their lives turns up in print, it can seem essential. Stafford leads an intriguing existence on the fringes of music, environmental conservation, and family life. With his modesty a point of difference, he’s a passionate writer wandering the wilds of mental health, Australian music, masculinity and birds.

Where he travels, he leaves something behind, and when these threads finally do begin to fall into one another, they do so with what feels like a lasting emotional impact.

 

Something to Believe In is out now via University of Queensland Press.

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July 12, 2019