An album, a film, a tour, some back catalogue reissues... it's a busy time to be Stephen Cummings
Back in 2009, Stephen Cummings wrote a fine memoir about his time in the Sports. Will It Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy? documented each epic disappointment that an anxious young chap in a rising band might encounter. It was imbued with a very gloomy (some might say very English), just-my-luck humour that made it stand out from the memoirs of his peers.
And now it's a film. Don’t Throw Stones, a documentary by filmmaker Mike Brooks that premiered at MIFF, uses the brilliantly simple premise of giving people in the book the right of reply. Just as Cummings reads passages from the book, so do former bandmates, industry big-hitters and friends, who then respond – sometimes with great indignation, sometimes with regret. Many of them, after all, painfully experienced firsthand Cummings' refusal to jump through the hoops of the American record label, bringing the band to a grinding halt when on the brink of making it huge. They include Mushroom’s Michael Gudinski (who still seems sorrowful that they were the band who got away), Stiff Records’ Dave Robinson (who didn’t really fancy these Aussies’ chances to begin with), collaborators Shane O’Mara and Rebecca Barnard, Joe Camilleri, The Church’s Steve Kilbey and journalist Jen Jewel Brown. The doco’s named after a 1979 Sports hit, but Cummings’ style was not so much to throw stones, but flick noses. And, he protests, (citing Chrissy Amphlett’s unapologetic memoir Pleasure and Pain, which he read before starting his own), “I’m much harder on myself than on anybody else.”
Having sabotaged his pop career, Cummings now finds himself, three decades later, in the pleasant position of prolifically releasing (cheap, fast) solo albums, and freelancing for various newspapers (a far cry from Smash Hits, which he started out at), between writing the novels Stay Away From Lightning Girl and Wonderboy. He lives in Caulfield and has two sons, one 16, one 25. As he says to Time Out, “I could be as stupid as anyone else. I’ve just done what I’ve wanted to do, so I consider that I’ve been very lucky to get away with that and can idle a day away like this. I’ve always liked an alternative lifestyle and I’ve done a lot of things to keep my interest. I’ve managed to pull off a few different things.”
His 20th solo album, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, captures his long-lasting love of old soul. These are tracks so classic-sounding that this journo went and googled the lyrics to see who wrote the originals. “That was kind of the idea,” he laughs with pleasure – because it was Cummings himself, of course. “They’re trainwreck classics. They’re saying that the world is a very difficult place at the moment.”
In September and October, Cummings will be going out on the road to air it, including two Melbourne dates. He’ll be taking his whole band to the Caravan Club, with just he and Shane O’Mara playing at the Yarra Hotel. That’s the same Shane O’Mara who seemed perplexed and slightly put out when he read bits of Cummings’ memoir out loud on camera for the first time in the documentary. Clearly bygones will be bygones.
“It’s a tough time for all the arts,” Cummings notes of being forced to perform solo or as a duo sometimes. His album is released through Joe Camilleri and Andrew Walker's label Head, and talk turns to the option of crowdfunding. “No, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “I mean, it’s fine. I just think that you end up with a lot of CDs in your garage. Because the people who are crowdfunding you, they’re the fans who were going to get the record already. So who are you selling it to? Then you’ve got to go out and do like 50 home shows and cook meals for people. So I just recorded it as quickly and cheaply as I can. But you know, my concentration span is not that great anyway.”
Ironically, Cummings puts the lack of an attention span down to giving up pot, but he’s happy with that decision. “People who are drug addicts, anything goes,” he says, citing a few famous figures. “They use it to make their personalities seem interesting… and then it doesn’t really. It’s so boring, the whole thing.”
Would he have been better off as a reclusive writer, shunning the whole sex, drugs and rock’n’roll shebang? “I did want to be on stage,” he reasons. “If I feel like it I can be as competitive and stupid as anyone else, and can be pretty good at it… but I never bought the hype. We were in a band for a very long time and I know how easily it can fuck up.”
There are no medals on the mantle at the Cummings abode, or shiny award baubles – he’s simply not that sentimental. “I may have kept one gold record,” he’ll concede. “I come from a family of which I’ve only ever seen two photos of the whole lot of us. But for a long time I was a real music fan, so I know a ridiculous amount of stupid facts about music.”
Last November there was talk of the Sports reforming, but Cummings says it was “never close. I’ve never seen the bass player since! Now it’s just like that’s what groups do – they’ll factor in that they’ll stop, then they’ll wait a year or two to reform, then they’ll do it for a bit too long and break up again. And that’s just how it goes. But it’s not what I want to do.”
Weep not, though, Sports fans: on October 3, Warner Music is releasing an expanded edition of Don't Throw Stones, which will include their OK, UK EP and nearly an album’s worth of other tracks recorded at the same time in England. They're also reissuing Reckless, which now has plenty of bonus tracks: the debut EP Fair Game, a 1978 live set and forgotten demos. Journalist Jen Jewel Brown provides liner notes for both. And, of course, Mr Cummings himself will be playing the Caravan Club, and also the Yarra Hotel on October 3.