ode to the most beautiful place in melbourne

The past two weeks has seen an outpouring of unabashed emotion from Melbourne, Victoria and Australia in response to The Tote Hotel’s closure. Musicians who over the decades have graced the stages, fans whose live-music cherries were popped at the corner of Johnston and Wellington, those that have never visited the place but who actively fight to retain our city’s rich musical culture: these are just some of the many sectors of society that stood up and said no to the outrageous late-night venue restrictions, and more specifically to the demise of this beloved venue.

And then there are those of us that just loved to be there. To the people that frequented The Tote, its potential closure meant more than the loss of a great live venue, more than another nail in the culture coffin – though it was those things, too. But this was personal. It meant that we no longer had that place – the place where it didn’t matter what you looked like, the place where the love of music and a drink was enough to unite even the most disparate patrons, the place where people knew your name and you knew theirs, the place where you felt safe, the place that felt like home.

There is much talk that The Tote may reopen, which is brilliant evidence that when people stand up for what they love, the government is forced to listen. But that fact also threatens to make Tote memorials (such as this) somewhat redundant. After much thought, though, I have concluded that regardless of what happens, this is simply a celebration of The Tote as I knew it.

All the things I loved about The Tote were present at the phenomenal "Last Drinks" gig held on an otherwise unremarkable Monday night in January. If you too knew and loved the place then I’m sure these images will ring bells, and I have no doubt you have countless other memories that aren’t captured here. If you didn’t know The Tote very well, I hope this is enough to convince you to check it out should the doors reopen, or perhaps just to remember not to take your own local for granted.

Because The Tote was as ugly as sin, but like any great local pub, within its walls there was just so much beauty.


the music

Some of the best nights at The Tote included the unplanned attendance at either stage watching music as yet unknown to me. This was how I came across excellent bands such as The Toot Toot Toots and, most memorably, Vampillia, whose tiny body-painted performance-artist frontman being violently pushed off the stage by the much bigger suit-clad head-shaving co-singer blew my slightly drunk mind one quiet Sunday evening.

There were over two dozen bands playing during the Last Drinks gig but I only got photos of Digger and the Pussycats, largely because I just couldn’t get close enough to any of the other acts. I’m so glad I got this shot, though. Each time I have seen Digger and the Pussycats play I have grinned uncontrollably watching Andy smashing the lone drum like some kind of wild-eyed lunatic. Above is exactly what he looks like.


the jukebox

The music machine that sat humbly in the front bar was known far and wide for its excellent selection. More often than not the metalheads would take over and we would all be subjected to hours of double-bass drums and monotone screaming – but that’s OK, because it contributed to the front bar's character. Sometimes, though, if we waited long enough we would rejoice at the sound of our own selections. From Andrew WK’s “Party Hard” to Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” to anything by The Boss, dancing around the pool table between one and three a.m. was a regular occurrence.

I didn’t intend for this shot to be a double exposure; I simply neglected to wind on the film. I quite like the result, though, which includes the gleeful faces of Billy and Vanessa – two of the many Tote faces I know so well, but whom I don’t really know at all. Billy reiterated this phenomenon that night, exclaiming that he had never had as many Facebook friend requests as he’d received in the week since the pub announced its closure – because, according to him, “otherwise we’ll just never see eachother”.


the footy team

An example of the pub’s community reaching well beyond its building is the motley bunch of rejects that made up the 2009 Tote Football team, four of which are pictured above. They were largely unfit and most of them had trouble kicking a ball straight, but somehow they managed to beat Old Bar, Bar Open and The East Brunswick Club to take out the 2009 Pub Footy flag.


this guy

And how did they do it? With the help of this guy, the coach, whose half-time addresses (which on one occasion consisted of nothing more than “just keep doing what you’re doing”) apparently inspired the team to victory. Or maybe they were just inspired by the fact that their coach turned up to the matches in vintage suits and smoked cigars during play.



When I went to The Tote for the first time Tony scared the shit out of me. The massive, heavily tattooed security guard was a fixture at the pub for as long as I was a patron, and his devotion to his job was solid right to the end: while I waited in line to get in on the Sunday of the protest, Tony swiftly hurled a drunken woman out onto the street because she allegedly lit up in the Cobra Bar. In response to her slurred shouts of protest the always-professional Tony dismissively retorted “Shut your fucken pie-hole and go home!”. Yeah, at first, Tony seemed really mean.

But actually, he’s a big softie. And he always looked after us and made us feel welcome and safe.


the cobra bar

The Cobra Bar was kind of like an old exploitation film – small, dirty and sometimes forgotten about, but filled with unexpected gems. Like The Breadmakers, an excellently fun Melbourne band with the power to make people dance like maniacs. Like Eddy Current frontman Brendan Suppression dancing like a maniac to an excellently fun Melbourne band.

Like Marieke Hardy loitering in the filthy ladies toilets, at various stages of the evening participating in a media interview, charging her phone and looking for her money between the pages of a book.


the décor

Yeah, of course there was the sticky carpet, but there was also the Attack from Mars pinball machine that I loved but never once played, the gig posters and photos that adorned every inch of the walls, the lightshades that looked just like the ones my mum used to have in our dining room, and the totally random objects that hung from the front bar ceiling, including a naked baby doll with a safety pin through its ballsack.


the punks

As much a part of the décor as the baby with a safety pin through its ballsack, the punks could be found checking out bands or having a drink in the front bar on any given night. They appeared to be the real deal – totally devoted to the music, mean-looking but friendly as hell, literally wearing their hearts on their sleeves.


the bar staff

The percentage of attractive staff members at The Tote was so high that one night my friends and I were inspired to pen an imaginary song (by our phenomenal imaginary all-girl rock band) in their honour, entitled “I Like the Way You Pull It”.

There’s Tom, whose sweet eyes and charming smile have no doubt left a trail of broken hearts across Collingwood and beyond.

There’s Lachlan, whose perfect features and impeccable mod style turned the heads of girls and boys alike night after drunken night, and whose healthy air of arrogance is sure to send teenage girls into a frenzy as he leads his band over stages around Melbourne.

Honourable mentions to Lachlan’s sweeter but equally appealing tattooed partner-in-crime Curtis, and to the smokin’ hot ladies of The Tote, whose faces unfortunately eluded my lens.

There’s Marty, whose face is not as familiar to me as some others, but who captivated me in the moment pictured above as he belted whichever track was blasting from the jukebox speakers in The Tote’s final hour of business. Because that’s the endearing thing about the staff: aside from being lovely to look at, it always seemed like they enjoyed being there as much as we did.



Finally, to the people who introduced me to the place, who spent all those nights and all that money with me, and who loved it as much as I did for all the things listed above and more. Laird, Rusty and Shasta, and all the others who don’t happen to be in this shot – we’ll find other places to drink, dance and love. But there’ll never be anything quite like The Tote.


die! die! die! on the birmingham floor

Following the devastating closure of the temple of rock'n'roll, I, like countless other Melbourne music lovers, have been repeatedly asking myself Where the hell will we go now? But I've been thinking, and while the Tote's demise is undoubtedly tragic (more on that in the next week or so), Melbourne does have several other spectacularly worthy music venues.

I have written about The Birmingham before, where I also mentioned the secret Ground Components gig I was lucky enough to attend early last year. It was hot. It was sweaty. It was cramped. It was incredible. The tiny band room can be offputting to the uninitiated, but the intimacy between the bands and the crowd (the stage is about five inches off the ground) combined with the general claustrophobia induced by the proximity of the walls to one another creates a wonderfully communal music experience - which is the great thing about so many of Melbourne's small music venues (The Old Bar, Bar Open and the John Curtin also come to mind). At various stages during the overwhelmingly energetic set, fans were screaming the lyrics back at Joey so hard and so close that it was more a constant duet between Ground Components and their worshippers than something to be objectively observed.

The above photo, which captures the characteristically intense frontman and the equally enthusiastic crowd, could have been taken during any one of their songs, and to be honest, I can't remember which. But I like to think that the shutter may have opened in the middle of this rousing chorus:

They said I wasn't meant for this
A life that can't and won't be missed

So go ahead and blow a kiss

To a life that keeps my hands down by my side

The frenetic crowd isn't visible in this shot, which renders it slightly vacant, or somehow lacking. I'm also suspicious of the mic stand threatening to obscure the subject's face. I still adore the image, though; it absolutely recalls the energy of the room, if only because the impassioned scream erupting from the bass player is obviously spur-of-the-moment genuine - that is, he's not doing it for any kind of musical benefit because he doesn't have a mic. He's totally lost in the moment, just like everyone else in that sonic sauna.

Sweaty strangers crammed into a pub's dirty back room, collectively and euphorically belting out lyrics as a few blokes on a crappy stage spew gut-wrenching rock'n'roll into every crevice: This is Melbourne music, and you can still find it thriving throughout the city every Friday, Saturday, Tuesday night. You just have to look. And listen. And scream.



Boxing Day means a lot of things to a lot of people - cricket, barbecues and alcohol chief among them - but in my home town it also means the annual arrival of the carny. This is no classy affair à la Silvers Circus, though, or even the ferris wheel that sits on the banks of the Yarra. What this particular travelling entertainment troupe has to offer includes rickety ring-tosses, dodgy dodgem cars, pitiful prizes, creepy clowns and malfunctioning merry-go-rounds. Not to mention them colourful carny folk - more Cooder and Spud than Siegfried and Roy. It's a ritual that has been occurring in the town for over a decade now: wealthy holidaymakers reluctantly allow their over-hyped kids to risk life and limb on the various attractions, all at a premium cost, leaving before the drunk tweens arrive after dusk to spin out and spew up on something - anything - that rotates really fast.

OK, I realise that so far I've painted a pretty bleak picture, some of which may be exaggerated (
for example, I cannot confirm that there have ever been any significant injuries), but in actual fact I find the carny's arrival strangely thrilling. I put this down to aesthetics. The rides/deathtraps are old - ancient, even - but with that comes the faded hand-painted glamour that probably used to represent real excitement (and, to kids who don't know any different, still does). The gaudy colours and gratuitous lights combine with the pervading do-it-yourself ethos to create a kind of vulgar beauty, at once distasteful and irresistibly charming. This aesthetic is consistent throughout all kinds of carny and circus culture, from Luna Park to HBO's stunning but underrated drama Carnivàle.

Every aspect of the carny has an old-world (albeit sleazy) charm, which is especially evident in the details. It's one of the few (only?) entertainment sites that hasn't been overhauled with modern, sleek technology, and like the visual aspect, this is true right across the carnival/circus spectrum. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that across decades and continents, the style hasn't significantly shifted from its fundamental principles. I wonder whether it's more to do with economic factors than an intense correlation between its look and the idea of old-fashioned fun. Maybe both.

And then there's the clowns. Those rows of ominous heads (made even more menacing thanks to a childhood peppered with repeat viewings of It) turning ever so slowly, daring you to reach your hand into their engorged mouths, are a reassuring staple of any carny worth its salt. They're also my favourite carny fixture, and if ever I have a camera in tow when I come across them I find them hard to resist. And maybe they hold the key to another reason I love the carny - unadultered nostalgia. Because who hasn't tossed plastic balls into rotating decapitated clown heads (or been too afraid to) in order to win a nasty plastic made-in-China prize at some point in their childhood? Remember? Wasn't it great?


overdue and complete and final sydney diaries

After the time warp that comes with the silly season and all its associated holidaying and partying, it feels as though my Sydney trip took place a lifetime ago. But actually, it was less than one month ago. And I finally have all of the films back. So here is the definitive selection of images from my recent interstate excursion.

Before the trip, I anticipated visiting the botanical gardens, various galleries, Bondi Beach, Oxford St and the lomo store. Like any good trip, though, things didn't go exactly according to plan. Cut from the itinerary for various reasons were the botanical gardens, the galleries and the lomo store. Though it was slightly regrettable to miss these activities, they were replaced with equally enjoyable expeditions; case in point, the impeccably manicured Chinese Garden of Friendship. The surrounding walls that essentially blocked out the city, the various flowing water features and the abundance of supremely chilled-out birds and lizards adorning the environment no doubt contributed to an overwhelming serenity throughout the garden. One of the local inhabitants is pictured above, checking out the view from atop a gorgeous weeping willow.

It was a perfect summer day, and the sweet relief the garden provided from the intensifying heat just added to its magic. I was a little bemused when faced with an entrance fee upon arrival, but the absolute beauty of the place made the loss of some loose coin wholly worthwhile.

True, I missed out on the galleries. But who needs arrogant arty types telling you what to like at your expense when you can take in the magnificent art on display around the city streets, just by looking up? A lot of time was spent wandering the footpaths of the CBD and admiring the rich history evident in the architecture. I guess this is the State Theatre, but I don't really remember. I took the shot simply because I loved the typeface and the sweeping vertical design.

Bondi! This place was a trip. Quite literally - because we perhaps foolishly decided that walking from the Junction to the beach in 30+ degree heat without having had any breakfast was a good idea. But also figuratively, as the sheer number of people there on a working-week Monday afternoon astonished me, as did the variety of languages being hurled across the sand. I have never seen as many tiny swimsuits and bad tattoos as I did on that day. And it was the only time I have ever been asked whether I spoke English. I think maybe this place should become an independent state; I grew up by the beach but Bondi is unequivocally unlike anything I have seen before.

It was such a perfect day to spend at the beach. I actually swam, too, as opposed to lying on the sand trying not to get burnt - the water wasn't cold like it is in Victoria! The natural structure of the beach itself is undeniably beautiful - combined with the clean water and ultra-fine sand, it really is a picturesque Aussie landmark. I get it now. The man-made aspects of the beach are equally interesting, though. Take this unusual lifeguard tower - what a great design! And the vibrant graffiti that lines the concrete walls. I'm so pleased this day trip wasn't culled from our busy schedule.

I wasn't going to include this photo because it's, well, kind of gratuitous... But in the end I couldn't not include it. Not only does it capture a crucial component of our visit - our night out on Oxford St - but it is also, quite accidentally, an almost-perfect shot in many ways. This is because it incorporates the following: 1 - the glorious, joyful sleaze that is bountiful along the very gay-and-sex-friendly strip; 2 - perfect placement of 'HER' over taka's face, which is hilariously fitting (you will know this if you have ever attended a dress-up party with him); 3 - taka's lovely action captured to reflect the name of this fine establishment (so is it actually a liquor store? I have no idea); and 4 - the subtle inclusion of the word 'TOOL' in the background. Yes taka, you are.

Finally, I didn't get to the lomo store (it was closed on the four days I was there), but here I am having dinner in Chinatown. (A side note: I was apprehensive including this seeing as I obviously didn't take it... but I did take the first exposure of the neon, and I otherwise totally acted as director, so I feel it's justified. Besides, I've done it before.) We wandered up and down the main strip, listening to all the spruikers and weighing up the best menus and offers, before finally settling on a modest but nice-looking place that included vegetarian dumplings (this was actually the dealbreaker - they're my favourite!). Perhaps we should have been more discerning instead of being seduced by the promise of meat-free morsels, though, because my main dish had a giant fly in it. True story! But I didn't mind so much; the bustling environment sufficiently distracted me from any significant distress.

So there it is - Sydney in a nutshell. I loved it, just like I hoped I would. It's very different to Melbourne, which is precisely why the amped-up rivalry is redundant.

(But don't worry, Melbourne. You still have my heart.)