The first time I speak to Tim Rogers on the phone, he’s delightful; the dream interviewee. Upbeat and charming, he calls me ma’am a lot and answers discursively; seguing smoothly from the book he’s reading about Russian poetry, to baseball and a conversation he recently had with his ex-wife about the Irish-Jewish tradition of mourning, and then on to the anguish of song writing.
I quote my favourite lyrics from ‘Heavy Heart’, and mention how its melancholic imagery of heartbreak are combined with a defiant and self-deprecating humour, and Rogers talks about the human coping mechanism that redeems pain into comedy. He says that if he knew how to write a hit record, he would, but all he knows is how to write the kind of records he writes – successful in an alternative, low-fi way. I suggest his fans are grateful for it, and he suggests that we should all meet up for a martini one day. I finish by telling him that Hourly Daily relieved my dull and bleakly suburban adolescence (he deflects quickly with, ‘Sorry, never heard of it’), and I hang up feeling pretty good, before realise: I haven’t hit the record button.
I’m granted another interview by his publicist, with a stern warning that he’s now in rehearsals for his Rogers Sings Rogerstein tour and very, very busy. On the phone he sounds tired and his voice is low. He apologises and diligently runs through the same-ish questions as before, beginning with song writing.
“I’ve always got something going on in my head and when you can’t take it anymore, you gotta compose,” he says. “But songs are percolating in my head for quite a while before it ever gets to that stage. The hardest bit is finishing – finishing songs is torturous. I’m very critical of myself.” Song writing, he finds, is distressingly without process, usually relying heavily on long walks, tram rides and luck. “It’s not like I have a desk,” he says. “I mean I have a desk, but it’s usually used for writing notes to my local council.”
He talks about his interest in baseball – especially, following the fortunes of his team, the Philadelphia Phillies – and how, he adds wryly, touring is really a matter of fitting gigs around the games. Now that his daughter lives in the States, he says, he likes to think she’s watching too – it makes him feel closer to her. Asked about Rogers Sings Rogerstein he says, “I like everything about it. I wanted to write a modern dance record, but it didn’t work out that way. There’s a lot of love on that album,” he says, “a lot of genuine love, and because I can’t always be with the people I love, this is how I send it out to them.”
On a Wednesday night at the The Darwin Railway Club, where the fairylights flash epileptically and punters are known to happily perch on the floor for a gig as if for story time, the atmosphere is expectant. The venue has a casual and intimate feel, so that it seems perfectly natural that Rogers should be accompanying his Australian-born, Tennesee-based support act, Catherine Britt. In this moment, Rogers’ distinct look and sound is on show – dapper and dishevelled at once, and there are glimmers of the solo act that everyone came to see.
Instead, Rogers’ raw energy – breathtaking when channelled into song writing and staggering when it burns on stage – is dissipated over the course of the gig by the Stolichnaya he’s drinking straight from the bottle. His audience banter starts out joyfully irreverent (“I fucken hate hippies…”) but becomes, at times, irate, often confused and increasingly misfired. A comment about how we’re all sharing this evening together starts well, but moves awkwardly towards how we’re all going to get laid later and then, a little vulgarly, towards the bodily fluids that will be involved.
The gig continues in this fashion, feeling a little like a sound check or an open mic night with mates and it’s electrifying, in a way, seeing Rogers so uninhibited, so raw and unpolished, thrillingly in freefall, and we’re somehow enthralled by this train wreck not knowing what will happen next.
But what happens next is much the same. There are a few criticisms of people using their phones in the audience, one guy is pulled on stage for a hug when Rogers catches him taking a photo (“isn’t this better than a picture? Isn’t this so much more real?”), plus a few signature Rogers existential moments (“I’m not looking for the real thing. I’m just looking for a thing. Anything.”) And there’s an invitation to the audience to screech/howl for the people we love and miss, ending with a boogie with the audience.
Rogers’ band – Cameron Bruce on keys, drummer Gus Agars and Shane O’Mara on guitar – are incredible; the real glue for this otherwise musically shambolic evening. Darwin crowds are generous and very laid back, and laugh along good-humouredly at Rogers’ elegantly wasted hip shaking on the dance floor. When he obliges with an encore, it includes an impromptu (and slightly ham-fisted) duet with much-loved Territorian performer Shellie Morris who Rogers played with a fortnight previous with the Black Arm Band for the Darwin Festival’s closing night.
It’s hard to tell if Rogerstein is any good based just on this performance, and the croaky-throated (yet somehow satisfying) renditions of ‘I left My Heart All Over the Place’ and ‘You’ve Been So Good to Me So Far’ have some flickers of the old, sad-but-redeemed-through-song Rogers from What Rhymes With Cars and Girls. The performance is raw and staggeringly personal, and it does feel like Rogers opened up a vein, and possibly shared something with us. But you could also fairly ask, ‘is this what we came for?’