Current Issue #488

Dave Graney: Notes from the dentist's chair


As modern life teems with endless distraction, the dentist’s chair offers a rare moment to be alone with one’s thoughts.

I wrote this in a dentist’s chair, on my mind. Through my mind. It’s about five days later, I hope I got it down right. I meant to write – I hope I get it down right. I suppose it’s a kind of a translation. I wrote several songs too. But I keep forgetting to catch them.

One of those things, if you’re a songwriter – or any kind of writer, when you have no pen or paper around, ideas are guaranteed to come to you. I read that Thomas Hardy once wrote with a burnt stick on some dry leaves as he was compelled to get something off his mind and onto a page.

The dentist is in outer South Eastern Melbourne. I used to go to one in the inner-city, recommended by a friend, but that was when I lived in Zone One. I’ve been living in what was once Zone Three for two decades. This dentist was recommended by friends from across the other side of the highway, music related people too. They said this practitioner looked like a member of Charlie’s Angels – the 2000s version. We laughed, though I only knew of Drew Barrymore from that series, she has the most classic nose of all recent Hollywood women. Classic as in Ancient Grecian. They meant an actor of more Asian ethnicity.

So I’ve been going to this dentist for a while. I wouldn’t say “frequenting” as that is not a good description of my relativity to her business. As a kid I hated the dentist so much. The pain was unbearable, but it may have been the noise, the smell and the sight of the needles that added extra energy to the whole evil sensation. It was operatic. Grand guignol. I remember making a scene at the barbers when I was a kid too, I kicked Vic Gentile in the shins and yelled us out of the place. My dad was shocked and apologetic to the barber. It must have been the chair, so similar to the dental swivelling high seat.

So here I was, in one of the few moments a modern man can get totally cut off from the webs and intrigues of life and its cyber ghostings. I was laying back in the chair and the assistant had her two hands near my mouth and the dentist had her fancy little binoculars on and tools in both hands. I had some gel which came before the needle and also continuous gas. There was a television screen above me with subtitles and also music playing. The last time I was here it was a unified broadcast of audio and video, Air Supply Live. This time she had me watching The Block and listening to a playlist of middle-of-the-road 80s hits.

I had breakfasted that morning on porridge and tea with an orange and some textual roughage by Jonathan Swift from 1703. I had finished Gulliver’s Travels and was on to The Tale Of A Tub. His writing had really enlivened my mind, my inner monologue. The Tale Of A Tub begins with a roundabout dedication and then an even longer runup to a preface where he begins to talk of “critics” and other writers. His tone is high and playful. He nails everybody and everything.

I lay back there with my mouth open and the gas flowing free and the lights and four hands about my mouth. The song playing was Paul Young’s version of Wherever I Lay My Hat. It was peak sludge. Over produced, over produced 80s UK beige soul. Every sound in isolation, all together. Music made for nodding, imperial radio programming straw men. No drummers, perfect machined rhythms set to an exact code. It was a period when I lived in the UK and it seemed to go far longer than it actually did. No escape from it. No wonder The Smiths and Dinosaur Jr and house music hit so hard.

The Block was on above me on the screen. Some drama had been confected about tradies and budgets and materials and a deadline for someone’s renovation. I thought of the hotel in St Kilda where the show had last been and how all the poor tenants had been kicked out and they still sleep on the street directly across the road from their former rooms.

The politics of it was horrible and blatant. Now I was watching them blow up some other situation. The leading man is a fat everyman who has been recently hired by the actual government to head some sort of policy team in regard to skills training. The television personality hired by the former advertising and marketing man who is now PM. How shallow our country had become. The music changed to Go West The King Of Wishful Thinking.

The intimacy of dental work! People inside your mouth for an hour or so. She was very good. Did I mention I also wrote several songs as well as this text I am relaying here. Still getting a faint signal. Worrying me that I missed a beat. “Is it happening? The long fade?”

I had heard that morning about Kanye West and his gospel album. I wondered if he had ever been any good. I had heard one track I had liked, about being with his family. He’s been elevated to a level of celebrity from which there’s no coming back. Everything distorted and crushed, as if it’s come from deep at the bottom of the ocean. Hey, he’s no Tupac anyway. No Bob Marley. No Nas or Lil Wayne. They come with a charge. Of specific locale and accent. Cadence. Kanye might even be good but it all comes through this filtering and serious compression from deep inside the wheels of synthesized meat.

Yes, this chair and being held down here by these technicians climbing on me waving mirrors and pliers was giving me some time to think on things. Is that how you have to do it nowadays? Get kidnapped and strung up and your mouth painted in gels and lit by stage lights so you can get some time alone?

After two hours I got up out of the chair, went and took a leak, paid and drove off to a rehearsal with the NDE. A week later, I tried to get back into that mouthwashed, anaesthetised flow. I had to battle the interference all around. Dental notes. Heroic blues.

Dave Graney

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Dave Graney is a Melbourne-based writer and musician, and the author of 1001 Australian Nights (2011) and Workshy (2017).

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