Monday, June 22, 2009
The Tote’s future is unwritten
In May, a nine-day closure of Melbourne’s seminal rock’n’roll venue, Collingwood’s Tote Hotel, sent a shiver through the music community. Like a corpse, the building itself seemed to sag on its foundations—her lifeblood removed, it felt as though she could implode on herself at any moment. If the Tote’s walls could speak (and if the carpet is anything to go by, there’s a pretty good chance they can), they’d bombard us with the stories of a true champion of rock music. The calibre of international touring acts that have graced the stage—White Stripes, Guitar Wolf, McLusky, Mudhoney, The Dirtbombs, Hellacopters etc—aside, the Tote’s greatest accolade has been its role in the propulsion of Australian music. Without the Tote serving up live bands and providing a launch pad for local musicians six-nights-a-week, Melbourne’s reputation as a world-class rock’n’roll destination would be seriously jeopardised.
It’s true that the Tote’s demise would only propel another venue, of which there are plenty, to the top of the local pile. And as we’ve witnessed with the closing of Fitzroy’s Punter’s Club, New York’s C.B.G.B’s, London’s Astoria and Wellington’s Bar Bodega, the passing of a music institution, while sad, is unlikely to spell the end. Still, the Tote has served a community (maybe not your local mother’s group, but a community nonetheless) for twenty-five years now and the historical significance of what’s been going on inside her withered frame should not be underestimated.
With the current lease expiring in October, rezoning of the neighbouring TAFE site opening development possibilities, an impending resale, increasing running and security costs, and a crippling licensing debacle, you’d have to say the odds are stacked against the Tote. That said, there’s every possibility that any and all of these problems could be surmounted. A sympathetic buyer may appear and snap the place up for a relative bargain at the current asking price. A ten-year lease might become available at a reasonable rate. The outcome of rezoning could favour a noisy pub and deter residential development of the adjacent block. The headaches of licensing technicalities appear to be over, though there’s little chance the government will back-flip on the high-risk security tag the bar has been assigned.
Hedging words abound—woulds, coulds, mays and mights aplenty—but film-maker Natalie van den Dungen remains optimistic about the future of this venue. Given the harsh reality that a crumbling Tote would create a dramatic finale to her Forthcoming documentary, which was intended as a simple celebration of our home of rock, Natalie insists that her heart remains set on the subsistence of her favourite haunt. “I have film-maker friends that say ‘wow that’d be great for your film,’” she laughs. “But I tell them that I don’t care at all. I would relinquish the entire documentary for the fact that the Tote will keep going.”
And she’s not talking about some fly-by-night project here. Natalie’s film (working title: ‘Loud and Proud’; commonly referred to as ‘The Tote Documentary’) will showcase the culmination of five-year's worth of concert and interview footage. “Initially my desire was to raise some kind of awareness that this is going on right here,” she continues. “I felt like what’s going on at the Tote should be celebrated. Even with nobody in the Tote, it still emanates its own character—it’s a living, breathing organism. You can’t create that without thirty-odd years of things happening and allowing it to grow. And it’s not just the building; it’s all the people it’s attracted. If it was to end, it would be the breaking of a community. The tote is this nucleus, this central point of the music scene. It serves a collective of people who love music. It doesn’t matter if they differ in any other way, they can come together on a musical level. I just wanted to declare the Tote to the world... and then save it.”
But saving the Tote was always going to be a huge task for one woman and a camera. “I had a dilemma when it sold last year. I was thinking ‘what if it shuts down? Maybe I should make the documentary now; I need to get it out there’. But then I realised I can’t save the Tote, but I can certainly help try and drum up some support or awareness.”
To achieve this and finish the Tote project Natalie requires funding. Part of the difficulty in attracting funds is that outside of Melbourne music circles—and dedicated rock’n’roll communities elsewhere—the Tote’s profile is far from huge. It’s loud, it’s dingy and it’s the exact type of place your mother warned you about. So despite the quality of the interview and live footage Natalie’s amassed thus-far, it remains far from an investors dream.
Still, Natalie remains philosophical. “If the people I’m applying for funding from don’t fund the completion of this documentary, they’re not the right people to make this. This is something to get very excited about. I’ve got amazing footage and it’s an amazing subject—it deserves it! Nothing about the Tote feels like it’s being mass produced or spoon-fed. It’s all about the appreciation of music. In this day and age, what kinds of communities are there? There’s sporting communities, there’s online communities, but where else can people of all backgrounds get together, hang out and talk about the world? We’ve got something special here and kind of precious. Anybody who knows this place would find it hard to disagree with that.”
With so many factors weighing against the continuation of the Tote, Natalie is stuck, somewhat, in a holding pattern until the situation is resolved either way in October. From then, she promises, her obsessive documentation of the Tote will finish; though it may take her moving abroad to physically stop her. From such naive beginnings, it is now likely that this film will prove a valuable historical reference. This, Natalie claims, was never the intention. “I didn’t start this to make a good documentary. I started this because I thought it mattered and I wanted to show that to other people. It’s about an open mind and a curiosity and sharing. Without sounding childlike, sharing is such an important thing. A big part of what I’m trying to do with film is to share what I am experiencing with other people for their sake. It makes me happy when people like it. It’s like [seminal Australian comedy] ‘The Castle’... You can’t buy what we’ve got.”
For more information about the Tote Documentary and a kick-arse trailer go to: www.myspace.com/thetotedoco