What Powderfinger Taught Me About Loss and Grieving

For Graeme

The album cover art for Powderfinger’s magnum opus Odyssey Number Five

Growing up, you really absorb the music your parents listen to. It becomes the soundtrack for the early years of your life, and a high chance you’ll end up developing some sort of emotional link with it. I grew up listening to a lot of stuff my parents loved – Queen, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Hunters & Collectors, Placebo, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Meat Loaf (well basically just his one good album – Bat out of Hell), Blur, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and The Killers all of which have really stuck with me further into life, but one in particular which I’ve developed the closest bond with – Australian rock band Powderfinger.

Powderfinger has stuck with me more than I think any of the other stuff introduced to me by my parents. “The Finger” have been hugely influential on me. Some of my earliest memories involve them, and in particular old family road trips to visit my grandparents in Victoria. Their music so often played in the car journeys down, mainly the albums Internationalist and Odyssey Number Five. Both of which are highly regarded and earmarked as the best albums made by an Australian artist or group. In 2011, Triple J named 2000’s Odyssey Number Five the greatest Australian album of all time. Their music was the default soundtrack to travel for me, and in particular travel to see my grandparents.

My mum’s parents, Ray and Joan, lived in the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. A lovely seaside town popular for old people to retire to. Not incredibly close to Melbourne – about 75km away, but also definitely not close to Sydney. It’s a massive 958km away from Sydney, and a nearly 10 hour drive at least. Factor in we were travelling as a family, with my mum, dad, and two older sisters – you take a lot longer. It was closer to an entire day of travel back then.

We travelled down every year or so for Christmas for a long time there, with us staying with them. The drive down was always excruciatingly boring but the positive was listening to music.

My granny was sort of hard for me to feel I had any sort of relationship with. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, dementia had kicked in hard and I didn’t see her as the person she was. Instead I saw a husk of her.

On the other hand, I was really close with my Granddad. He was as good as a grandparent can get, and was important in my life. His passing in 2010 when I was 9 years old hit me hard. I think of him a lot still, and always wonder what he’d be thinking and wish he was here.

My memories have faded of him over the years as time has passed sadly, but music is a powerful trigger for the nostalgia and unlocked a lot for me. The most potent trigger is listening to Odyssey Number Five in full. Everyone I think has music that they listen to that brings that sort of bittersweet sense of nostalgia – melancholy even.

It just takes me back to a specific place, with visual and everything. Mornington. The smell of the not too distant seaside. The often grey skies. Green trees. Being on my granddad’s little boat in the peninsula.

One of my “things” is really looking into lyrics and music and trying to uncover the meaning when it isn’t known. I enjoy probably over-analysing the music I love. Understanding the artist behind the art is crucial to me. You need a certain amount of knowledge of the experiences that made the artist who they are.

Powderfinger’s lead singer, Bernard Fanning is an Australian icon in his own right and was prolific for his songwriting ability and political activism. His music came with political themes, particularly against the then Liberal government headed by John Howard.

Powderfinger’s third album. Internationalist, was openly about the political climate of Australia in 1997 when Pauline Hanson rose to popularity and the establishment (the Liberal Party) kowtowing to her views and not trying to stand up to her or reject her policies.

Odyssey Number Five continues with this, with Like A Dog in particular, the fourth track off the album, which is about John Howard’s treatment of aboriginal and indigenous people and the general sense of entitlement emanating from the then government. Scathing as well of Howard’s mantra of running Australia as “relaxed and comfortable”.

Aside from the political themes, a lot of Powderfinger’s work post-Internationalist is about interpersonal relationships and more specifically – losing a loved one – whether that be through heartbreak, death, or conflict. Fanning lost his brother to a slow but painful cancer battle. Songs on Odyssey Number 5 like Waiting for the Sun, Thrilloilogy, Whatever Makes You Happy, and most importantly – These Days – all deal with these themes.

These Days is pretty iconic and while it doesn’t slap hard like other tracks on the album, it is however the most emotional and touching song the Finger ever produced. A melancholic ballad originally written with the 1999 Australian film Two Hands in mind, after director Gregor Jordan handpicked Powderfinger to write a track. Weirdly, the track does not fit the tone of the film in the slightest so I still have my suspicions over the development of the song.

It’s coming ’round again
The slowly creeping hand
Of time and its command
Soon enough it comes
And settles in its place
Its shadow in my face
Puts pressure in my day

What makes These Days so special though? To me, it’s the raw emotion from Fanning and the sincerity. The lyrics reflect the struggles of his late brother – and the dehumanising effects of cancer, but written more from the onlookers perspective. Fanning presents watching the struggle when you cannot do anything about a problem, and that feeling of uselessness. All you can do is hope for the best and watch as your loved one slowly loses sight of who you, and they, are.

This still resonates deeply with me. I remember the feeling all too well of watching my grandparents slowly pass, and particularly the battle of my granddad. Seeing him so sick and unwell, but the resilience in spite of suffering remains the defining image of him in my life.

This life, well, it’s slipping right through my hands
These days turned out nothing like I had planned
Control, well, it’s slipping right through my hands
These days turned out nothing like I had planned

I’ve also read into These Days and that slowly losing someone you love theme with my granny in mind. For the majority of the time I knew her, she was losing herself through dementia, as previously said. Having never truly known her as who she was – Joan – I always wonder if the sentiment from this song is how she would have felt. She “lived” 5-6 years without really knowing anything going on, living in a nursing home for a large period of time. When her funeral came in 2011, I remember not crying, neither did anyone else from my family. She’d been, in effect, dead since 2006.

It’s hard to admit things like that to yourself.

There’s one more song that really hits home for me about loss by Powderfinger. Sunsets on their following album, Vulture Street.

Maybe I should drop by
Maybe I should have called
Maybe I should have followed you and beat down your door
Maybe it’s gonna be breaking you every time you fall
But to shower you with pity would do you no good at all
No good at all

Sunsets is ultimately about the stage of grieving that deals with regrets, nostalgia, and attempts to move on. The benign but daunting silhouette that will follow you around. The daily tasks that get clouded by the idle thinking and daydreaming memories.

Cover art for the single release of Sunsets, originally featured on the album Vulture Street

Whilst writing this piece, I got some tragic news regarding a really close family friend of ours- Graeme. He passed away following a stroke and brain haemorrhage aged 71. Graeme was like an uncle to me, my cool, into music (Sort of fittingly, he knew Bernard Fanning and few other Powderfinger members on a first name basis), socialist leaning, and football loving uncle.

In honesty, I’m not sure how I feel. But something Powderfinger taught me is that feeling lost and confused, and unsure is perfectly fine. Not knowing how to feel is part of grieving and loss. Right now what’s powering me on is the memories of him, and knowing he lived life to the fullest. Make the most of the time you have with people, always make sure they know how much you care.

I’m restarting the grieving cycle now, but thankfully I know that sometimes, the best remedy for loss can be music.

We search around for solid ground that will help to carry us away
If the memories I left throw the light that helps to guide you through
We trickle down to our goodbyes but a part of me will stay with you
What we’ve spoken over time, never broken or compromised

Dream on together, leaning against each other
However it happens I hope it’s whatever makes you happy
Whatever makes you happy

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @jamie_dunkin. Thank you for reading this, and I hope you got something out of this.

Miss you, mate.

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