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vale: john blades

Robbie Aveniam, John Blades, Slices of My Life, the NOW Now Festival 2007 Robbie Aveniam, John Blades, Slices of My Life, the NOW Now Festival 2007
photo Tom Bannigan

John was an inspirational member of Sydney’s music community for many years, approaching life with breathtaking passion, never allowing Multiple Sclerosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1982, to arrest his activities. He said in his 2010 radio documentary The Too Hard Basket, “It has been very important to me throughout my MS to never regard myself as sick. The word ‘sick’ is a straitjacket” (360 documentaries ABC-RN).

One of John’s many passions was The Loop Orchestra, and it remains Australia’s most enduring experimental music project—29 years of broadcasts, recordings and performances. MS over time reduced his motor functions and he was eventually wheelchair-bound and had to give up his job as an engineer at the RTA. He continued with The Loop Orchestra, his radio program Background Noise (with collaborator Richard Fielding) and his interests in culture and communication.

On 17 July 2006 the gig series If you like improvised music we like you at PELT gallery presented “a unique collaboration between Robbie Avenaim (percussion and electronics) and John Blades who will be presenting a spoken word piece entitled ‘a slice of my life’.” John performed an expanded version titled Slices of My Life in January 2007 with Avenaim (percussion) and Chris Abrahams (piano) at the NOW now Festival in Sydney. It remains one of the most touching pieces of music theatre I’ve seen.

As in all aspects of his life his preparation was meticulous—perhaps a legacy of his engineering training. John had a script on his wheelchair tray, but during the performance he didn’t refer to it—he’d memorised the 45-minute text. The script was autobiographical—he talked about MS, his work as an engineer, his love of music, film and Art Brut, his involvement in radio, The Loop Orchestra, his interest in serial killers, his relationships with specialist cab drivers and his revelatory introduction to computers.

This public self-dissection of his privacy was presented with humour, generosity, honesty, intelligence and courage—there was no hint of self-pity. He shared his heroic tale, not to self-aggrandise, but because this story is engaging and needed to be told for the sake of others who live with a disability, whose stories usually go unreported. But it was only a script, it had to be contextualised musically, it had to be performed by a body.

When you see interviews on YouTube of John from 1990, you realise how fluent his speech had been as a young man, but MS robbed him of muscle control—you could see and hear the effort it took him to speak. In Slices of My Life his ‘song’ created deeper meanings which would have been lost in written form. His voice after 30 minutes tired and the audience became acutely aware of the effort. But he remained articulate as the voice gradually got slower and less powerful.

There is little else with which to compare Slices of My Life. The fragile song was defined by John’s body’s capabilities in a way that made me think of Stelarc’s body interacting with technology. It also made me think of Ian Curtis’ wavering strength in Joy Division (one of John’s favourite bands). The performance of Slices became a metaphor for his life.

It was appropriate that he chose music to tell his tale: he loved and understood music so much. And despite the powerful content of his text it remained the work of a trio. Abrahams and Avenaim, sensitive to the content of the text and the fragility of the song, were equal players, creating parallel structures that were as engaging as the unfolding story. As in all his endeavours, John was comfortable with collective authorship.

In 2010 John went on to communicate another untold story of sex and disability in the documentary The Too Hard Basket for ABC Radio National. It won the Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism—All Media, and the Radio Documentary of the Year Award from the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union. In this work John communicated with humour, generosity, intelligence, honesty, courage and great dignity. That’s how we’ll remember him.

Jim Denley

John Blades also appeared in the documentary film Scarlet Road (director Catherine Scott, 2008). Eds

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 41

© Jim Denley; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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