"When writing my debut novel, You Belong Here, I sometimes went into musical memory, and at other times heard songs that hit me, made me question what it was I was trying to say, and why. Sometimes, I'd feel inexplicably warm feelings towards songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, ‘a bit pants.’" - Laurie Steed
Ragtime – Run DMC
With a tendency to dwell on sadness in my life, I was aware that Alex, Emily, and Jay would need coping mechanisms to deal with their parent’s break-up. As with most ingenious strategies, the use of comedy is obliquity at its finest. Listen to Run DMC's Testimonial Lap Tougher than Leather, and it's all machismo, braggadocious ‘I exist,' chants, shouted from a rooftop. Then on the last track, there's ‘Ragtime,' a breath of funny, silly fresh-air, and perhaps the last dying-gasp of non-misogynist humour in hip-hop until De La Soul and the Native Tongues came in and changed the game all over again.
Me, my brother Shane, my best friend Jon, and his brother Jeremy could likely recite every line of Tougher than Leather, but it’s spearheaded by the two of the greatest hip-hop tracks, period, in ‘Run’s House’ and ‘Ragtime.’
The former is so cool, so iconic, that it’s almost ageless. Run raps lines as though he’s gone God-mode. DMC goes Voltron right back, brings them to the bridge, where, despite the fact they're just saying the band's name, you nearly collapse from all that's to come in this three minute, forty-six-second opus.
‘Ragtime’ is not like that. It knows it’s dumb and could care less. It’s the sort of song you’d make up with your friends, or your brothers and sisters. It’s willing to use ragtime music as a background, easily the least ‘tough man’ genre in history. ‘Run’s House’ brings you in, says this is serious; ‘Ragtime’ is the encore, one of the best ‘thanks for listening’ tracks in hip-hop history.
What does this have to do with You Belong Here? Well, Alex and Jay make up games. They’re silly, foolish at times, finding play amidst routine, and this energises them. There's a lesson in there somewhere but I'm the last person to pass it on. Instead, I’ll simply cite the humour that I hope comes through. The knowledge that there’s happy/sad and silly/serious in all of this, and all of us.
Would? – Alice in Chains
While comedy is great, you can’t always choose the light. Life sometimes closes the shades, let’s you sit in silence, and gauge how you feel. And so it was in 1992 that I walked into Wesley CDs and bought my first compact disc, Dirt by Alice in Chains.
That was the thing about grunge, and I’d include punk and alternative rock in that same category. They’re genres for outsiders, for people who feel like they don’t fit in. And, as The Simpsons once memorably mused, ‘Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.’
Not many people escape teenage dark days, or at least not many of the people with whom I'm still friends. Alex, Emily, and Jay are no different. Rather than exacerbate their darkness, though, I wanted the music in You Belong Here to be an accompaniment at worst, and an antidote at best. Music at its most raw can take huge risks. It can say things you'd otherwise be scared to admit. And so, in the case of every kid in You Belong Here, they're always saying stuff. It's just that sometimes the things they're feeling are embedded in the music they love, however implicitly or obliquely.
Black and White Town – Doves
I know, Doves aren’t literally singing about Perth in this song, but Christ, it feels like they are, or I once felt that way, long before the days of rooftop cinemas and bars down dimly-lit alleyways.
Perth is the eighties and nineties was an anodyne place. You could escape it by seeing bands, maybe head to Cinema City and dream the heat away. But, for the most part, unless you loved sailing, riding, or running, you were an anomaly, a pasty, nerdy mix of theory, books, and computer games that no one could get their head around.
It was also tough ideologically speaking, and many people from the Eastern states would comment on Perth's ‘whiteness' and conservatism. Indeed, I didn't see any punks until my twenties, and aside from the goths that sat around Forest Place, I didn't see too many other sub-cultures, either. While I went to school with many Vietnamese, South African and Italian kids, Perth was still limited in regards to outside influence, aside from cuisine and the occasional international festival.
Which is not to say that I didn't always love this city, or rally behind it every time a new building went up, or a tourist attraction came to town. It's more I had known Perth since the age of nine, seen it late at night, and first thing in the morning. Pissed blokes off all ages and cultural backgrounds had harassed me on street corners; I'd seen girls scratch and claw outside Jeremiahs, and had, on more than one occasion, been yelled at from a car, or pushed for no reason.
I loved Perth, always. But I’d be lying if I said that back then it was a tolerant or culturally inclusive place.
You Sound Like Louis Burdett – The Whitlams
It’s a shame that ‘No Aphrodisiac’ was such a big breakthrough for The Whitlams as to me, ‘You Sound Like Louis Burdett’ is equally strong. Its undercurrent is so damn Australian, such blokey (but importantly not bogan), half-cut armchair philosophy from Tim Friedman. Tim could be serious sometimes (and had every right to be) but on this song he let loose. It's the letting go of circumstances, acknowledging your friend's inherent dickheadedness, those inexorable flaws, but hanging on regardless, chasing away the boredom, getting high, getting by in the backstreets of a glammed-up city.
For kids like Alex, Emily, and Jay, growing up in Perth means making jokes, making fun, and digging at your friends and family. It’s a distinctly Australian way of interacting, and something I hopefully capture in You Belong Here.
Perth is a pretty city but treacle slow over summer. While Friedman’s singing of Sydney folk in ‘Louis Burdett’, most people of a certain age’s teenage years in Perth were made up of similarly ‘fucked up’ friends wasting time, money, and opportunities in a state of good-natured but laid-back torpor.
Emily, Jay, and Alex live in and are of that city. They're waiting for the great leap forward but as yet still treading water.
These are not characters training for the Olympics or winning Fulbright Scholarships. They're smart and funny, but they’re also lost, for various reasons, at this point in their lives as, ‘the weeks roll by.’
We Are Okay – Joshua Radin
And then one day, things changed, and you could feel it. At first, things seemed forced. But soon enough, Perth was a great place to live and raise a family.
And so there’s hope for Alex, Jay, Emily, and Jen and Steven too. There’s change in the world that in time trickles down to us all, and home is home, and you, they, we belong here, whether happy, sad, or all points in between.
And Joshua can be as cheesy as Rod Stewart but he writes his own lyrics. And I’m pretty sure Josh gets it: that there are times, when you’re young, that you feel your past will define you. That things change, and at first, you don't know how to deal with it. That you’ve seen, felt things you didn't understand growing up, and maybe you're never going to, but you get by, and there's something beautiful in that, in being not great or fantastic, but not too bad, all told.
Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Perth, Western Australia. His fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Award Winning Australian Writing, The Age, Meanjin, Island, Westerly, and elsewhere. He lives in Perth with his wife and two young sons. To find out more about Laurie and You Belong Here please click here.