Books

A middle-aged man with a mop of black hair sits a control board in a recording studio.

Tony Cohen with John Olson
Half Deaf, Completely Mad

There’s an anecdote at the start of Half Deaf, Completely Mad that feels charged with more meaning than a casual reader might notice. Legendary Australian music producer Tony Cohen is recalling a boyhood memory of drawing with a neighbour. His friend criticises his picture: “The sky is not just a blue line at the top of the page.” Cohen is upset by the comment but later realises his friend was right: “An image has depth.”

After reading his posthumous memoir Half Deaf, Completely Mad, written with John Olson, it doesn’t take much to understand how deeply Cohen’s vision was drawn into the landscape of sound. Ironically, the sound that most defines Half Deaf, Completely Mad is laughter, however frayed, rueful or raw. You hear the voice of a natural storyteller reeling you in, the interview tape running warm as he speaks.

Cohen emerges as a figure of boyish mischief who has no bad word to say about anyone, despite his frank tales of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. In an era of revenge-by-memoir and self-pitying “advertisements for myself” – to steal a phrase from Norman Mailer – he is a generous and self-effacing narrator, with a clear-eyed view of his own failings. Now and again, Cohen even apologises to a specific person for letting them down. In between, he offers useful tips to any sound geeks seeking to emulate his achievements in the studio.

The chapters are titled after key albums Cohen worked on, a semblance of order mapped by the years they were recorded in: The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire (1980); Cold Chisel’s Twentieth Century (1983); the Dogs in Space soundtrack (1986); The Cruel Sea’s The Honeymoon Is Over (1992); Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Let Love In (1993), to name just a few. It’s necessary as one does feel hermetically sealed inside the creative experience of recording, one thing leading to another.

Born Anthony Lawrence Cohen in 1957, Cohen would become known as TC to his friends. His relationship with Nick Cave remains the defining aspect of his career, with major thanks to Mick Harvey along the way. Despite his damaging addiction to heroin and the first signs of diabetes, Cohen’s contribution for two decades defined them as a studio triumvirate.

“If you’re too frightened to speak you’re not someone Nick would want to work with,” Cohen observes of the sessions for Let Love In. “When Nick Cave is in frantic mode he sets up camp, usually around the piano and his artwork spreads out there … when Nick’s enjoying himself everyone else does too. He was an inspiration and spurred me on.”

Cohen is a bowerbird of influences and has some unlikely mentors. Chief among them is Molly Meldrum, who taught a teenage TC the art of “exaggeration” in recording, a maximalist approach that negated subtlety for volume and emphasis, due to the later processes of reproduction that dampened what might have sounded great in the studio. Though my eyes glazed over at Cohen’s equipment preferences and analogue recording tricks, aspiring sound technicians will scour this book. Practical advice abounds, from DIY playfulness to the art of listening: “check your mixes at low levels to see where the cymbals and other high-frequency sounds are sitting because you hear differently at loud volumes”.

Another mentor was Roger Savage, who worked on early Rolling Stones records and later Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. As a young assistant at Armstrong Studios in Melbourne, Cohen noticed how Savage “always looked into the studio and by watching musicians, rather than fiddling with knobs and dials, he knew exactly what to do. It was spectacular. His hands would instinctively glide across the desk.” Drama, rather than perfection, would remain a Cohen strong suit.

Between advice and gratitude, Cohen has one story after another: how Ian Rilen of X played bass so hard because he used a 50 cent coin as a plectrum, or how Cohen put on sunglasses and covered an interview with a young journalist for Cave after the singer- songwriter was arrested for drugs before a gig in New York. He talks of methadone as “liquid handcuffs” – “you’re stuck in a cycle of doctors and chemists” – and of audiences screaming for “more shopping trolley!” from industrial noisemakers Einstürzende Neubauten.

There’s no big trauma, no big reveal, no excuses. Cohen defines himself this way: “It’s my job to be an interpreter between the music and the technology. To translate the artist’s song and performance to a medium that, when it’s replayed, sounds exactly as they would like, or better.”

It’s possible to see Cohen as a little Icarus who flew too close to the sonic sun. For all the humour, I could not escape a feeling of sadness and waste. At the same time, his achievements confound his appetite for destruction. The guy worked obsessively. Cohen died in 2017 at age 60 from poor health. Half Deaf, Completely Mad closes with him lamenting friends who have “fallen off the perch”. Cohen had dreams that he was talking to them. It made him wake up happy. You leave this book wishing he was still talking. But the tape runs out and it’s over. 

Black Inc, 240pp, $32.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Half Deaf, Completely Mad".

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