Interview with Robert Brokenmouth

Author of
Nick Cave, The Birthday Party & Other Epic Adventures

Rough Interview Notes

by Darren Langlands

How's it going?

A little bit out of breath. Today seems to be hotting up as a fast day, a lot of things to do. Interviews and such, so I don't know how it's going to go. It should be fun anyway.

Why a book about The Birthday Party and why now?

Well look, There are a whole bunch of reasons... The reason why everybody should buy it is basically because The Birthday Party is the most important band that Australia has ever produced and I mean that in a world-wide sense. The Birthday Party still remain unacknowledged by the media overseas but a lot of bands overseas acknowledge them as a fairly significant influence. I was actually vindicated quite neatly on Triple J when I mentioned Amphetamine Reptile and the Seattle Sound and all the rest of that stuff... Kingsmill said that he'd spoke to Mark from Mudhoney and he said that, yes, The Birthday Party were a big influence. And I thought, yep, vindicated, of course. I'm not saying that these guys wouldn't be around but it would be incredibly different and they would not have felt the ability to go overboard in quite the same way that they do now.

The whole idea of Rock'n'Roll has altered dramatically over the last ten years, and I think people don't really seem to recognize that. No, actually, change that to twelve or thirteen years. And it's largely due to this band. For Australia they're important because Australian music is now regarded with respect in Europe and England. You can't just show up and be scared that they'll give you a backhander and send you spinning back to us or spinning into breakup like Birdman and The Saints had happen to them. Split Enz went to England as well in late '78 and I remember reading a review of them doing a gig and I thought, that's a bit bloody harsh, they may not be brilliant but they don't deserve something as scathing as that. And people seem to be going back to them (BP) more and more and more. The impact of the band live was very immediate, very personal and very, very intimate. It also unsettled people in a way that I can't think of any bands that do this any more.

Did you actually see them yourself, Darren?

A bit before my time I'm afraid...

Can I ask how old you are?

I'm 24...

How do you see all this yourself then? If you haven't seen them, then hearing me going on about how fabulous they are must sound like a crock!?

No, not necessarily. I've seen the Deep in the Woods clip enough times to still be scared when I see it...

That was filmed in Sydney...

...on the last tour...

In May 1983.

I've got most of their stuff... and I'm certainly into them and the Bad Seeds. Certainly, I haven't been able to categorize them...

There's that. They remind me a lot of the Velvets in the sense of what their appeal is and what direction they took...

I don't know that they were quite as pretentious as the Velvet Underground...

Wanna bet! You go reread the lyrics on Prayers on Fire. Read the lyrics to Happy Birthday. C'mon. Would you name one of your songs after a short story by Gogual? That's what they did. That's what Faint Heart is. It's a very unusual title. A faint heart is obviously a weak heart but who'd call it a faint heart? Only Gogual. I don't know for sure because I never actually asked the question but I've never encountered the phrase before... Pretentious as all hell. The point is, is that they managed to get away with it. After seeing them perform, not just with such veracity but, with such charisma and power and such chemistry... I mean after you see good bands and pretty good bands, it's like, it's pretty good, it's really good and I can understand why people jump up and down about bands like The Jesus Lizard or Ministry or something but it's like they're pretty good I reckon.

You saw them a few times then?

I saw them enough times on the really good nights to know what they were capable of, and I saw them once on a duff night to know that people that saw them on duff nights, and I've encountered a number, who still rave on about them as though they were the best thing since than sliced bread, have missed the point and were just going along with it, or were so thrilled with that, that they would have been just blown into the wall by their really good performances, that's all I can say. I've actually met people that ran away from their gigs, actually left. I met someone very recently, in February this year, who actually said to me that she fled after the first song, they were just too much; too sexual and too violent. She just left and I thought, fuck!

Who were their audiences. We've heard a bit about their performances but who were the people that lined up for it?

The audience changed. Let's look at Australia first. The audience for the Boys Next Door were basically a lot of young people around about the same age group, a lot of students, intellectuals, a lot of people from middle class backgrounds; a lot of people from working class backgrounds who were intelligent enough to realize their own potential within a possibly upwardly mobile situation. This sort of stayed static for a while. The Melbourne scene stayed around two, three hundred, the same with the Sydney scene, and with the alternative scene. In 1980, Australia, all of a sudden, got really proud of itself...

For what reason?

Well a whole bunch of bands which were coming out were getting on our charts. It coincided with a whole lot of Mushroom stuff that was going on, like Split Enz and The Sports. It coincided with Midnight Oil. It coincided with getting really popular, breaking through from really disgusting pub gigs to actually quite big bloody gigs. It coincided with... I think Back in Black (AC/DC) came out... All of a sudden, the suburbs seemed to open up to more modern music. The Models became popular for example. The scene just basically opened up with all these people who were pretty much fringes anyway but they sort of became more a part of the scene. All of a sudden, instead of hundreds of people, you had thousands, potentially, going out to these gigs. So you had a real mix of people... you had the alternative types who were really into the music and loved the music, and then the people who were into the posing, and the dress sense and they really didn't like the band as a general rule. There were the political types... who really hated the band too, because they didn't understand it basically, it was rockist and sexist and all the rest of that stuff... which some of it kind of was but you can't really imagine someone emulating the song Deep in the Woods. You cannot imagine it, it is just so unrealistic. Honestly...

So the audience fluctuated, similarly in England. Especially in London, tribes are the go at the time. They had like, pop people, and rockers, and mods and punkers. Of course The Birthday Party just didn't fit into it and people would come up to them and ask them what they were and they be, 'what the fuck are you talking about?' They just did their thing and confused the press long enough for people, a lot of people, to come along and see. I've always thought that The Birthday Party were a very refreshing blast of fresh air after the woes and misery of bloody Joy Division, who I actually quite like, the way in which they were treated and the way in which people responded to them I thought was just awful. And there was that dreadful scene of disco music, and pop, pop, pop! Pop's fine but you don't want to do it all the time. It doesn't advance anything, it's not important really, it's forgettable, it's the stuff you put on while you're doing the washing up and sing along. This was a band that if you stuck this on the record player, you had to listen to it, you had to pay attention, you were forced to, very disruptive music.

The Birthday Party confounded people, because they didn't just do like a violent imitation of The Cramps or something, they actually showed a vast amount of texture and complexity in their lyrics. Quite often I'd be willing to bet that Nick hadn't thought through all of his lyrics. I reckon that that's probably a good thing for him to do, otherwise he'd be there forever, he just tried to get them how he felt them to be right, then he'd start singing them and they'd become an entity unto their own.

Did you find that a lot of his stuff was done on mic, at the moment?

On the spur of the moment and very fast... spontaneously... I haven't actually had the opportunity to ask Nick this personally. There are a number of things I'd like to ask Nick but I was unable to interview him...

Why was that?

It's a very ticklish situation... I actually incidentally didn't want to do this, I didn't want to interview him, for a long time, partly because he's always surrounded by these buggers that are trying to worm things out of him or hang out and be his buddy and pal, even when he was really dirt poor, people were always hanging off him and I really didn't want to be part of that. I've met him a couple of times before that and he just seemed like a nice, reasonable kind of guy, a bit wacky and that's it. No big deal, very talented, great performer; he's his own person and he does what he wants to do and that's fine, but I didn't want to get in his way. In the end I was bullied into doing it and I approached him backstage at one gig or another and asked him, and I was shit scared because now I was one of the bastards that wanted something out of him. He said, send me the manuscript. I said, yep, sent it too him and, I think he liked some of it but didn't like others. But the basic point is, he didn't want to be interviewed because, if I fucked this up, his name was gonna be on it. He's been seen to give his support to something that is shit and he's so careful about that. I have no problem with that, I think that's fine but boy, I tell you what, I could sit him down and ask him a bunch of questions but if I ever got the opportunity, I'd like to make it a very informal situation. I really hate the sort of situations that people put this poor bastard through. I mean I'm OK talking to you on the phone but that's partly because I've had five fucking years talking to people on the phone in my jobs. Prior to that I'd be spluttering all over the place.

How then were the interviews with Phill and Rowland?

The interviews will Phill and Rowland were fine. Phill wanted to talk, we got drunk more than a few times...

Yeah, there's a nice quote on the bio from him about you and Vodka...

Well that particular incident... He met me at the airport which is really nice of him, took me back to his place and we sat around talking and we were looking through things and, out came the vodka, and I'd never had vodka straight from the freezer before, which of course is the way you're supposed to drink it. This was a complete revelation, so I just kept drinking, it was wonderful. I only realised when I stood up how utterly smashed I was. I was bumping into things... We went through two thirds of a bottle of Stolley, and the tape of this interview is (slurs)... towards the end it's just insane.

Phill and Rowland have been treated, if that's the right word, to all too vivid instances of a grown man rolling around on their carpet or wherever I happened to be with them, holding my sides with laughter because they tell so many hilarious and ridiculous stories. And I actually had to leave a lot out of the book otherwise it'd be this endless roller coaster and people would get bored, and the roller coaster doesn't tell you anything. So what I've tried to do is pace it and tried to explain how these things demonstrate what this band's personalities were like, how they were and why they were rather than just give, ha-ha-ha, isn't this funny?

How do you go about deciding what you're going to use from a time that is essentially clouded by drugs and alcohol?

That's a very good question, I'm glad you asked... it wasn't that clouded oddly enough... it was certainly clouded by drunkenness. Nick's always been a great drinker. Tracy was drunk a huge amount of the time, when he was touring with the band he was. That doesn't mean to say they were all a dour bunch of bastards, the point is that they enjoyed themselves a lot, and when things got too bored they'd make their own entertainment and Nick still does this. I know of innumerable instances when Nick just entertains himself because he's so bored.

When you ask people these things... it's a while ago and quite often I'd find that their recollection was wrong, and I'd have physical evidence to the contrary, so I'd explain that to them and they'd agree. There's one classic example where there was an incident when they were living in London where some money was pinched and Phill thought Rowland had taken it, and that was what Phill's belief still was. When I spoke to Rowland about it, he said, well that's typical of Phill because I didn't and it was actually this guy here. And I thought, well, fair enough... and I put it to Phill and he said, oh yeah, maybe it was. So that funny little bugbear that had been between these two guys, well I won't say it got resolved but it became clearer to them in hindsight. I had to amass a large amount of physical evidence... I'd been such a fan already so I'd been keeping the cuttings and I'd already amassed this massive collection of tapes and dates and so on and so on, so I had a lot of physical stuff to go on. Now I'd been in contact with two really huge fans of the band and they'd been able to fill me in on a few bits and pieces as well... Quite often I'd find myself in a situation where I'd have to ask these guys, which year was this? And they'd go... er... um... they wouldn't know, so I'd have to figure it out myself. The amount of research is just enormous. I'd be going through the manuscript and find little inconsistencies and I'd be ringing up Phill and Rowland going, I've got four questions for you, and I'd ask these really specific questions and Rowland would be going, "I don't know!" Or you could hear him thinking... (groan) It's agonizing.

What was the time span of the research?

Eight years. You can actually stretch it longer than that if you want to but I decided I'd write the book in 1988 when I was doing some fanzines and by, let's say the middle of 1989, I was definite about it, I'd got a fair way into it and I thought, I can do this, I can complete it. Because I was living in Adelaide at the time and because I was working, it was very difficult to go bounding from one state to another. Of course, that's what my holidays were, and my long weekends. Zooming back and forth, and despite the fact that I was working, I always managed to do it on the bus or train or something vile like that. So I haven't had much of a holiday these last few years.

What are you going to do now that it's done?

I've got a book of verse coming out, I say verse because I can't stand the word poetry and spoken word's usually for people like Hank Rollins or Jello Biaffra who used to be in punk bands and they have to explain to the hardcore punks, this is not got guitar on it... there is no music on this record. So spoken word's the wrong thing, especially since it's written. But it's called Realm, it'll be coming out before the end of the year with any luck. It'll be through a publisher called 'Fitzgerald'. I've got two novels set up and I need to put them in a presentable state. One's a crime novel set in Adelaide, with the tentative title of The Adelaide Quintet. I'm going to try and make as many people die as possible... because that's what I think should happen to people in Adelaide... It's not a very thrilling city, it really isn't. Honest.

Murder in the city of churches...

Something like that... It's not really a city of churches. It's sort of a... drab little place. Actually the ugliest building in Adelaide has got to be the Police station. The ugliest edifice has got to be the Victoria Square fountain, it's just vile, it's just utterly, utterly hideous. You see these Japanese people taking their photographs in front of it and you think, what the fuck are you thinking? Why? It's just so fucking absurd.

The other book is an Elizabethan crime thriller, spy thriller, and that's called Jack's Stick and it's got a lot of work to do on it. I've got a very good idea about it and I've actually written more on it than the Adelaide Quintet but hopefully I'll be able to sell both of those in the next six months or so...

What kind of response did you get in Melbourne at the book signing?

Fifty to sixty people came through... which was gratifying. Sold about fifty copies, I'm told that, they're shipping them out from England, they've almost gone through all of their stock already. It's pretty good. The thing is it only goes on sale, officially, today in England, and they've got fuck all left. The thing is that it is, it's selling. People are asking about it, people are coming into shops and asking, do you have it? It's very gratifying... The nicest thing about it is that people are saying, I really enjoyed reading that...

These are the fans?

Well not just fans... I mean people who don't know much about it. My mother is utterly bemused but she enjoyed reading it. And people like Nancy Pew, Tracy's mother, she said that she enjoyed reading it and, to me that's very important because, for her, she lived a very different aspect of it. So it's almost like it's strange... so for her it's important and I just hope I've done her son justice too. For a long time people have even got his death wrong and that's just so important. Even Johnston got it wrong. And he had the opportunity to get it right. Never mind...

What are your thoughts on Bad Seed? (Robert must have thought I meant the Bad Seeds, rather than Ian Johnston's book)

They're two totally different things, and anyone who says 'Nick's not as good as he was in The Birthday Party' have got it totally wrong. The reason The Birthday Party were so damn good is because it was five guys jostling up against each other, competing, teasing... they were guys, and the chemistry between them was so thick you could hold it in your hands, squeeze it and it would drip. It was really quite an amazing thing to watch these guys on stage. There's one video that I've got of them walking out on stage, and I showed it to Phill and he goes 'Oh yeah, I remember that, we had this argument backstage'. And I went, hmmm, that's why. Cause it's this really weird gig. They're doing it but for a while they're really preoccupied with something. It's odd.

The Bad Seeds are a great band, but they're a rock'n'roll band and I've always maintained that The Birthday Party went one step beyond into an area that was utterly uncharted, and I still don't think people fully appreciate this. And it's given rise to a huge number of bands just going, wow! and getting all inspired. I'm not saying they wouldn't have done it without the band but the way they've done it, the direction they've taken and the power that they've given to their music comes, in some part, from The Birthday Party.

Johnston's book... What are your thoughts on that?

Oh God... I've gotta make this really clear. I don't know the guy, never met him, probably never will, he's probably a really nice guy OK. He's done something... he took something upon himself which is essentially a huge bloody task... Nick's life is very difficult to trace, it's very difficult to deal with, and you also really have to have an understanding of Australia in order to touch on Nick. I think personally, that Ian has a very odd idea about The Birthday Party, and I suspect this is because he interviewed Nick, although that is not stated in the book very clearly, all the quotes you'll notice come from magazines, this is something I deliberately didn't do because I thought the magazines, the interviews they did when they were around, they got so many things wrong. Why do it, why copy them, why get it wrong again?

Why quote the NME anyway?

Particularly Emeric Wry. They still think that's a great interview, and it's just appalling, it's a dreadful interview and I thought, why make the same mistake again, what I'm going to do is go to the primary source and I did all my own research. I think the only times I've ever quoted the papers is twice and I think I quote them with contempt.

I don't like Johnston's writing style in the book and I don't like his notion that Nick did this, the band neatly tagged along. That wasn't how it was at all. Nick had to fight tooth and nail, he had to bully people, browbeat them down to get what he wanted. The others were equally stand offish, except Phill. Now, Tracy was inscrutable, so was Rowland to a degree, he was distant in many ways. Mick was the organiser and was contemptuous of anyone who couldn't handle things. The Jim Thirwell (a.k.a., Foetus) song, 'I am surrounded by Incompetence', is a Mick Harvey quote, he used to say that a lot. "Why am I surrounded by incompetents!" As Phill described it to me, "they came on pretty strong, man. It was pretty hard to stand up to them."

To say it was all tension is wrong, they balanced each other out in different ways and it was constantly a moving, shifting thing. That's where their chemistry came from, and that's what I don't think Johnston understands. And I think, you've got to keep in mind that, Nick does what he wants to do now because he knows he can say 'I want to do this' to the Bad Seeds. He'll say 'I want to do this set for the entire tour' and whether the band like it or not, they've got no say in the matter, it's not their fucking choice. Cause Nick's the boss. That's why Nick likes playing with The Dirty Three, cause he can slip into a band that does instrumentals and have a good time, he likes being the boss. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you're dealing with four other people who also want to be the boss, imagine the sparks. That's why Phill copped so much flak, because he wasn't so much the weaker party but he didn't play the same games that they did. He was interested in other things.

What is Phill actually doing these days?

He's working, he's got a job. I don't know that I should tell you exactly what he's doing, but he's essentially working in an office. He's not getting a shitty income, he's getting quite a good income. He's looking around for another gig at the moment. I mean, he really wants to, basically, play fucking rock'n'roll drums, and he's a damn good drummer too. The amazing thing is that he is really still shit hot, he doesn't lose it.

Rowland still plays, I guess you know that, and he's extremely good I might add. I brought him over to Adelaide, I was that impressed, about two months ago. He left with a reasonable sum of money that was very gratifying. It was better than dragging him over and saying 'Here's your two hundred, fuck off!'

I've got something here from the Goodson List on the Internet, where your book has been the source of some discussion.

Oh God... that's right, someone actually thought I was Mick Harvey... I am Mick Harvey. I wear my pants up around my tummy.

I figured that I'd get a response from you on some of the criticisms...

Why don't you do a reasonable transcribe of this and just bang it on there...

OK... Here goes. "The 'author' seems to labour under the theory that every song Nick ever wrote was either about the demise of The Birthday Party, or the performers relationship with the audience, and that every idea he ever had was taken from William Blake."

That's not true. They're misreading it. All I'm doing is pointing out things about his lyrics. The beauty of Nick's lyrics is that you can discuss them until you are blue in the face and you will get precisely nowhere because there is no clear, simple analysis. You also have to remember that, I cut that fucking book down from 200,000 words, and I'd written about 300,000 in total and edited that down over the course of how ever long I was writing it, distilled it, if you like... No when it came time to talk to the publisher, the publisher said, 'well we can't have 200,000 words, it's too big, cut it down to 90,000' I had to run away and do interviews while I was fleshing it down. If you've ever looked at how long 200,000 words is, you'll know what a hideous task that is. I only had about five weeks. So I added 20,000 words as I was pounding away, editing down the book. I ended up throwing my hands up in the air and sending 107,000 words off. I then got sent back another edited version of that, and unfortunately, I didn't have time to reread the whole thing. By that time, I was too knackered to do it with any justice anyway. So I made as many corrections as I possibly could and shoved it back.

Now what I'm trying to say here is that I certainly don't think that Nick got his ideas from Blake, certainly not The Birthday Party anyway. There are a lot of similarities and that just simply indicates to me, something that is very important... what would have happened, do you think, when Nick picked up William Blake in 1986, or '87, which is when he did pick it up. He must have felt some sort of kinship with him. On the Murder Ballads album he actually gives two of his characters the names William Blake and Billy Blake. He read recently on a poetry program, he actually read one of Blake's works. He likes Blake. Go and look at Charles Neil's book, Tape Delay, there's a photograph of him in Christoph Dreyer's flat with William Blake fucking right in the foreground, and it's the same copy, oddly enough, that I've got. Collected Works. It's battered as fuck, but it looks like he's pretty much only discovered it, and he likes Blake. The reason he likes him is because there's a similarity in the concerns that he and Blake have, and if that's not clear in the book then, I'm sorry, I did my best.

The point is that there are many similarities and I think, I'm trying to point out here that Nick is actually, this is part of his fucking genius. Now a lot of songs that he did do were, in fact, covertly about the breakup of The Birthday Party, that was their inspiration. Particularly on the first and second albums. The reason I've focused on this is because that's not as obvious. You could say, 'yeah it's a tale about a guy who walks down the road tapping his cane', or it's 'it's about Elvis', I could waffle on about that for ages, but the point is, if I actually did sit down and do an analysis of say, if I picked one song off each of the Bad Seed's albums, and did an analysis of them, I could actually do 100,000 words on that, very easily, probably more. You have to take into account a lot of things with Nick's Bad Seed's stuff, with the general exception of the Murder Ballads album, because he writes about himself, he conceals himself within his lyrics. He puts forward a storyline or a character, and he hides inside it and the sometimes he runs with the ball and he's not inside it. It's very odd. The interesting thing is when he performs, he's not singing about himself any more. He's written the song, that's when he was talking about himself, when he's singing it, he's not singing about himself. You can actually see the evidence for this in the film Wings of Desire. When he says, "I'm not gonna tell you about a girl, I'm not gonna tell you about a girl..." and he turns to the mike and says, "I wanna tell you about a girl."

I have to be pretty emphatic about this cause I'm not labouring under any misapprehension's here, I've just chosen to zero in on these things because to me, they're really interesting, they show you a lot about Nick. I could dissect these things, waffle on, but why bother? Everybody else does.

I actually think it's a good comment. It's a good criticism of the book because it indicates to me that that's not bloody clear enough. That's good cause it means I've now got to sit down, with the book, put this on the Net... I'm actually planning to send the publisher an updated version in the next week or two, which includes corrections, cause there are some factual problems, which I'm not going to go into, there are a lot of factual problems that no one will get, or about four people will... but that's neither here nor there. There's a couple of typos, horrible ones. About four of them... ADDC, that's just the printer. That's par for the course but I must admit the great Australian draft was a bit bad. And they mis-spelt Geoffrey Dahmer. Christ. All the wrong things. I could forgive them if they spelt 'it's' wrong.

Last words?

My intention, now that the book is done, is that people are able to reread it with enjoyment, again and again, and that it doesn't fucking sit on the shelf gathering dust. I want people to be able to reread it and get great enjoyment out of it in the same way that the best books about The Beatles, you can reread and reread with enjoyment cause they're not dry. I want people to realize that this band were very, very important and they were a lot of fun and they were an experience that... if you didn't see them, never mind, that doesn't matter, you've got some sort of record, now go off and be inspired and form your own fucking band.

One of the things about The Birthday Party was that they always tried to have good support bands and the reason they did that was because that's the way you praise people. You say 'We love you, come on our bill'. Rather than, here's a shit band, let's take it on tour with us. A lot bands do take shit bands on tour with them cause they know they'll blow them off stage, and that's not what The Birthday Party did. They'd take the Go-Betweens on tour with them, you can't imagine a more inappropriate band to go on tour with The Birthday Party in some ways. The Laughing Clowns.

Nick, Tracy and Phill used to go down the front of Radio Birdman and Saint's gigs and dance themselves stupid. They'd fuck off to the bar, drink pots and pots and pots, come back, sweat it all out, go back to the bar, grab a few pots, come back, sweat it all out. They'd thrash themselves insane. They loved The Saints. They loved Birdman too. Why shouldn't they? So Keupper would be doing his thing, they'd see him, and say, hey look, Keupper's doing something great, let's see it, let's get him on. I happen to know that Nick approached Kim Salmon after The Scientists played at Storey Hall and said how much he'd enjoyed their set. They support people they like.

It's still quite incestuous like that...

Shit yeah... look at all the great people they take out through Europe. Nick and Mick still do this with bands like Once Upon a Time, The Cruel Sea, True Spirit and The Dirty Three... what I'd like to see them do is drag Rowland Howard's band 'These Immortal Souls' around with them, cause they're just as fucking good, if not more powerful than True Spirit.

What's Rowland been up to lately?

I don't know if he's got a label yet... I don't know if he's gonna be able to a record out, he's got the material for it. He's going to be doing a solo album for sure this year and he's going off to LA or New Orleans at the end of August to record another album with Lydia (Lunch?). I'm really looking forward to hearing the solo album, he is just so fucking good!

He actually played Shivers for the first time since 1979 when I got him over to Adelaide. I don't think he's going to be doing it again in a hurry, but, My God. I can't even begin to describe it... That gig was actually magical, it really was. The whole mood of the crowd was completely with Rowland. Rowland walked out... You know how you or I might walk out and it's like, Joe Wanker standing on stage, going, here I've got a song for you... Rowland's got charisma. He really does. He just had the audience in the palm of his hand. He almost didn't do it. I yelled out "If Nick can do it, you can". And he changed his mind and said "Oh all right", and played it.

It was fabulous. It was very, very different to the original version... brilliant... a really, really powerful song. You just think, fuck, that's amazing.


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