Saturday, May 14, 2016

Prince at Bennett's Lane

On April 21, 2016, the musician known as Prince passed away. The exact cause and circumstances of his death are unknown at time of writing, although it has been widely reported that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and that these may have played a part.

Prince toured Australia five times, and had been as popular and successful here as everywhere else. The outpouring of grief at his passing was public, and prolonged.

But rather than focus on his sad, premature demise, today we will revisit Prince's role in a famous piece of local music folklore. The occasions (yes, more than one), when the multi-millionaire, multi-platinum selling, pop megastar played secret shows at humble Bennett's Lane nightclub.

Flyer from Prince's first Australian tour; Sydney, 1992.
Prince first toured Australia in 1992, as part of the 'Diamonds and Pearls' world tour, which kicked off in Japan, and then ventured to a handful of European cities. The clamour to see Prince live locally was enormous; he had been one of the worlds most popular musicians since his album '1999' had been released in 1982, and a visit to Australia seemed long overdue

Backed by his new band, The New Power Generation, the tour focused mainly on tracks from the 'Diamonds and Pearls' album, including the eponymous title track, and hit single 'Cream'. An extraordinary six shows were sold out quickly at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and five at Melbourne's Tennis Centre.

On stage in Australia, 1992.
The tour was a massive success, but it would be 11 years before Prince would return.

Souvenir tour book, 2003 Australian tour.
In 2003 the artist, though still popular, was no longer the chart topping phenomenon of a decade before. Displaced from the apex of the pop tree by a younger generation of stars, Prince responded with a shorter tour (2 arena shows in Melbourne and Sydney, and some smaller gigs) and a set list that played like a greatest hits collection.

The two shows in Melbourne were set for 21 and 22 October, at Rod Laver Arena.

Bennett's Lane Jazz Club.
Before the first of these Prince, who was known to enjoy playing secret shows in small venues from time to time, decided to find a local bandroom where he could play a warm up gig. He settled on Bennett's Lane, a well established local club just off Lonsdale Street, best known as a jazz venue. Exactly why he chose the venue is not known, although the club had attracted at least one big name before; Harry Connick junior had played warm up shows at the club several times on his own tours.

Not knowing anyone at the venue, Prince simply showed up late Sunday night and explained what he wanted:

While the show was never formally announced, and was only arranged the night before it happened, word still got out. By 8.30pm on Monday evening, 100 people were queuing outside Bennett's Lane, hoping to see the show or, at least, catch a glimpse of the star.

In the end, about 200 people paid $20 each to cram into the small club and watch Prince and his eight piece touring band:

It was a lengthy set, featuring classic tracks like 'Kiss' and 'When Doves Cry', that didn't finish until deep in to the small hours. Prince's subsequent arena shows were sold out, and the performances were well received.

Prince onstage at Rod Laver arena, 2012.
Another decade on, and Prince was back in town on the 'Welcome 2 Australia' tour, again playing two shows at Rod Laver arena. After the first of these, on May 14 2012, Prince again made his way to Bennett's Lane, this time looking for a place to wind down and relax after the high energy performance of his earlier set.

Second time round, the secret show didn't even start until 2am, with the club announcing the news on their Twitter feed:

You can also note the increase in ticket price compared to 2003, although the venue announced the following day that all of the profits had been donated to charity. 

The lateness of the hour also provided a different atmosphere to the previous surprise gig; a smaller, more relaxed crowd, with Prince and his band focusing on funk tracks, and free form jamming. Prince himself played the piano, and the drums, as well as singing.

Both secret gigs have attained legendary status, in the rich musical history of our city.

Prince on stage in 2016.
Prince returned one final time to Australia, bringing his 'Piano and Microphone' tour here in February this year. 

Now the raucous, high tempo pop and funk of his earlier hits had given way to a more intimate style, as Prince played  for the first time without a backing band. His choice of venues reflected the change in approach; instead of arenas he played the more elegant State Theatres in Melbourne and Sydney.

The tour was not without its bad reviews and difficult moments. Punters in Melbourne complained of a short set length (about 80 minutes) in light of sky high ticket prices. And the artist was obviously effected by the death of a former girlfriend, singer Denise Matthews, that was announced shortly before his first Melbourne show.

But his new approach and material was mostly well received, a fitting send off for an artist who had re-invented himself a number of times. Final word can, perhaps, go to Meg Evans, eyewitness at both of Melbourne's secret shows, and someone who saw Prince at close and intimate range:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fire from the Sky

September 28, 1969: Two months after NASA landed a manned spaceship on the moon, an extraterrestrial visitor returned the favour; a chunk of ancient rock streaked high above Victoria. Coming to ground near Murchison, in the states north, the meteorite was to prove more than just an exciting light show.

Once parts of the meteorite were recovered, scientists were amazed to discover that the rock contained amino acids, organic molecules that are the building blocks of our DNA. Previously, amino acids had only ever been known on earth, and it had been thought that the conditions outside of our atmosphere would be too harsh for them to form, or survive.

The discovery raised a tantalising possibility: could life have actually evolved somewhere other than Earth, then hitched a ride here on a meteorite?

Headline in The Argus

On September 28, 1969, residents across Victoria were startled when their Sunday afternoon was rocked by a blazing fireball that erupted above them. Witnesses across the state reported loud explosions, crackling sounds, smoke and a strange smell, like methylated spirits, as a meteorite left a flaming trail across the sky:

Weighing approximately 100kg, the meteorite finally disintegrated above Murchison, a small town in the Goulburn Valley, about 160km north of Melbourne. Breaking up into about 2 000 chunks, some weighing as much as 5kg, the fiery debris rained down over the town and the surrounding farmland.
Curious locals immediately began recovering meteorite fragments, and either keeping them as souvenirs, or turning them in to the local authorities.

Samples were sent to Melbourne University for analysis, and for comparison to some samples of moon rock, which had also recently arrived:

The preliminary results showed that the rock was at least 4.5 billion years old, and so was likely older than the earth itself. Professor Lovering's guess that it was a carbonaceous chrondite was proved correct, and so made the find particularly rare.

And there the matter may have rested.

A Murchison Meteorite fragment at the Melbourne Museum.
But the scientific community was rocked in 1970 when a team at NASA, studying rocks from the meteorite, announced the presence of 74 different amino acids in their samples. The majority were exotic molecules not found on earth but, remarkably, 6 were common amino acids known from organic chemistry.

These were the first organic molecules ever discovered on an extraterrestrial body.

And that these molecules were found in a rock older than the Earth, and that they had somehow survived in the vacuum of space for many millions of years, turned theories of life's evolution on our planet on their head.

The origin of life on earth was (and still is) a mystery. While some aspects of life on our planet are well understood, there is still no consensus on how it came to originate in the first place. Chief among these mysteries; the earth was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, and the earliest signs of life that have been detected - microscopic fossils from bacteria - about 4.2 billions year ago, when the planet would still have been cooling and largely inhospitable.

How then did life take hold so quickly?

The Murchison Meteorite provided the pathway to a new theory; that organic molecules arrived on earth from space, and then adapted to conditions here. As distinguished a scientist as Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, was an enthusiastic proponent of this theory, in light of the Murchison Meteorite findings.

A microscopic fossil from mars, or just a squiggley thing?
The debate continues to this day.

The organic chemistry found on the Murchison meteorite has been detected in many other celestial bodies; subsequent meteorites and asteroids and even on Halley's Comet. Our solar system, it seems, is awash in complex organic molecules.

Which doesn't provide an answer to the question, where did Earth's organic chemistry originate? Both sides of the argument have their supporters among the scientific community, although the majority opinion still favours that the compounds that exist in our DNA were formed independently on earth.

The argument was enlivened in 1996 when NASA announced that meteorite fragments it recovered from Antarctica in 1984 had originated on Mars, and contained evidence of fossilised bacteria (pictured above). They subsequently backed away from this claim, but whether these rocks contain fossils, or just exotic mineral deposits, is still a matter of dispute.

Analysis of both the Martian and Murchison meteorites continues.

Murchison today.
But whether this problem is ever satisfactorily solved, it is remarkable to think that the entire debate was kicked off in sleepy Murchison, population 600.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Williamstown Racecourse

Williamstown is one of the oldest suburbs of Melbourne.

Situated at the Western mouth of the Yarra river, the town arose naturally after the founding of the city, as it proved a good location for a port. With the river impassable to large cargo ships (discussed further here), Point Gellibrand was quickly established as the disembarkation point for goods headed for Melbourne.

Founded in November 1835, a few months after the city itself, and named after King William IV, Williamstown thrived as Melbourne expanded. Like much of the city, this growth increased exponentially during the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

One tangible indicator of this expansion was the founding of  the Williamstown Racecourse.

Williamstown Racecourse, shortly after its founding.
In 1857, local enthusiasts formed the Williamstown Racing Association, and began looking for a place to build a track. The local council denied their initial request for lands close to the township, but they were able to secure an open clearing on the waterfront, adjacent to Koroit Creek (then in Wyndham Shire). Construction of the track began in 1858, and the first race meeting was held on Boxing Day in 1859.

Aerial view of the racetrack
Location of track on current map.
Reached by a small causeway crossing the creek, the track's location offered a sweeping view across the bay. The simple wooden grandstand was augmented by decorative Canary Date Palm trees, and Norfolk pines ringed the far side of the course. It was a simple, but handsome, layout, and the track grew quickly in popularity.

The Boxing Day races became an annual event, and the racing program would expand into the racing season proper. In 1885, the Williamson Racecourse Railway Station was opened, to allow punters easy access to the course. Originally the end of a small side spur from the Geelong line, this track would eventually be expanded through to Altona (where it still runs today, as the Werribee line).

In 1887 a new public grandstand was built, and the following year the Williamstown Cup was first held, which soon became one of the most prestigious events in the local racing calendar. By the 1890s ,Williamstown Racecourse was as well established as Flemington or Caulfield.

Phar Lap wins at Williamstown, 1931.
The course's place in local racing history was secured on 25 August, 1931, when local legend Phar Lap won the Underwood Stakes. The Age gives a sense of the day:

But despite its popularity, the outbreak of World War II would eventually put paid to racing in Williamstown.

The final race meeting was held 10 February, 1940. Shortly after this, the Government took over the track, as they also did Caulfield and the MCG, and put it to use as an Army camp. Throughout the war it was used as a training facility, and barracks.

After the war, the Williamstown Racing Club intended to start holding meets again, but were delayed by the poor condition the course had fallen into. The club worked to rectify this, and pencilled in the 1947 racing season to resume competition.

Then, fate intervened:

Fire destroys the Williamstown Racecourse Grandstand.
Around 5pm on January 29, 1947, smoke was seen coming from the roof of the public grandstand. Fanned by a strong wind, the stand was soon fiercely ablaze, the fire quickly spreading to the members stand alongside. Fire brigades from several surrounding areas were dispatched to the site, but they were unable to control the fire. It blazed out of control for several hours, and, eventually, would consume all of the principal buildings at the course.

The local press reports the story.
While police investigated the fire as suspicious, the totality of the destruction deprived them of clues and the case eventually petered out. To date, the cause of the fire has never been determined.

The timing of the destruction was especially unfortunate, as the State Government had been agitating for consolidation in the ranks of local racing. Now, without a home track, the Williamstown Racing Club was in a vulnerable position. Pressured by the state government, and without the funds to rebuild their course, Williamstown members voted to accept an amalgamation with the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, forming the Melbourne Racing Club.

The track was this time sold to the State Government, who put it to use as temporary accommodation for homeless Army veterans.

Racing in Williamstown was consigned to history.

The last Canary Date palm.
But once the last of the veterans had been re-settled, the Government decided to preserve the site as a public park. Now known as the Altona Coastal Park it is in this form still, and now forms part of a popular hiking, bike riding and dog walking track.

But a few remnants of the area's racing history remain; the last of the canary date palms, part of the wreckage of the burnt out grandstand and artist Yvonne George's 'Requiem for a Champion', a small tribute to a vanished era.

Grandstand wreckage.

'Requiem for a Champion.'

Saturday, March 12, 2016

James Stephens and the 8 Hour Day

This weekend is the Labour Day long weekend in Melbourne (and in most of Australia), so I thought it would be a good time to have a look at the origins of this holiday. Like most of our long weekends, Labour Day is a commemoration but, unlike many of them, this links us globally to many other Western countries, most of whom mark a similar occasion somewhere in their calendars.

The origins of Labour Day are linked to the beginnings of the organised labour movement, and some courageous and principled folk who demanded fairer treatment for workers. And in Melbourne, the first of these working groups to demand better conditions were the local stonemasons, lead by a tough and determine Welshman.

Trade Association banner, Melbourne, 19th century.
Melbourne started as an agricultural outpost in 1835, with a small city centre and limited industry. But, as the city expanded rapidly, especially during the gold rush of the 1850s, the city also began to modernise. This brought new industries, and new jobs, in manufacturing, mining, and public works.

But working conditions in these new industries were tough:

One of gold rush Melbourne's biggest growth industries was construction. Awash with cash, and the newly wealthy purveyors of it, the city effectively set about rebuilding itself. The low, often wooden, and very basic buildings that had been constructed during the city's foundation years were largely removed, and replaced by grand edifices, many stories high and largely built of stone.

It was a boom time for Melbourne's stonemasons but, despite high demand for their services, they suffered the same treatment as the city's factory workers; low pay, dangerous conditions and very long hours.

Enter James Stephens.

James Stephens: Stonemason and labour activist.
Born in Wales in 1821, Stephens followed in his father's footsteps and became a stonemason as a teenager. In 1839 he was seriously injured when he fell from a construction site scaffold, and the lack of assistance available to him while he recovered helped steer him towards the organised labour movement.

Once he regained fitness, Stephens joined the newly formed 'Chartists', a political protest group that drew support from the skilled trades. The Chartists were named for their support of  'The People's Charter'; a political manifesto produced by six radical members of Parliament that called for electoral reform and better conditions for workers.

Chartist demonstration, London, early 1840s.
Chartism grew and spread rapidly, from its origins in the working class north to England's major cities. Stephens moved to London in the early 1840s, from where he was able to see the movement at its peak; several enormous demonstrations were organised, and a petition of 3 million signatures was submitted to Parliament, demanding action on the groups reform agenda.

Stephens became a zealous organiser of his fellow stonemasons, and was considered a minor leader within the movement. But the controversy attached to Chartism came at a price; he was sacked from a lucrative job working at Windsor Castle when his affiliation was discovered. Other Chartist leaders called for strikes and civil disobedience and were arrested, which lead to rioting and violent confrontations with police.

Meanwhile, the movement was frustrated politically. Their petitions, which now also included a call for an 8 hour work day, were rejected by Parliament, and they saw no significant progress towards their objectives (most of their program would eventually be adopted, but not until 1867).

Looking for fresh opportunities, Stephens, like many Chartist tradesmen, was lured to Australia in 1853 by the gold rush.

Melbourne Stonemasons banner.
Arriving in February 1853, Stephens energetically set to work in the local construction industry. Work was plentiful, but conditions were nearly as poor as they had been in England. While disgruntled, the local tradesman were not politically organised and Stephens, with his Chartist experience, was a natural authority figure.

8 hour day demonstration, Melbourne.
In February 1856 Stephens, and local tradesman James Galloway, formed the Operative Masons Society at the Clark Hotel in Collingwood. The objective of this group was simple by Chartist standards; to agitate for a mandated eight hour work day. And, after having been in the organised labour movement for nearly twenty years without much tangible success, Stephens was in a hurry. The Operative Masons decreed that the 8 hour day would be in place by April.

On the 21 April 1856, Stephens took decisive action:

Starting at a construction site at the University of Melbourne, Stephens convinced the workers there to down tools and join him on a march on Parliament in Spring Street. Along the way, they detoured passed several construction sites in the city and picked up more supporters. Eventually, a crowd of a few thousand gathered at the Parliament steps for a noisy and boisterous, though peaceful, demand for an eight hour work day.

But Stephens, and the movement's other leaders, had planned this moment carefully.

In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, they had met secretly with business groups and Parliamentarians, and had convinced them both of the movement's strength, and the potential for strikes and disruption if they continued to deny an 8 hour day. A Parliamentary delegation met Stephens on April 21, and he was able to inform his supporters that their demands would be met.

The group then marched on to the Belvedere Hotel in Fitzroy, where their celebration spilled across several streets.

Labour Day Parade, 1923.
Legislation introducing an 8 hour work day was passed by Parliament shortly afterwards. While this still meant a 48 hour week for most workers, as most still worked six days, this was viewed as a great victory, the first by organised labour in the modern era. A celebratory parade through the city was organised for May 12, and would continue as an annual tradition. In 1879, the popularity of this event lead the Victorian Government to make this a paid public holiday, dubbed 'Labour Day,' the State's first.

John Stephens was lionised as a hero. Sadly, it wouldn't last.

8 Hour Day Monument, shortly after being erected.

The top of the monument, commemorating the 8-8-8 slogan.
In the years following his great success, Stephens saw the local labour movement he helped found expand and diversify. But Stephens' support for sub-contracting, then a novel idea, alienated him from the movement's newer leaders, who saw it as a way for employers to cut wages. Stephens claimed that his enemies in the union movement had him effectively blacklisted, and he struggled to find work and make ends meet. They also sought to re-write history somewhat, now emphasizing James Galloway's efforts in regards to the reforms of 1856, at the expense of his own.

Impoverished, sickly and slowly going blind, by the 1880s Stephens had largely been forgotten by Victorian society. A collection taken up for him by the Trades Hall in Carlton provided for Stephens somewhat in his final years, but when he died in 1889 he was destitute and left no estate.

The parade that he helped inspire did not last either.

For nearly a century, the Labour Day parade was a fixture in Melbourne, replete with floats, live entertainment and a carnival atmosphere. Large holiday crowds turned out each year to celebrate the 8 hour day, among other subsequent labour reforms. But by the 1930s, crowds were waning, as the great depression created a sombre mood. World War II further diminished the parade's popularity, and it was discontinued altogether after 1951. The Labour Day holiday had been moved by this time to March, and is now capped by the Moomba festival instead.

But one landmark to the landmark reforms of 1856 remains, on Victoria Street, just opposite Trades Hall. Designed by Percival Ball, and paid for by union subscriptions, the 8 Hour Day monument was erected in 1903.

James Stephens is not mentioned.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Then and Now: Manchester Unity Building Rooftop

The Manchester Unity Building is one of the architectural jewels of the Melbourne. While researching the broader history of this iconic landmark, I came across this amazing photo:

It seems that from the 1932 through to about 1940, the rooftop of the building (Level 12) was home to a Japanese garden and cafe.

The same spot today:

The structure on the right houses a suite of offices, which had been converted from apartments (built in the 1990s).

Sadly, the rooftop is no longer open to the public, although Melbourne Open House often runs tours that include it. The rooftop is currently used for private functions, by the building's tenants.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong

Standing on a nondescript bend in the Maribyrnong River, between Footscray and Flemington Racecourse, is a most unexpected sight. Rising above a former industrial block, towers the Heavenly Queen of the Maribyrnong.

The Heavenly Queen of the Yarra, Footscray.

Under construction for more than a decade, her arrival at this location is a tale that actually stretches back several thousand years.

Lin Niang; traditional representation.

Born in 960, on the island of Meizhou off the south eastern coast of China, Lin Niang was marked as a remarkable child from an early age. Visiting a Buddhist temple with her family when she was 4, Niang experienced a vision of the Goddess Kuan Yin, which left her with the power of second sight.

Pious, and highly intelligent, Niang began to study Buddhist teachings when she was 10, and was accepted as an apprentice to the village priest shortly afterwards. From her early teens, people from the surrounding area would come to pray with Niang and she developed a reputation as a healer.

Niang seen by sailors, travelling atop a cloud.

She also had a profound connection with the sea; Niang's father and brothers were fisherman, and village life revolved around the ocean.

When Niang was 15, her father and eldest brother were out at sea when a fierce storm blew up and overturned their boat. Working on a tapestry at home, Niang was overcome by a powerful vision and fell into a trance. She was able to project her consciousness out to sea (some versions say she was actually transported, via cloud, as depicted above), and was able to drag her brother back to safety. When she returned to rescue her father, however, her startled mother woke her from her trance and her father was drowned.

And there are many more stories of Niang patrolling the ocean, or answering calls of distress, and rescuing sailors at sea.

When she was 27, answering the call of another powerful vision, Niang said goodbye to her family and climbed a mountain that overlooked her village. Clouds covered the peak and, when they cleared, Niang had vanished. It was said that she had ascended to heaven.

Such is the legend of Lin Niang, later known as Mazu, Goddess of the Sea.

Mazu Temple, Kinmen Matsu Park, China.
The story of Mazu - her heroic behaviour and protection of the weak - is one of the most popular in Chinese mythology, which has given rise to a legion of followers. Temples and statues have been erected to her around the world, and it estimated that she may have as many as 100 million active disciples.

So, it is no surprise to find that multicultural Melbourne, with its high population of Chinese residents, has erected a statue to the Goddess as well.

The Mazu temple site in Melbourne.
The project has been a long time in development.

Starting in the 1990s, a fundraising committee was organised to gather money to purchase both a site, and commission a statue. The location on the riverbank was settled on early, as the poor state of the land (it had been the long standing home to a factory) meant it was available at a reasonable price.

The committee, headed by local businessman William Tsang, had ambitious goals; a 16 metre statue, flanked by two temples (modeled after buildings in the Forbidden City, in Beijing), then surrounded by gardens. The statue alone would cost $450 000 and would be imported from Nanjing, in China.

Mazu: overlooking the Maribyrnong.

The elaborate temple site entrance.

Progress has been slow but steady. At time of writing, the statue and the first of the temples are complete, while the remainder of the site is still under construction (final completion is expected in 2019).

But the statue of Mazu already has a commanding presence. Clearly visible from the main road, and especially from the nearby train line, her calm, inscrutable countenance overlooks the waters of the Maribyrnong, much as it is said she did the waters of the China Sea, a thousand years ago.