Memories of Paul Cormack (1962 – 2021)
I heard the news yesterday that my friend Paul Cormack had died. The message came to me through his daughter Lena. Many might know Paul as the founding bass player for Crow and then Peg, key entities on the indie music scene in Sydney.
I first met Paul back in very early ‘80s when we shared a house together in Petersham. He was going to art school in Balmain. Back then he was as soft-voiced and sweet as they come, hyper-intelligent, with a passionate interest in post-modern philosophers, left-field art and photography. He seemed to be soaking up the world like a sponge. It was good to be around him.
We’d sit on our verandah on summer afternoons, him trying to read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison while I flogged the life out of Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream. Somewhat of a study in different moods. Eventually he’d roll his eyes and ask me to play something else. I’d beg off till I blasted out the song ‘Big Sleep’ one more time.
Paul was one of those guys who felt special, who had an aura about him that promised many great things ahead. It was an energy that drew people to him. Our house split up, but we stayed good friends, even life-long friends I would say. We were bonded together by those early years together when we were both forming ourselves into whatever we might become next.
But Paul was more of an extreme shape-shifter than me. Now and again, he could get a little edgy. There was some pain in him that could never get out, some shadow he was trying to beat. Having come from a working class background myself, I felt he was denying his past and trying to invent himself anew. This denial was not something I could relate too. He’d change the ‘C’ to a ‘G’ in his surname and become Paul Gormack, a symbol of his need to transform. I was faintly disapproving.
After a gap of a few years we’d connect again. By then it was like meeting Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. He’d gone so far back into his working class roots he had passed through the other side into a whole other movie of his life. He was into music more than ever and making Super 8 films, as well as working at a t-shirt printing factory.
We’d go on a couple of two-day speed benders, silk-screening posters for a few performance art and music nights I organised. The first one, called Volition, actually featured Paul on the poster in revolutionary reds and blacks, him looking through binoculars, his silhouette set heroically against a backdrop of video static; for the second event a year later, called Time’s Forelock, we used an old water colour illustration from a book of Russian fairy tales that I had. It showed a dreamy image of a horse and rider against a big moon. Paul had to tear the page out to make the silk-screen. A long time later, his daughter Lena told me he had passed the book of fairy-tales on to her as a special gift from him.
Paul and I lost contact, but next thing I knew he was in this group called Crow, playing startling bass and writing epic songs. I knew that he was also beginning the fight with his drinking habits too. I dunno what happened there, but he fell out of the band after having helped define them. It was very painful to him. But then, against the odds, he came back into view a few years later with another incredible unit called Peg, one of my favourite Sydney bands ever.
Then the same problem came into play. We’d talk and I’d ask him what the fuck he was doing, but as you’d expect the conversation was a muddy mix of truths and blame that never got clear. When I think of Crow and Peg now, words come to me that get to something about Paul as much as each band of spiritual brothers he was involved in. Words like ‘noble’, ‘driven’, ‘tormented’, ‘stormy’, ‘melodic’, ‘savage’, ‘romantic’, ‘yearning’, and ‘male’.
Me and Paul would continue to collide over the years. Our past bonds usually made us pretty comfortable despite some big gaps in time. I’d see flashes of anger and hurt in him, but I always seemed to be able to find the old softness – and we’d mostly have a laugh and get into our usual raves about music, books, art and ideas, hanging over a bar before some band played, or walking down a midnight street till whenever.
He was someone real close to me. I don’t think either of us ever forgot that closeness – even if, like I say, it was mostly to do with who we were a long time ago. Always this greatness in him that fed out into the great bands he had formed, and how much he affected other people’s lives. Always this promise of more.
The last few times we had spoken was a random encounter and then on the phone. It felt like he’d lost his skin. He was pretty raw. I was frightened for him. But there was still a little of the spark in him. He would rave to me proudly about his daughter Lena. About his struggle to get straight. He was still fighting to get on top of things. I’d hear he was doing well; then not so well; then really good. The wheel kept turning.
I had not seen Paul for a long while when the news of his death came to me, although he’d messaged me good wishes through Lena only a year or so ago. I heard from others he was coming good again. I figured we’d cross paths sooner or later when the time was right. It never happened like that.
Paul was a beautiful, troubled, talented human being. I hope it’s okay to remember him like this, with a few of the shadows intruding. I miss us being young and full of idealism and energy, dreaming together on that summer verandah in the Inner West in 1982. Him reading out passages of Foucalt for contemplation: “In the darkest region of the political field the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king.” Me playing him ‘Big Sleep’ one time too many on the stereo and raising my hands to the sky: “Where did you go? Immaculate friend.”