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Wisdom of Solomon

A street preacher helps crack the meaning of the Sleepy Jackson's Lovers

Few recent albums have caused my soul more distress than the Sleepy Jackson's Lovers. Not that it's a bad album -- on the contrary, it's pretty good. Rather, it's the questions it raises and the soul-searching it's caused me. To wit, with all the genre-flipping -- from Gram Parsons alt-country to Velvet Underground nü-garage to post-Beatles guitar pop to freewheeling psychedelia -- just what sort of band is this, exactly? And is this whole grab bag thing a good or bad idea? Was he just trying out styles, the better to see which was the best fit? Or was he just showing off versatility for its own sake, the better to be thought of as a mad genius?

Furthermore, what of the mad genius in rock? Sleepy Jackson front man Luke Steele seems to be going for that role. He was pretty incoherent when I interviewed him, and to read the British and Aussie press, his live shows have been marked by a meltdown or two. He likes to wear lots of white eye shadow, and nobody can seem to stay in the same band with him for very long. It's also been said that he's recently quit partying and found religion.

Must all our finest singer-songwriters follow the Brian Wilson model? Must they all be certifiable nut jobs like Prince, tortured souls like Jeff Buckley, arrogant assholes like Sting, or all three, like Ryan Adams? Haven't we seen all of this before?

A boy, his bichon frise and his eight girlfriends: The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele in heaven.
Andzej Liguz
A boy, his bichon frise and his eight girlfriends: The Sleepy Jackson's Luke Steele in heaven.

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These queries and more were burning through my mind as I waited for the train at the Bell Street light rail stop. The train was late, and to kill the time, I started whistling the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn." Now there was a neglected band. About 20 years ago -- when the jangle rock of bands like R.E.M. was all the rage, they were the hippest old band around. Well, besides the Velvet Underground. Today, the Byrds are relegated to oldies radio, and the Velvets, well, the Velvets are still the coolest '60s act around…

"You know, son, I wrote that song," a voice piped up from behind me, interrupting my reverie. Startled, I turned around and saw an old, olive-skinned man in a blue and white jacket that had the markings of the Israeli flag. He had a long white beard that was stained purple around his mouth, and under a cloth fisherman's hat, his long white hair hung lank to his shoulders. He was old as dirt and he looked like a wino, but still, there was a certain twinkle in his wise eyes, and I'd seen him around from time to time, feeding the pigeons and talking to people. But he sure as hell didn't look like Pete Seeger, so I paid his claim little mind.

"You look troubled, my child," he went on. "Unburden the load that weighs on your soul."

What the hell, I thought to myself. If this dude has the sense to recognize -- still more, to claim authorship of -- a great tune, he could probably handle a few of my philosophical queries. Anyway, the train was nowhere in sight -- maybe it wrecked again.

"It's about this band called the Sleepy Jackson," I began.

"Yes, the Australian fellow -- Luke Steele," the stranger cut in.

"Uh, yes," I continued. "Look, my name's John…"

"I know. My name's Eccles," the stranger continued. "Solomon Eccles. Most folks just call me the Preacher."

Okay. He's probably an ex-con or something, I thought to myself, and now I knew for sure he was lying about "Turn, Turn, Turn." At any rate, I plowed on. After all, there's a time to speak and a time to shut up.

"This Steele guy's got me troubled," I went on. "'Good Dancers,' the first song on his new album, is a blatant George Harrison rip-off, right down to a couple of Indian tinges, and the very next one sounds exactly like the Velvet Underground--"

"Ho ho, yes it does, doesn't it?" the Preacher cut in. "One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the Velvet Underground abides forever."

"Yeah, I know, but does all so-called new rock have to sound so old? Is rock doomed to repeat itself forever? Should we reward those who wear their influences on their sleeves like this?"

I picked up my shoulder bag from the ground and pulled out a couple of reviews of Lovers. "I mean, listen to this stuff. No Ripcord said, 'A record that is rich, varied and a little crackers as well, Lovers will certainly stand as one of the best debut albums of the year.' Best debuts of the year? It sounds like a pretty cool mix tape, but come on. And then Spin said it juiced 'fragile melodies with weeping George Harrison guitar,' and that front man 'Luke Steele is pretty even-keeled for a spaced-out pop maestro.' I'll go for 'spaced-out' -- out of all the hundreds of interviews I've ever done, he was by far the most out of it. I asked him what time it was down in Sydney, and it took him a good minute to come up with an answer. But 'even-keeled'? He's about as even-keeled as the Titanic was while the band was playing 'Nearer My God to Thee.' The dude could barely speak, and what's more, his lyrics sound like they were written by a total loon. Take 'Vampire Racecourse': 'These roads they sing like bats I know / Their eyes are tightly sewn, like some priests I know.' Plus, I read that he's gone through about a hundred bandmates. He fired his own brother and his best friend, for God's sake…How could Spin say he was even-keeled?"

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