Not far from where St Kilda beach forms a firm line against the land, inside the Palais Theatre, which is suspended in the throes of young energy and blatant desire, housing the new strutting contempt of rock’n’roll, John Nixon is watching the Rolling Stones. It’s 1965 and he’s fifteen years old, sitting in the second last row with a friend. It’s the spark of a first concert. He can just see. When The Beatles and the Rolling Stones cast their ballots, he was on the Rolling Stones side. It’s a memory weighted with gravity; he’s animated, gesturing, conveying the spectacle of what the Rolling Stones meant to a teenage boy who’d never seen anything like it before. And yet—he’s almost more interested in recalling the support acts, bands filled with young and local jazz, rhythm and blues players, criss-crossing between genres, lightly experimenting within the early spectres of rock ’n roll. That freedom to slide between styles, of not being caught following one musical line, to simply do, innately meant something to Nixon. It would be one small, anecdotal piece of the expansive perspective that would later animate his own approach to music-making, albeit with his sense of amateurism; of embracing multiple kinds of music, and ways of making music, in order to throw away the conventions of music-making altogether. This young Nixon would eventually be known as one of Australia’s greatest avant-garde painters — and he would simultaneously, with little fanfare, create hundreds upon hundreds of recordings.
Four decades after this Rolling Stones implosion, on a Sunday afternoon in early 2008, Nixon would perform under The Donkey’s Tail, one of his most cherished, and last, musical projects. ‘And it was at this Palais Theatre where I saw the Rolling Stones,’ he remarked, all soft smiles. ‘I thought, “This is amazing. I’m playing the Palais Theatre.”’ It was, he said, a kind of magic. The small pride in this reflection was akin to the pride when a person, who usually seems matter of fact in their ambitions, has achieved something beyond regular life. Nixon repeatedly told me that although he made music, he was never a musician. He reflected and self-mythologised in the way that every artist unavoidably ends up conjecturing, but when I mentioned this Rolling Stones story to his artist friends, only one person knew the anecdote. ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that one,’ came the replies. What other ones? I wondered. And for a brief few seconds the people I spoke to became thoughtful, weighing the worth of this small story.
Nixon had warned me two minutes into our first Zoom meeting that my role as an interviewer was akin to being a good therapist; I didn’t disagree. In mid-2020, I spoke with Nixon twice across Zoom about his music. He sat in his home, in a room of books haphazardly placed, looking into the computer screen when he was talking; looking away when he was thinking. Like much experimental music across Australia, his output has had astonishingly little written about it. At a certain point many arts writers have taken on ‘Nixon the painter’, like a rite of passage, but rarely any other kind of Nixon. Despite his small fame as an artist, the lack of interest in the music, he said, saddened him.
At this point Nixon had received a Leukaemia diagnosis. He found out in October 2019, and had undergone immediate treatment. He was resolutely positive, and then he was unwell again. Plans to visit his home archive were put on hold. ‘You’ve actually got more material to think of,’ Nixon told me in one of our sessions, going through his vast output of recordings, some of which reside online, others stored away, unheard for decades. There were the approximately 400 one-off cassettes of Anti-Music in the late 1970s where Nixon, either solo or with artist friends, created experimental, layered tape recordings. Next were the musical collaborations of the 1990s and 2000s, and later the CDs, performances, installations and digital releases of The Donkey’s Tail; beginning in 2007, it was an ever-changing music ensemble with Nixon at the helm, ranging from absurdist opera to atonal instrumentation. Laid end to end, it would be hundreds of hours of material—and one mustn’t forget the posters, printed manifestos and music-related artworks. Nixon started to speak of himself in the third person: ‘You’ve got just a lot more to ascertain, in a way, what it is he’s doing. It’s a bigger sort of…’ Here Nixon trailed off. ‘A bigger sort of what?’ I should have asked.
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