Friends and Fables
14 Days in New Zealand
Day 1. ARRIVAL
I’d told the driver of the Skybus at Auckland airport I’d like to get off in Mt Eden, but when 40 minutes into the trip we zoomed past a cluster of shop awnings bearing that very name I knew something was up.
“Sorry bro, I always forget that one! Ya shoulda said something,” the driver apologised brightly. I shoulder my belongings, curse them three times, and shuffle back down the street a few kilometers. Only a little while ago I was back-patting myself for smuggling 20kgs of old Blues/Folk LPs on the International flight from America as cabin baggage. There’s a practiced art of making a great weight seem like a mere newspaper under your arm as you walk past the gate check.
Today my touring companion for the next couple of weeks Anthonie Tonnon has arranged for me to drop these superfluous belongings at his friend’s bookshop. I’d already seen him in person for a coffee at 8am this morning when I got off the long-haul flight. While I waited for him in the fluro green ‘Sumo Salad’ lounge in the Domestic terminal a stranger sitting next to me offered a piece of his sushi. It occurred to me that sushi is not something I’d ever accepted from a stranger, nor ever should I. It seems to have a potential for danger. But as I’d followed my rule of not eating aeroplane food for the last 12 hours I am famished, and so accept gratefully. The gifted sushi for this man is a trap; a gateway snack. A gateway into banal conversation about what I am doing here, where I am going.
Thankfully Anthonie turned up, looking as fresh and sharp as ever, before I have to expend too much non-existent mental energy. It was great to see him! We hug hello. I make a vow that I’ll learn something about grooming and deportment off Anthonie over the next few weeks. The stranger offers him free sushi as well and Anthonie accepts without a second thought. “I’ll try the salmon please.” Kiwis are certainly very friendly and less suspicious than most other people I’ve met.
Anthonie left me to go board his flight to Christchurch where he’ll pick up the car, he’ll drive to meet me later in Dunedin. Our sushi benefactor vanished too, they’re both on the same flight, leaving me with the half full tray of raw fish to pick at.
So right now, Time Out Books in Mt Eden: Anthonie’s friend Jenna is at the counter and directs me up a narrow staircase and I stash my things under a table for safe keeping. I have all morning to kill. I want to buy a classic NZ novel for the trip. I spot Man Alone by John Mulgan, someone had recommended it to me before. “A very important moment in NZ literature!” they’d said. I buy it and head over across the road to a barber she recommends.
In the chair with the neck crepe paper. Do the usual spiel: the same, but shorter, not squared off at the back like a Lego-man, try not to make my face look rounder than it actually is. He’s Jordanian, and is very fast with the scissors, and in his spare time plays the ‘oud.’ It’s possibly the best cut I’ve had in a while, though all of them since Primary School a variation on the same theme.
Jetlag always feels like a fresh beginning, and so too does a new haircut. I strut up the street of Mt Eden with a renewed sense of well-being and an unusually lucid brain for 9am, a neater looking head and a vaguely itchy neck. So much optimism in fact I decide to climb the extinct volcano that looms over the suburb. A narrow slippery path climbs the grassy green slopes. Cicadas thrum loudly past me, lumbering from tree to tree like buses of the insect world.
Soon enough I’m at the peak taking in an expansive 360 view of Auckland: buildings and water, other green volcanic mounds in the distance. The gaping crater of the one I’m standing on is all grassed over, looking soft and begging for a sheet of cardboard and a gentle push. An old lady reads a plaque like it’s a children’s book to her husband who nods along. I’m in New Zealand!
Back at the airport waiting at the gate lounge I feel a wave of exhaustion wash over me and I set the alarm on my phone for a 15 minute power nap and set it down beside me, noting how the blue case is perfectly camouflaged with the carpet, and fall instantly into a deep sleep.
The sound of my name being called is suddenly a part of my dream and I spring up barely awake to be the last on board the plane and I leave my phone sitting there. I realise as soon as the cabin door closes.
In Dunedin Anthonie is magically there waiting for me and we load my gear into our tour’s station wagon. The steering-wheel is wood-grained and Anthonie sits statesmanlike behind it. I suggest some driving gloves to complete the picture. We arrive at his family home in the suburb of Mosgiel amid blocks of modest 50s houses. His parents are waiting for us in the loungeroom with NZ wine and we chat languidly with kind horizontal afternoon light streaming in. It’s easy to see the physical parts of his parents that mixed together to make Anthonie.
His Dad, beaming proudly, tells stories of his son’s beginnings as a performer:
“We were in town one day…went shopping in a big mall. We were in the clothes section and Anthonie wanted to go across to the toy shop. He came back five minutes later saying, Dad can you buy me a hoola hoop? I said what do ya want a hula hoop for? He say he thinks he can make some money busking. I said who’s gonna pay to see someone twirling a damn hula hoop? He says, I reckon they will! So it costs $12 and I tell him if he goes out the front now he can try and earn me back the $12.”
Anthonie, looking slightly embarrassed, goes out to the kitchen to cut some special cheese he’d picked up on his drive today.
“He makes about seven or eight bucks right away! After that he was quite encouraged. We were surprised too to tell the truth. So now he wants to make a thing of it so we tell him we’ll take him into town on friday night and we’ll be just across the street keeping an eye on him. I mean he was only twelve at the time. We’d just stand over at the CD shop listening to music, making sure he didn’t get into trouble. By the second week he’d bought anther hula hoop. He was twirling three by the third week. Pretty soon he was on a skateboard with a Hacky Sack with five hula hoops twirling. They’d call him the Hula Hoop Boy, got on the front page of the paper. That was his introduction to entertaining people, it really gave him a thrill. He really had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age.”
Later that night after a roast dinner Anthonie’s siblings waltz in, his younger brother Josh kindly offers me his bed to sleep in. He says he’ll be fine on the couch.
“You might wanna put on some insect repellent,” he says earnestly, “there’s a few sand flies about.”
“You mean in the bed?” I ask him.
“Yeah, you can’t really see em but I’ve been waking up with little bites. They might bite your face too.”
I opt out of the repellent but inspect the bed thoroughly, line the door gap with my towel and go to sleep with the sheet over my head.
Day 2. DUNEDIN
I awake and am thrilled to find my person bite-less. Anthonie has already been to the airport to collect Nadia Reid and I meet her in the kitchen for the first time. She’s stylishly dressed too, in a neat black dress and boots. The three of us are joining forces for these shows and I can see I’m already letting the team (and my Country) down sartorially. Maybe it’s growing up on a farm, I’ve always felt dressing up for me attracts unwarranted attention. I’m most comfortable in my King Gee workshirt with half the buttons missing.
This tour will be a kind of songwriters salon, we’ll each play a 20min solo set of our own stuff but then sing a few together as well. Anthonie has booked us rehearsal time in a room in the Dunedin College which lends an air of collegiate authenticity to our labours. This town is built on the most unlikely gradients. We park outside on a street so steep it would make any handbrake think twice.
In a dusty wooden room Nadia sets up and idly strums her guitar to get it sounding right and then segues into a gentle version of Dylan’s Girl From the North Country. I play some lead breaks and harmonise with what words I remember. It’s already a treat to sing with her, what a voice of such flawless elegance! It’s decided that we’ll do it in the set.
Anthonie suggests Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song for the closer each night, all three of us trading verses. I get a good one:
I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of the golden voice
And 27 angels from the great beyond
Tied me to this table right here in the Tower of Song
I recall this is not the first time Leonard has been tied to a regular piece of household furniture in song. Everyone has their quirks. I substitute ‘table’ for other IKEA catalog items as we run through it a few more times but the joke wears thin. I love the line “The rich have got the channels in the bedrooms of the poor.” Bangers like this is why he hovers above everyone else.
A lunch break in an unbelievably well stocked organic cafe. I throw down a tub of grass fed goat yoghurt, a handful of activated almonds and possibly the best date, cardamon and rosewater muffin I’ve ever had. Nadia pours us dandelion tea. Half an hour into the meal I realise we’re sitting in the renovated venue that I’d played the only other time I’ve been to Dunedin years ago with the East Brunswick All Girls Choir: the Arc Cafe.
“Yeah, Dunedin is going through a low ebb for music venues right now,” says Anthonie, “And now Chicks is closing, that’s the venue we’re playing in a few days in Port Chalmers. Once that’s gone there’s really nowhere left.”
Day 3. OAMARU
Nadia’s mother Karin lives in a charming old cottage perched on a suburban hill overlooking the waters of Port Chalmers. Sitting out on the back deck with the washing on the line Anthonie points out the ring shape of the harbour, it is in fact another volcanic crater. To everyone’s amusement he then puts on Skele-toes and goes for a jog. Nadia snaps a photo and puts it straight online. From then on, being the true ‘Digital Native’ of our troupe, she’s elected our Social Media Officer.
I’m told that Nadia’s Mum is a great jazz singer and I wonder if she has inherited those mellifluous tones. I go get my guitar and ask Karin if she wants to sing a song with me. She gets her folder of sheet music. We choose the standard Autumn Leaves and she falls straight into it with a soulful velvet sweetness trailing off into a weeping vibrato. The next verse she switches to french, it’s achingly beautiful. The notes drift off over the neighborhood and tiny sail boats list on the harbour below.
I go for a walk down the steep streets into town and find a secondhand bookshop open. Get into a chat about Man Alone with the seller and he tells me that Mulgan eventually killed himself on Anzac Day 1945, possibly at the thought of coming home to NZ after all that time away in Europe fighting the war. He recommends me a book about Mulgan and all his other NZ expat writer friends called Dance of the Peacock’s, and then when he learns my name, another book by a famous NZ lawyer called Alfred Hanlon. He was renowned for representing murderers, including the only female to be hung over here called Minnie Dean (immortalised in song by NZ croon-smith Marlon Williams). He even has his own 1985 TV series called ‘Hanlon’.
I settle for a first edition of Scarecrow by Roland Hugh Morrison and go meet the guys for the drive to Oamaru. Just to top off my full NZ literature immersion therapy we go to have a peek in Janet Frame’s childhood home, now a museum. A lady takes our money but only allows us in for 5 minutes before she closes up. I sit on JF’s old lounge and listen to a recording of her voice talking about this very house, and the town. Her sister drowned in the towns baths a few miles away when Janet was only 13. I am most impressed by a tiny childhood diary, found under the house when they renovated, listing all her favourite poems at the time. We’re ushered out and get the feeling the museum attendant is secretly living here in a back room, a few of her personal items have permeated the collection which is confusing. “I didn’t know Janet Frame played the classical harp?” says Anthonie.
“Oh no, that’s just mine,” she admits.
Oamaru is the Steam Punk capital of the world and we’re playing right in the center of their natural habitat, the Victorian Precinct. Their headquarters are housed in an old Grain Elevator Building and has a real up-ended train outside that shoots flame and steam.
We’re playing tonight upstairs in the gallery of Donna Demente, a local artist who’s a champion of all things Victorian Era. She bounds out to meet us at the car, a ball of infectious energy dressed in what some might call a costume, but to her is a daily uniform. She leads us up the staircase. It’s visually overwhelming, a massive space filled with paintings, sculptures and other contraptions. Her partner is casually setting up a gin still while we soundcheck. He lights a flame under a gizmo of circular copper pipes, bowls and fountains. In a perfect hand Donna is painting our names on wooden scrolls that’ll get nailed to a gold-curtained tryptic we’ll perform in front of.
People arrive and seat themselves in rows of wooden chairs like an old fashioned folk club. We’re anxious to see how the show will run having only ever rehearsed the parts separately. After our few opening songs Anthonie explains to the crowd how we’ll perform execute a game of Paper/Scissors/Rock to decide the running order or our solo performances. The first two winners will run their sets together, the ultimate loser must headline after a short break. Tonight this is me. I get to watch the other two while nerves bud in the pit of my stomach.
Tonight Anthonie is starting the tour a dashing figure in dress shorts, crisp button up white shirt, suit coat and brown buckled leather shoes. He’s confidently climbing on chairs to sing his more soaring choruses. I’m worried he’ll fall onto the gin still and catch fire. He’s told me about some of his clumsy stage antics before. At the Big Sound Music Conference in Brisbane, with a room full of heavy-hitting industry moguls, he went to jump up and sing on what he thought was a table but in reality was a large cardboard box.
I help Nadia start her set with Girl From the North Country and then leave her to beguile the crowd. This is the first time I’ve seen her play so I sit up the back to take it in.
“Thanks for the hospitality,” she shouts out to our host Donna in regards to our dinner platter, “I’ve just eaten my weight in cheese.”
She’s disarmingly goofy between songs but then when she starts singing she creates a whole other world and drags you into it. The fingerpicking and timbre of her voice nods to the time-honored pantheon of great universal folk singers, but the lyrics and stories are straight out of small town New Zealand. I note the way she holds her guitar, the neck pointing up at 45 degrees, as if she’s about to starts dancing around the room with it.
I’m disappointed I missed the march of the Blue Penguins at sunset earlier. Some of them nest underneath the other famous venue in town, the Penguin Club. Donna and some others walk me down to the beach at midnight and we spot some
We’re driven to our sleeping quarters, a 1800s cottage being renovated by Donna’s partner, one of those places built in a time when architectural dimensions are askew, the doorways low and ceilings high. I climb a steep ladder to an appointed a room with sloped roof and dormer windows opening out. They’re in the process of building a staircase so at the foot of my bed there’s a gaping hole that drops into the void of the loungeroom. The bed frame itself, designed by Donna, is an assemblage of turned timber columns and bits of driftwood, and at its head a sculpture of some kind of naked angel Medusa presiding over me. I wonder how she will affect my dreams.
“Will you be alright up there?” asks Nadia.
“I’ll be fine,” I assure her, “apparently the only ghost in the house haunts the back downstairs bedroom.”
“Hey, that’s mine!”
Day 4. PORT CHALMERS
I ask the waitress if they have yoghurt, and could I please have a little bit with my Earl Grey. We’re at one of Anthonie’s favourite on-tour eateries, The Riverstone Kitchen. A dollop arrives in a little salt dish. We all munch away gazing across the gardens to an actual-size castle (moat included) the owners are building on their lands.
When I go to pay the lady makes a point of asking me what I did with the yoghurt.
“I ate it,” I told her.
“On it’s own?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Oh, we all thought you must mix it in your tea. That’s what the waitress who took your order said. We thought you were a bit weird.”
We drive back to Dunedin so Nadia can have coffee with her Dad, and for me, in lieu of a washing machine, to buy 5 new pairs of socks. On the drive out towards Port Chalmers I remark to Anthonie about the railway line that skirts the road and shore of the bay.
“Sadly we don’t have a government who believe in trains,” he tells me, “Often the left wing champion the trains and the right champion roads.”
“That’s a shame, this could be one of the world’s great train journeys,” I say.
“Anther reason is that NZ is still on narrow gauge. When the rest of the world switched over in the early 19th Century, NZ didn’t. Which means that now our trains have to go really slow. Now it’s too late now, it would cost billions.”
The line disappears into a tunnel as we approach the town.
“Didn’t Helen Clark wanna fix the trains?” I ask.
“She bought them back,” he says, “they were on a privatising binge before her, they were just selling everything in the early 90s. They sold off all our assets, including the rail for dirt cheap. And the American company who got it, asset stripped it for 10 years. And then they sold it back to the Government for three times what they bought it for when Helen Clark came in.”
“At least that’s good they’ve got it again right?”
“Well she bought it just before they got voted out. And it was billions of dollars. Their plan was, if they got back in they would start rebuilding it. But National got in.”
“But to get elected National had to promise they wouldn’t sell it again, but they said look we’re just not gonna do anything with it.”
Chicks Hotel looks like a ye-olde stone English Inn. Anthonie sets up his gear on the stage to rehearse a bit so I spend the afternoon wandering the few streets that make up the town. Go to the other old pub fronting the dock and read a fact sheet of its history tacked to the wall. The proprietress comes out and implores me, since I’m apparently a history buff, to buy their self-published book on the pubs story, “It’s only $10 and a fantastic read! You’ll love it.” My keen interest in NZ literature sadly doesn’t stretch this far, but I feel guilty and order red wine and a packet of chips and sit and chat to her. There’s a little dog on the pool table chasing the balls. “So no book then?” she calls after me as I walk out. I should be employing her to sell my merch.
Up at the lookout is a good vantage over the shipping yards. These gigantic crane vehicles are moving the containers around like so many Lego blocks. Neat piles of lumber. I follow a steep path down the other side of the hill to the water. A young girl sits alone against the rock face of the cliff across from the train yards drawing in a sketch book, wearing huge headphones and looking like a Wes Anderson character. Solitary characters like her fill my mind with rich and interesting backstory and I want to ask her what she sees, but a single engine shunts out of the yard with two drivers chatting up front and I get the notion to hitch onto the back and see where it goes. I run up behind and chicken out at the last minute and then berate myself for an hour after. 25 year old me would not have thought twice.
During Paper/Rock/Scissors tonight Nadia pulls out a new shape, her hand palm up and fingers wiggling.
“In New Zealand we have fire too,” she says and it gets a good laugh.
“You’re really ganging up on paper,” I say.
Still, again I lose the game and have to play last, but now I’m making mental notes of what the other two are doing. I’ve got a feeling Nadia is throwing the same result each night. Hmmmm.
The place is packed and I’m worried people will leave after the two local heroes. This venue has been important to the Dunedin community and it’s an honor to be playing one of its last shows. Anthonie’s parents are there too, proud as punch. And Donna Demente! Am feeling part of the NZ family already.
Tonight Anthonie and I are staying upstairs at the pub. He tells me that multiple bands stay in the same beds between laundry days. I go from room to room doing the sniff test and find the least offensive bed I’ll be happy in. The window opens out on the street and I drift off to sleep to the sound of late industry at the shipping yards.
Day 5. CHRISTCHURCH
Wake sometime after 7am and feel a peace in my mind. A radio plays in a van parked across the road and a breeze blows on the grey sky. Anthonie has a hangover so terrible it doesn’t quite match how sober he seemed before we went to bed.
We meet Nadia’s Mum at the cafe in town for breakfast and then follow her up the windy road out of town to a fresh-water spring that trickles out of the mountain through a small pipe right by the narrow road. Nadia says their family has always stopped here since she was a kid. We fill our water bottles. I’m interested in what influences have pointed Nadia on her musical trajectory. I know she’s been close with another young NZ folk singer who goes by the stage name of Aldous Harding.
“Hannah and I have known each other since we were six years old. Our mothers met at clown school. Then later we reconnected at a folk festival when we were fifteen or so and we must’ve remembered each other. I’m not sure how it happened but we went into a forest and she sang me a song, and then she asked me to sing her a song on guitar. I played her 4 Non Blondes What’s Up cause I was learning that. She said to me, you’ve got the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard,” Nadia pauses deep in memory, staring out over the beach we’re passing, “That was the first person who’d ever said that to me.”
I’m seriously loving the Man Alone book so far. It’s mainly about this pretty detached guy wandering around NZ looking for work in the Depression era. It sounds bleak but I’m getting some kind of joy out of it. Reminds me of Bound for Glory in a way, although there’s none the humor and optimism in the face of great adversity that comes from Woody Guthrie’s pen, but there’s still a heady sense of freedom and travel. Lot’s of landscape description and I dog-ear the pages to cross-reference with a map later.
Tonight we’re at Gustavs in Christchurch. There are two guys in the car park riding way up in the air on modified novelty bicycles as tall as Penny Farthings. One of them, this obviously being his first time cries out, “Oh my God! Oh my God! This is amazing! Oh God!” I wait to see how they dismount but they just keep going up and down the carpark in wide circles. “Oh my Godddd!”
None of us want to play last. I lose again! How is this possible? Anthonie has started doing some stage banter about my yoghurt obsession. It’s very funny, especially hearing my voice in a high pitched kiwi accent. He’s also been doing some new songs, one of them Two Free Hands stands out for it’s stark simplicity. He keeps the drum machine going for the outro and does an angular running man slow-mo dance across the stage. The crowd cheers for this bit.
After the show there’s talk of us staying in a house in Lyttelton, though there’s only two beds. Some strangers nearby overhear this and offer me a room at their place. They’re an Australian couple and seem nice so I accept, and next thing I’m heading to another suburb in a taxi. The guy keeps replying to things I say with, “You can take the boy out of Gympie.” They tell me they’re planning to leave Christchurch soon to return home, the random earth tremors are giving them the heebie jeebies. At the flat they give me vague evacuation plans over a lovely Islay single malt. In the event, I must jump over the balcony.
Day 6. OKARITO
My host wakes me and whispers, “Your friends called. They want you at the cafe in Lyttelton at 9.30.”
“Cool, thanks,” I croak, “what time is it now?”
I leap up and shower and my generous patrons drive me to a cafe downtown, it’s been decided I’ll be picked up here instead. I’m overjoyed to find a Monster Bash pinball machine, but completely crestfallen to read a poster advertising the annual NZ pinball championships the night of our Nelson show. As we drive out of town I ask Anthonie about the possibility of chartering a Fox Glacier chopper for a day.
Still all these years later downtown Christchurch still bears the wounds of the quake; large swathes of empty ground give the surviving buildings a lonely aspect. Nadia says she actually experienced the earthquake firsthand.
“Really?!” I wanna know the story but step cautiously in case it’s a trauma for her, “were you here in town?”
“I was working in the city in a cafe… it was just like… a great big fuckin shake. You know when you fall off your bike when you’re going really fast and for a moment in time everything kinda slows? And it feels like a dream or something? Everyone in the cafe fell over but no one there was really hurt. I found my flatmate who was working downtown and it took us 6 hours to get back to our house. We got in the car and it was all gridlocked. Total war-zone. We ended up walking in this sludge over our knees as it was getting darker. Liquefaction they call it. Christchurch is basically built on swamp, so all of this seweragey, muddy water came up. It was just bizarre.”
“I was in Auckland,” recalls Anthonie, “and remember it was such a beautiful, clear blue morning. I went swimming in the harbour and it was unusually calm. When I got home and saw the news the sky seemed to change right away and the rain came. I felt a lot of guilt cause that morning I’d spent doing Facebook admin. Guilty seeing all that wreckage and the relevancy of my shitty news update.”
“But there was a really great camaraderie that came after it happened especially in the music community,” Nadia says, “Music became like a total coping mechanism for everyone. There was a lot of house concerts and my friend opened up a little Speakeasy in his house and hosted gigs for a couple of months. It made us all come together a lot tighter.”
We stop at Arthur’s Pass village for snacks and hope to spot the colourful Kea parrot, named affectionately after a fleet of camper vans. When we go to leave and our car is surrounded by Germans tourists we realise there’s one on our car. Cross the inconceivable mountain range and turn south for a couple of hours and then take a right off the main highway onto a leafy narrow road. Spiders have sown hundreds of little compact web pods which make the foliage seem like cotton bushes.
A drizzling rain shrouds the small coastal town of Okarito. The grey and churning Tasman Sea pounds the shoreline just beyond some grassy bluffs. We park outside our venue, Donovan’s Store, a quaint wooden community hall which has a capacity of 40 people, which is handy because the town population is 43. Photographs of each resident adorn the walls, one of them being Keri Hulme (author of Booker winner The Bone People) who I’m sad to learn has moved to the east coast. But I’m excited that we’ll be singing unplugged tonight, my favourite way.
As we load in, the guys are complaining of sand fly bites. “They don’t seem to affect me,” I boast as we walk up to the house for dinner. Our promoters also run the kayak rental place and their young staff eat with us too. I ask one of them if they’ll be at the show later. “Oh yeah,” she says in thick accent, “I wouldn’t miss an Okarito shin dig!” (which sounds to me like ‘I wouldint muss in Okarito shun dug’)
Nadia suggests match fixing our game tonight. “I don’t wanna go last,” she pouts.
“No way,” I say, “That’s illegal. I’ve had to go last every other night.”
But somehow I screw up and lose once again and I’m suspecting conspiracy. Though I’m sure I have Nadia pegged now, she definitely does the same thing every night. Next gig she’s history.
During the first song of my set I see a sand fly land on the back of my arm, right in front of me. I can feel it’s bite as it lodges itself. I wanna squish the little bugger but in a feat of shear brave professionalism I finish the song first. For the rest of the set, whether they do or not, I can feel them crawl all over my face and keep scratching it mid-song forgetting all stagecraft.
As Anthonie and I drift off to sleep later that night on single mattresses in a holiday rental shack he says, “It’s a shame to have to kill sand flies. What they’re doing is actually collecting blood to go feed their young.”
Day 7. (DAY OFF) OKARITO
I awake to see a hand reach inside the door beside me and pull back the curtain. Next thing a breakfast tray appears, stocked with cereal, fruit and a giant tub of homemade yoghurt.
“You’ll be hungry when ya get up,” says our lovely host/promoter.
We’re really getting spoiled here. My feet and arms itch everywhere with sand fly bites.
It’s our day off so Nadia and I decide to take the kayaks out on the Lake. Although it seems wide and goes on further than we can see, there’s only a thin channel that’s navigable where the current cuts a deeper path through. To find it you look for a lighter aqua blue. We’re told to look out for the local white heron, which arrived here from Australia on a strong wind and could never find a way to return. He sits on a stump in the middle eyeing us.
We find the creek and slowly drift up and as it gets narrower the foliage and vines darken the sky and hang right over us.
“I don’t know about this,” says Nadia.
On the way back, out on the lake again, she goes off course as I steam ahead. I hear her call out and look back to see her stuck on a sand bank in the middle of the lake, cursing, paddling wildly like a mudskipper but not moving.
“I’ll see you when the tide comes back in,” I call back to her, “do you want us to save you some dinner?”
She’s really not amused and ends up just getting out of the kayak and dragging it back to the stream. From where I’m sitting she looks like an angry Messiah, stomping on the water.
I wait for her and we race the last bit home. She won’t get out at the shore as she sees crabs scuttling in the mud. They terrify her she says. I’m not sure if she’s making it up to get me back, but I drag her still sitting in the kayak all the way in anyway.
Day 8. BARRYTOWN
There’s been some pessimism surrounding the show tonight at the Barrytown Hall given the sale of only one ticket to a person called ‘Tree’.
“Maybe we should cancel?” suggests Nadia, but Anthonie assures her it’ll be fine.
“Trust me they’ll come out,” he says, “That’s just the way it works around here. It’s very different from everywhere else in the country. It’s mainly the same people who came out here in the early 70s seeking an alternative lifestyle. They’ve held on. The 60s Summer of Love thing hit NZ five years late.”
Wild and bushy Jurassic looking mountains slope down dramatically to meet the sea. It’s hard to believe there’s any road down there. It makes the Great Ocean Road in Victoria like a poor cousin. Barefoot and with head lice. Are they keeping this a secret?
And so too when we arrive in Barrytown the scenery is astonishing. Hardly a town, the old wooden hall has a sweeping view down across plush dairy farms to the ever-raging Tasman. I’m told this venue is hallowed ground for some, and you can trace it’s history in the form of old band posters that wallpaper the wooden shutters that bolster the windows from the coastal winds. Bad Manners, Shellac, UK Subs, Fugazi, and I’m told when the Bats played here in 1988 a motor bike gang rode in to achieve a few expert burnouts before tearing out again.
I’m mostly surprised to find a poster of Portland cult punk band Dead Moon, a band I’m yet to see play, but desperately want to. They’ve been here?! I take a photo to send to my friend Eric Issacson who puts out their albums on his label Mississippi Records. Anthonie claps and says, “Hear that? It sounds like 80s gated reverb.”
I go for a walk down a couple of miles down the road to dip my toe in the ocean, through pastures of curious cows. I stop to look back at the mountains every now and then. Nadia drives down to pick me up and we head up the road to see the touristy Pancake Rocks and the Blow Hole.
“Did you an Anthonie plan that your album covers be almost identical?” I ask her.
“No!” she says, “It’s pretty weird though isn’t it?”
“You’re both looking off at the same thing in the middle distance.”
“Do you think my album cover gives you an idea of what I’m like?” she asks me.
“Well, it’s certainly evocative,” I say, “I guess I’d have to say I had a different impression of you before we met.”
“Like I’m in a Christian Cult or something?”
It’s on the drive back we decide to cancel tonight’s accommodation booked an hour up the road and just try our luck with the locals. We don’t want to miss any of this scenery to the nighttime.
And we needn’t have worried about the turnout. There are cars parked everywhere, a line out the hall, and Anthonie panicking at the door, fumbling change and stamping wrists. Locals are spread out everywhere on couches, kids are up on the stage miming songs and air-guitaring. A pop-up taco stall and bar is in full operation.
I can tell by the reaction off the first song it’s gonna be a good night. The locals are whooping and yahooing. We go to do the Paper/Rock/Scissors thing and I’ve got Nadia in my sites. We explain the process to the audience once again .
“How many shakes before the reveal again?” I ask.
“Three shakes and then reveal,” says Anthonie.
“In Australia we do 15. It’s cause we’re all dairy farmers,” I joke, and mime the closed-fist shake as if milking a cow.
“That’s one way of saying it!!” heckles a local up the back.
A very big laugh, including all of us on stage.
I win the game! Nadia looks confused and worried.
After we do our opening song All These Little Words by the Magnetic Fields I’m allowed to go first and relish the task. I love playing for the people of Barrytown, it feels like this is my true tribe in NZ, they’re right there with me, rambunctious, attentive and continue heckling throughout.
In the break I stand in the kitchen with the organisers and share a wine. I chat with Roger the rakish Chairman of the hall who’s been running the place since the 60s. He has long wavy grey hair, a chambray workshirt open at the neck to reveal a silver abalone amulet on a leather lace, purple suede slacks and bare feet. I ask him about the rumour of Townes Van Zandt having played here.
“Oh yes,” he tells me in a baritone drawl, “but it was in the dead of winter and Townes thought this hall too cold for him. We didn’t have heaters back then. So we said we’ll just go and light the fire up in the pub and do it there. He said yeah, that’d be better. We had a huge crowd turn up and he ended up staying around for a few days.”
Nadia plays as dreamy a set as ever and I sink into a couch drift away on it. She prologues a song with,”this is one I wrote when I grew tired of changing people’s names to protect them.”
And then the first line is:
Richard loved the sound of his own voice…
Never date a songwriter. At the end of her set she mentions that we’re trying to find a bed in town tonight. All of us back on stage for Tower of Song, Anthonie steps on a foot-controlled smoke machine that just happens to be there for added drama.
After we’re done a drunk guy comes up to me at the merch desk and offers a room over at the disused pub where Townes played. He’s turning it into a backpackers. I gratefully accept.
“I’ll have it all set up for yas,” he mumbles and back shuffles off to the bar for another tinnie.
As things are winding down Anthonie goes across the road with Nadia and comes back looking slightly perturbed.
“It’s the room,” he says, “Nadia’s one was all made up, but ours is not quite.”
I go over to see for myself. Musty wet carpet and a bare mattress and pillows bearing tea-cup stains. There’s sheets and blankets but they’re strewn around the floor, supposedly left by the previous occupants.
I find the owner back up in the main part of the old pub. He’s drinking with a few others I don’t recognise. His dog lifts its head off the floor and growls at me.
“Sorry to bug yas. I think there’s been a mixup with the rooms,” I try to sound assertive.
“Who the fuck are you?” he says.
“I just played in the hall. I talked to you an hour ago.”
“That was you?”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well, one room was fully made up but the other wasn’t,” I tell him.
He drains the rest of his drink and gets up off the stood, tripping over the dog.
“Let’s go and have a look,” he says and I follow him out through the back and down to the cabins.
I point to the room where Nadia is sleeping, then flick the switch on in ours.
We both eye its chaos and then face each other.
“Well?” He says, “It’s all there. You can make something outta that can’t ya?”
“I don’t wanna sound rude mate. But it’s a bit smelly.”
“Fussy bastard. That’s a virtually new mattress, I dragged it down here last week.”
And with that he was off. Before he shut the back door he called back down, “I want a coupla CDs too!”
Anthonie and I grab the cleanest looking Manchester from the floor and drag it back over to the hall. We choose a couch each and fashion nests. I walk around on the creaky boards and turn all the lights off and wrestle my body into a position of comfort. This feels like a great thing, sleeping here in this big old room full of the histories of nights spent dancing, singing and carousing. Anthonie and I chat back and forth for a while like we’re at a school slumber party. I can hear the sea too. I drift off to sleep with a feeling of well being.
Day 9. ONEKAKA
I hear the ocean roar a mile down the road. Anthonie is up and throwing open the wooden shutters, lending the room some bright morning light. It seems Nadia survived too, but felt abandoned by us.
“Someone tried my doorknob in the night,” she says, “Was it you?”
“No,” I confess, “But just so it’s on the record Anthonie felt bad about leaving you over there, I was the one who talked him out of it.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“I knew you’re tough enough.”
We wind along the magnificent coastline where the holiday baches sit below us almost on the water. The road turns eastward following a river. I’m running some tourist ideas past Nadia for when she visits in a few months.
“I don’t like the milk in Australia, it tastes pretty rank to me,” she says from the front seat.
“What do you mean?!” I wanna know what she means.
“You’ve got rank milk.”
“What the hell!? No we don’t!”
“It just doesn’t taste fresh. New Zealand does good milk. Fresh. Creamy.”
“Is it because its watery, or it’s the flavour?”
“Horrible flavour,” she says.
“We milk cows just like you do. Does the rankness come from the cow or the grass?!”
“Could be the grass. Or maybe there’s too much time before bottling. I like minimum time between teat and tummy.”
Speaking of milk, Man Alone has switched gears and has now become a Dairy Farm Action Novel. Just my genre. I can’t put it down and would rather risk car-sickness than stop reading.
We pull over for a few minutes above a river to stretch our legs. Anthonie, in a display National Pride, starts picking up other peoples rubbish along the verge. Nadia and I buckle up and are sitting waiting for him when from out behind the car we hear a gut-wrenching yelp and wail. My first thought is he’s been shot. Second thought was it was possibly a huge sand fly bite but it sounds too serious for that. For a moment I’m paralysed, unsure what to do. But Nadia is out of the car and on the case. We find Anthonie writhing on his back in the gravel beside the road holding his head in his hands, tears in his eyes. Nadia takes control and tells him not to move, just lie still she says. Any minute I expect to see rivulets of blood seep through his fingers.
“Are you right mate?” is my attempt at assistance, I hate seeing him like this.
“I conked myself,” he cries, “on the car door.”
Seems that knowing we were in a rush he ran with a handful of rubbish straight into a sharp point on the hatch and knocked himself clean off his feet. What kind of reverse karma is that for NZ’s number one Good Samaritan? Thankfully there’s no blood, just a huge egg forming on his forehead. Nadia, helps him back to the car and instructs him to drink lots of water and try not to sleep in case of concussion.
“You silly duffer,” she says affectionately.
“I properly clothes-lined myself,” he says in a daze.
Up and over the modestly named Takaka Hill. At a lookout from its peak it feels like we’re looking down from an aeroplane.
Tonight’s show: Mussel Inn, highly sought after by the bands of NZ by all accounts. It’s a brewery, winery and restaurant housed in what looks like an old farm house. There’s a power pole with an array of mobile phones nailed to it, with a sign that reads “Get the message?!!!”
The owners Jane and Andrew built the whole place by hand, including the huge log cabin we’re sleeping in tonight.
Day 10. NELSON
The staff have communal breakfast at 11am, large trays of pizza bread is served, with carafes of juice and if you want a latte the machine is on. They’ve made some kind of utopia here. Some Woofers arrive to harvest hops in the field behind the house. Apparently the methods and recipe employed for the brew here is the very one Captain Cook first brewed on NZ soil, flavoured with the tips of the Manuka bush. I follow them out and ask to join in. There’s something extremely cathartic about this work, picking the green bulbs off the stems and throwing them in the basket for sorting, everyone telling stories from their travels. The conversation flows easy and I’m sad when it’s time to go.
Back towards the mountain you can see the road zedding itself up it like a Zoro slash. I ask Anthonie about his song Water Underground. Nadia and I have starting joining him on it each night for backing vocals. He does an monologue to get the crowd in the mood for singing along too, and it’s all a bit rousing.
“The Canterbury Plains on the east coast of the south Island is a really dry area and until the 1980s it was all sheep farming. You can do that on very sparse grass. But in 1984 we took off the subsidies on sheep farming and the industry went bust. Then in the 90s and 2000s dairy farming became really profitable. So when National got in…they’ve always been the pro farming party…there was a lot of dairy on the Canterbury Plains but it was all through irrigation. You’ve gotta get it from this big aqueduct underneath Canterbury and Christchurch. Every region and province has a Environment Council, an elected body who make environmental decisions, and grant consent of new irrigation projects. But they weren’t giving much consent because their science advisers said it’s dangerous, you’re destroying the aquifer and destroying the drylands. It’s where the jewelled gecko lives. They were getting further up the hill and turning it all green. National’s whole plan when they got in to grow the economy was to triple dairy production. They wanted more water. So this brilliant minister Nick Smith, who was an incredible politician played this game… it was just after the earthquakes so everyone was distracted by something much bigger. He started issuing press releases that the Environment Council was dysfunctional. So then he hired Wyatt Creech who’s a former National Party minister but also someone who’s been convicted of environmentally hazardous practices on his own farm. He led a report on the Environmental Council and his damning finding was that they ‘led a science-led rather than science-informed’ approach which basically undermined them and got them all sacked. They appointed new commissioners and they’re all still there 6 years later. Meanwhile the rivers have become completely fucked, they’re unswimmable. But the whole area is completely green. They pulled it off, a political masterstroke.”
Now that’s just the explanation for one song!
Down again and further along into Nelson. We’re playing in a local cafe and once again get spoiled for food and drinks.
Tonight I play second after Nadia, but I’m sensing a disconnection with the crowd. Nadia tells a table of ladies chatting right in front of me to be quiet. It’s not that they’re all inattentive though, sometimes you just feel like a fraud.
After the show we get to our lodgings late and just as I remark to Anthonie how quiet this place is for a hostel a wide assortment of Europeans turn up drunk and ready to party.
Day 11. AUCKLAND
5am alarm. I haven’t slept and feel like 8 miles of bad road. Anthonie says he heard me snoring but I think it a trick to make me feel like I had. At the airport I’m one step away from crying from exhaustion. Anthonie is sitting in the lounge already working on his computer, dressed to kill, hair slicked back, composed. The guy is a machine! Like one of those Matrix agents. Nadia is taking great delight in freaking me out about the size of the plane, or lack of it, and how rough it’s gonna be.
I get through the morning on a shoestring of energy, it’s all a blur in my mind. Landing, car pickup, Radio interview. Anthonie drives me back to the bottom floor apartment of a handsome estate home he shares with his wife Karlya. They leave me there to take a nap in their bed. There’s construction next door but it’s of no consequence, I’m out like a light.
I’m awoken from heavy violent dreams about old friends I haven’t seen in years flinging themselves all around me, I’m trying to to catch them to slow them down. My brain feels like molasses and I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing. Anthonie has just come back with a sandwich for me. He flicks on the National Radio out in the kitchen and the sound of Nadia singing live-to-air floats in to me. Gee it sounds beautiful; her pure damn voice. I think I just said that out loud. It’s both familiar and soothing within the opaque world I’m currently swimming through. Anthonie takes one look at me and insists he do the soundcheck alone, I should rest.
So I recuperate incrementally and later in the afternoon decide to take a leisurely walk to the venue, through the back streets of Herne Bay, up to Ponsonby Rd which joins K Rd. Stop in at the Wine Cellar to see if the Tales From the Crypt pinball is still there. It is and I leave a Grand Champion score on it first game. TCB!
Down over the Freeway and I find the Kings Arms. A great crowd for these guys, a home game for Anthonie, I’m proud to be a part of it. Tonight Nadia has her guitarist Sam accompany her and it’s nice to hear his harmonies and extra melodies. His playing is unusual and well-serving although I can tell he’s improvising.
Anthonie should have a night alone with his wife so ask the venue if I can sleep there on one of the bench seats. No go. Nadia offers a couch at her Dad’s place so I drive out there with her to find it all made up and waiting for me.
(Here’s some great photos of the show taken by Jasper Rain)
Day 12. WELLINGTON
I’m a creature of habit and so walk to the only places I know in Wellington. First the film archive, I sit with a coffee at a computer with headphones and watch some kiwi music videos: The Clean, the Bats, etc. DD Smash are the new revelation for me. It’s Dave Dobbyn’s first band and the song Outlook for Thursday is an instant 80s brain worm.
Next down to Pegasus bookshop off the mall, find two more copies of Man Alone and buy them both for pushing on literary friends. One has classic cover art of an old worn holey woolen sock with the NZ flag showing through. It makes me recall the shuttle bus ride from the airport this morning. Anthonie pointed out exclaiming, “There’s the Silver Fern flag! That’s the one we’re in danger of ending up with”
I’m vaguely aware of the referendum coming up to replace the one.
“It looks like a Wheat Bix logo,” says Nadia.
“Is that really what people want?” I ask them.
“A lot of my left wing friends hate the idea of a new flag, probably because John Key suggested it. The Nationals run their government like a business in Dilbert. They crowdsourced for free ideas on the new flag. One design that came back was a kiwi with lasers shooting out of its eyes. Then they appointed a panel which included business leaders, marketing houses, and the brains behind most of our reality TV shows, but no designers, no vexillologists, and no members of the arts community.”
I made a mental note to look up the word ‘vexillologist.’
Tonight at Meow it’s the biggest, most enthusiastic crowd yet, and knowing it’s all over soon I stand back and watch my two companions with a concentrated affection. What a thoughtful and meticulous performer Anthonie Tonnon is; part Methodist Minister, part New Wave pop style-meister, but mostly a pure-souled human. A textbook brain, a poets eye and a pop musicians heart. He takes his craft seriously in the way David Byrne does I imagine.
Nadia starts tonight with her song about Port Chalmers, that little shipping village way below us where her Mum lives up in the cottage on the hill wishing the world for her talented daughter who’s songs are starting to take her off to the far-flung places and new people who want to hear them. She’ll leave for her first trip to Europe soon after this.
There is one main street in this town
There are two straight lines in my head
Some people use vibrato like you’re driving over a cattle grid. Nadia’s is more like a soul massage. I watch and listen and try not to overthink the ingredients that make her up, and instead let her voice and songs weave and wash over me like a crocheted blanket.
Day 13. NAPIER
A slight hangover this morning.
“You were funny last night,” says Nadia teasing me again, “you really loosened up.”
“Are you saying I’ve been uptight the rest of the time?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You kept calling me a Princess.”
“Well you were asking Anthonie if there was a face washer where we’re staying. That sounds like Princess to me.”
We’ve woken up at Anthonie’s in-laws, and his Mum over tea and a bowl of yoghurt shows me her daughter Karlya’s weekly fashion page in the National Newspaper’s magazine lift-out. They’re loaning us their family station wagon for the drive. Anthonie is slightly nervous about returning it in one piece, especially after getting it locked in what we thought was a 24hr carpark last night. He had to go there in the hope that someone would leave so he might roll under the gate Indiana Jones style.
It’s our last roadtrip. A couple of hours in and we’re all craving coffee and it comes up that Anthonie knows the guy who invented the Flat White, he met him drunk in The Golden Dawn, the bar he tends between tours.
“He said he was working in Cafe Bodega in Wellington in the early 80s. Only two cafes in Wellington had these brand new Italian Espresso machines. People were fizzing about them, they were becoming quite popular. But at that time you could only get two kinds of coffee, an Espresso or a Cappuccino. Those days were before they knew how to store the milk and fiddle with the cows to make sure there was fat in the milk year round. In autumn when the cows were off the teat there was no fat in the milk. So he was at this cafe making coffee and everyone’s ordering Cappuccinos, but he couldn’t get any foam out of the milk when there’s no fat in it. This one lady was getting upset so he just heated up the milk put it in the coffee and said there you go, that’s a flat white.”
“Really,” I’ll miss Anthonie’s stories, he’s like a more entertaining Google, ” the name came right off the top of his head?”
“That’s what he said,” Anthonie confirms.
“And so now what about this debate that Australia reckons we invented it?” I ask.
“Rank milk,” says Nadia.
As we come into Woodville Anthonie remembers good coffee can be found at a cafe called Yummy Mummy’s. It also sells award winning cheesecakes. Nadia is amused by a laminated glamour photo in the toilets of the owner and her family with an accompanying uplifting story of their plight to overcome adversity in the quest to make the perfect cheesecake. She makes me go read it and it starts with: “Few people realise their true passion in their lifetimes…” and ends with “…are just beginning their dream of creating the best cheesecake experience you are ever likely to find.” I get ideas for a feature film.
I find an op shop selling boxes of good country music CDs for $5 each, just in time for our last hour of driving. I buy some early Emmy Lou Harris albums and Nadia gets two Iris Dement ones.
We play both of those in a row.
“Iris Dement was very important to me,” she says, “A friend took me to see her in Wellington years ago and I was blown away. Made me think about writing songs differently.”
I make her play Let the Mystery Be twice, it’s so perfect.
And that takes us into Napier. The show is a private one in the house of local promoter Jamie McPhail. He’s converted his garage into a cozy venue with photos on the wall of previous shows: The Handsome Family. Marlon Williams etc. I go for one last little soul stroll to the beach so I can tick off both coasts, sit and watch a massive log washed up lolling in the waves.
By the time we go on people have arrived bearing plates of food and it’s filled to capacity. During my set I feel bad for a lady in the front row who’s trying not to cough, she goes to fish out a lozenge from her bag the moment I start Halley’s Comet, my quietest and longest song. She’s trying to rummage so silently it looks like she’s moving in slow motion.
Princess Reid gets the master bedroom while Anthonie and I sleep out in the venue. He’s getting all his things in order and playing me Youtube clips of more NZ bands I should hear: Don McGlashan, Delaney Davidson. I go to sleep to the sound of him gently packing.
Day 14. FAREWELL
When I wake on the floor mattress Anthonie is up already and still packing. Seriously, I don’t know what he has left to do but it’s taken him about three hours total. I usually throw handfuls of stuff in a backpack half an hour before the plane leaves. I’m still trying to learn from him and time has run out.
We three hug in the driveway and then they’re off, back to Wellington to get their own flights. I get a pang of missing them already as I walk back inside to collect my own bag. It’s bittersweet these little intense families we make and break on our journeys as touring musicians.
Back in Auckland I take the same bus and pounce on the driver the first whiff I get of Mt Eden. I find Jenna sitting upstairs at Time Out Books and she hands me my belongings she’s kept safe. I thank her for the Man Alone book and tell her I’m now reading Roland Hugh Morrison.
“Oh yeah, classic,” she said, “He’s from Hawera. He lived in the same house all his life with his mother. And it was just pulled down to put up a KFC!”
“Ya kidding!” It reminded me of going in search of Henry Lawson’s house years back in Bourke, only to find a brand new IGA on the site.
“There was a movement to have it preserved so they put it to referendum,” Lisa explains, “The people voted for the KFC.”
I was once trapped on a brief tour of the UK with a bunch of ego-inflated and seemingly troubled well-known musicians, having been lured there under the false pretenses of them needed a banjo player for their ‘Super Group,’ but then upon arrival in Manchester told by the bass player I wasn’t famous enough to share the stage with them. The 23-year-old tour manager offered payment and free guest spots for my friends if I stayed on just to help out with production and I stupidly agreed. What followed was a week of spirit-crushing hell of almost comic proportions, and ever since I’ve tried not to speak about it too much, mainly out of concern for my blood pressure.
One morning hurtling towards Glasgow in an awkwardly silent packed van I was stuck sitting between a couple of the musicians who seemed to be trying to blot out my very existence to the point of not even answering when I asked them questions. I gave up trying and just put on my sunglasses and felt homesick. We stopped for fuel and toilets at a petrol station and all piled out and listlessly ambled through the automatic doors single file. Just as I’d stepped inside a grey-haired man wearing an earring stopped me on his way out.
“Darren?” he said, “fancy seeing you here!” and before I could reply he embraced me heartily.
At first I was startled but once released, I was able to get a good look at him and claim recognition.
“Mac!” I said, “What a surprise! What are you doing here?”
“We’re on our way to Glasgow for a show,” he said, “But more importantly, what are you doing here all the way from Australia?”
“It’s a long story,” I told him vaguely.
I felt embarrassed to tell him I was now just lugging and selling merch for these people, I could see them all loitering around the confectionery racks watching me curiously.
We talked for a bit, and each gave an abridged 5-minute version of the past two or so years of our lives, and I promised to send him my new album.
“Well, it’s great to see you, the car’s waiting, I’d better go,” he said and walked out onto the forecourt, but then came back to say, “Oh, we’re having a party tonight after the show. You should come, and bring your friends.”
He gave me the details and then was gone.
Back on the highway the mood in our van had shifted towards a kind of pregnant anticipation, all eyes seemed to be on me: the sudden curio. Finally someone broke the ice and in a tone of frustrated defeat asked, “Who was that you were talking to?”
“Oh, that was Ian McLagan,” I said with as much nonchalance as I could muster, “He used to play keyboards in the Small Faces. Do you know him?”
“Bullshit!” someone yelled from the front passenger seat.
“I’m afraid it was him,” I said, “He’s got his own band these days. The Bump Band. He’s playing Glasgow tonight too. Check the gig guide.”
“Then how do you know him?” someone else asked.
“Well I toured with him. I’m a working musician too. He used to play in Billy Bragg’s band. We went around Ireland together. And I see him sometimes when he comes to Australia.”
“Holly shit,” my questioner muttered to himself, “Ian McLagan…”
Yet another band member piped up from the back seat stuttering, “Oh wow… He’s actually my neighbor in Texas, he owns the ranch next door! I’ve never actually been able to meet him though.”
“Well, he’s having a private party tonight in Glasgow,” I said, and for the final blow, “I might be able to get some of you in, but I can’t promise anything.”
Even though for the rest of that tour I was regarded with only a sliver more respect, that moment at the Service Station felt deliciously satisfying, like the turning point in an 80s redemption movie. I was the Man From Snowy River, when Clancy of the Overflow came down from the mountains like a God, singling him out and saying, “Sorry to hear about your father Jim. He was a good man,” while all the fawning station workers looked on green-eyed.
And just like a kind of Rock and Roll Clancy of the Overflow, whenever anyone spoke of Mac, words like “legend” and “gentleman” were thrown about. From the very first day I joined the Billy Bragg tour he went out of his way to make me feel like an equal, even though I was just a lowly support act. Always smiling, always offering a beer off their rider. It became a running joke each sound check as the Bragg band would run through a new arrangement of ‘A New England,’ when towards the end of the song they’d all stop for a 4-bar breakdown and Mac would point and yell my name and I’d play the riff on the banjo sitting alone in the empty auditorium.
I remember him laughing when I told him I’d found his autobiography in the ‘Crime’ section of a Belfast bookshop. “Well I certainly got away with murder a few times,” he said impishly, “Musically speaking.”
He seemed more than happy to sit around after shows and indulge us avid listeners with his war stories: buying his precious Hammond B3 organ as a teenager and learning Green Onions on it from a Booker T album; hilarious anecdotes of touring with Dylan in the 80s where they were housed in European castles and Bob getting into the mood a little too earnestly by wearing puffy Lord Byron shirts.
On the last night of the Bragg tour he asked me out to a party in Dublin, but instead I chose to follow a girl to a horrible nightclub. Little did I know as I sang The Fairytale of New York in full-voice with a hundred or so other Irish drunkards when the ugly lights came on, that somewhere across town Mac was holding court at a raging party where members of the Rolling Stones AND the Commitments had turned up and were all dancing, singing and taking photographs with gob-smacked fans. I heard about it all the next day, hung over on a ferry back to England, in lurid panoramic detail off one of the tour roadies and have questioned my judgment every since.
As is often the case in the peripatetic life of the traveling musician, these brief encounters loom large. Much will be written in the coming days of Mac’s musical legacy. But I’d like my small tribute to be to Ian McLagan, the exceptional human being. I had only a handful of nights in his company, but the memory of those reinforce why it’s all worth it: we’re all in this together, so let’s have a good time. What a Gentleman!
Barcelona: a report from the road
After 9 hours on a bus our heads are numb. Only one stop along the way at a smoke-filled roadside cafeteria where Shelley sat and ate tortilla and white bread while I browsed the shelves to find chocolate crayons and chocolate sardines to send to Julia’s two wonderful daughters back home, and a chocolate cigar for myself while I’m at it.
I close the lid of my laptop as we pull into the Barcelona bus station. We stiffly climb off to collate our travel burden – various bags, guitars, banjo – careful to not to have any set down in the globs of spit that dot the footpath, shoulder them all according to our usual lugging system, and walk across the road to find the café at the central train station where we’ll meet Shelley’s friend Kate who’ll take us to her flat for a blissful sleep.
It’s late, there are not many people about and the taxi drivers are all standing around their cars chatting it up. The café is closing so we head inside the Station itself to find a conspicuous place to wait. That’s when I feel something poking at my shoulder. I turn to see a skinny hollow-cheeked man trying to get my attention and assuming he is pointing out the gaping hole where the arm is slowly peeling off my jacket I ignore him. How dare he criticize my sartorial defects! But then the poking again, a lot harder now. I turn and tell him to Wrack Off! which he promptly does though soon returns determinedly clutching tissues and now Shelley has stopped and says, “you’ve got something on your back… it looks like spit.”
The stranger spins me around and starts wiping at my shoulder and I instantly feel mortified I’d reacted so badly to his urgings, what a Good Samaritan! “Aw, thanks mate,” I tell him, “but seriously, we’ll be fine.” He’s working with the gentle resolve of a movie butler and only stops to point at the ceiling saying, “Pájaros! Pájaros!” and twists my arm to get a better cleaning angle, taking the small backpack out of my hand and placing it somewhere. Again he points to what we guess are imaginary birds, I can almost picture the offending pigeon circling, taking aim over me.
And then the man is gone. I look back and get a glimpse of him on his mobile phone walking back out of the station, eyeing me worriedly, and I idly think, “that’s strange, he was going the other way when I first saw him….” We take stock of our belongings and go to pick them up again and then Shelley is looking left and right and says, “Where’s your little backpack?”
For a highly evolved and complex mass of circuitry the human brain can be plain naïve. We’re programed to trust; we want to believe. Otherwise films wouldn’t exist. Rushing back to the bus station to see if I’ve left my bag there it still isn’t plainly obvious. By the time I get back to Shelley the moments of the past minutes in our own heads have played back slowly and we both know now that we’ve been robbed. “It was that creepy guy!” I growl in disbelief, and as tears start filling Shelley’s eyes the first thing she says to me is, “But your diary…”
Packing for a tour demands fine-tuned strategy. Fellow musician Nick Luca taught me that in rolling up your clothes you fit more in. And these you must choose wisely; at the end of every tour there’s always one superfluous unused item. Most importantly the bulk of the bag space must be reserved for merchandise, heavy boxes of CDs. I realize that in even dealing with CDs in this day and age is like swimming against a strong tide. Years ago it was blissful vindication to feel your bag get lighter as the tour wound on. But each day on this tour I’ve felt every goddamn mocking milligram of un-bought stock pulling at the muscles on my back. I feel like a Sherpa to obsolescence.
And then it’s good to carry a smaller bag for the important things, stuff you want on your lap with you on the buses and trains. A list starts forming in my head of what was in mine: iPod, phone, Saul Bellow novel, vintage camera, undeveloped rolls of film, laptop (with pages and pages of un-backed up stories and lyrics, and hours of song demos), two thousand dollars of varying currencies, and most important of all, my daily diary.
For the past 10 or so years I try to write every single day, just factual, not too much emotion. Most entries start with, “I woke up and made porridge.” It’s become a bit of a superstitious compulsion, if I miss a day it nags on me until I fill in its corresponding page. My feet have been so detached from the ground these past years that I feel these pages are little weights of proof, keeping me from floating away altogether. I always buy the same brand notebook and picture a future bookshelf holding the story of my life in neat yearly chapters, but now with a gap like a missing tooth: 2012.
I notice five security guards with a muzzled dog a few yards away; they might have been there when it happened! The men are idly talking in a circle as I run over and exclaim, “We’ve just been robbed!” One just shrugs and points to some magical place out past the automatic doors and mutters “Policía” while the others scuff their shoes and just look at the ground. The dog goes to chew a flea out of its crotch forgetting it can’t.
I feel a sickness and panic rising in my stomach. I walk back and look at my huge backpack lying there lumpen like a guilty survivor. Why couldn’t that one be gone instead? A sack of dirty laundry surrounding those damned useless CDs. Flat round shiny symbols of bad business; fossils of a bygone era. Okay you little lingerers, if there is one thing I know it is that I shan’t be carrying you no more. A foreign energy courses through me like black lightning. I unzip my bag, take out a couple of handfuls of clattering jewel cases, lift them above my head and bring them down on the hard tiles of the station floor.
Objects mean nothing. Money is an abstract concept. Words can be useful if placed in the right order but I know I mostly put too high a value on them. In hindsight I could’ve used words more effectively by hugging Shelley and telling her that it’s ok, we’re ok, we weren’t hurt or anything.
She just slumps to the floor in sad defeat and lets me do the maniacal panicking. I am full of electricity and need to discharge. The next hours are a blur: a mad scrambling through bins in the pouring rain, under cars, picturing the ink running off the pages into the teaming gutters, listen to a guy at the bus station saying it happens 5 times a night and I’ll never get it back, yelling abuse at some young drunks on the stairs, looking for a fight, everyone a suspect, turning in circles, doubling back.
In the early hours at the Police station another older American couple are in line shaking in shock, they’ve lost everything the same way, even passports. The man explains that the thieves work in pairs, one sprays something on you to soil your clothes and then the other moves in. It’s a very old trick, it’s sleight of hand, its emotional manipulation, these guys are magicians.
In a partitioned office Kate translates as the young policewoman takes my statement. I try to read Kate’s expression and pick out what she is saying back, looking for signs of hope, recognizing the word ‘lobo’ (wolf) from reading Cormac McCarthy books. The policewoman keeps raising her eyebrows as Kate lists more and more items that were in my bag. A big haul. As we all three stand to leave she speaks something straight at me this time, in Catalan, with what looks like genuine compassion, shaking her head.
Kate explains, “She wants me to tell you she’s very sorry.”
The anger and hurt lasts for days. Both Shelley and I have re-occurring nightmares of the thief’s sinister stubbly face mocking us in our sleep. We pointlessly go over different scenarios where just one tiny action might’ve changed everything. I strain to remember song demos that I’d saved on three different devices that were all in the bag. In the day, pushing through the surging tide of La Ramblas to get to the Apple store to try to get codes to track my laptop I’m on full alert, just daring some thief to try it again. I witness a group of brazen youths, a girl pretending to faint in the street while her friends attempt to fleece the pockets of tourists rushing to help. But they’re too slow and ham-fisted and are sprung and all run off through the crowd shrieking.
Back at the flat we’re both so down in the dumps we even contemplate cancelling the show, there’s no way this tour will even come close to recouping now, we’d be better off just having a holiday. But Kate is a great morale booster and after a few days of her soothing optimism and enthusiastic tour-guiding we’re happy we didn’t. It’s a packed house and warm listening audience.
Shelley and I sing together with a kind of renewed vigor and tenderness, and the bartender brings us shots of a local aperitif during our set and there’s many more after. We’re high on the righteousness of victims. Strangers who’ve heard of our plight regale us with their own stories of theft. The country is going through hard times and everyone has been touched by it. Without even me describing the perpetrator most say that he was probably Moroccan, and even if caught would be back on the street in a day or so. Others say station security turn a blind eye in return for kickbacks. It all seems to be a well-oiled micro economy that’s been thriving for a long time.
Oh well, let’s just drink. To see us tonight you’d be forgiven for thinking we had not a care in the world. Shelley tells me later one of the staff looked over at me carousing with someone and asked, “So he is the guy who lost everything?” and when she nodded he said, “But he is happy go lucky!?” Surprisingly I even sell about five of the ten CDs I didn’t smash.
While the night lights of the outside world stream past I watch a downloaded episode of ‘Q and A,’ my little weekly connection to the current affairs of home. On the panel tonight, shy and taciturn Aboriginal folk singer Archie Roach is sitting with the patience and quiet wisdom of a mountain. And if he’s a mountain then Eric Abetz is a yapping mountain goat clinging to the side. Towards the end Archie is asked what he thinks about Jamie Packer wanting to build a mega casino in Sydney and for the first time all evening he opens his eyes wide in bewilderment and says after a pause, “Ah…I don’t really think about him much at all…”
I laugh along with the studio audience and glance over at Shelley obliviously listening to my iPod and swaying her head along to something.
Back on the screen Archie is moving over to a small stage to sing a song to close the show. After a false start where he searches for the key signature he eases into a soulful folk song, its lyrics timelessly simple and direct. It could be about God but I’m guessing it’s he and his life partner Ruby Hunter singing to each other. She passed away a couple of years back and I’ve heard Archie is struggling.
I’m here beside you
And don’t you forget it
I’m with you walking down this road
Give up what’s inside you
You won’t regret it
Together we can lighten this load
I picture them both as kids, dealing with the madness of the streets and the demons of their past lives through laughter and song.
You did the same for me
When I was in trouble
I wanted to disappear out of sight
But you wouldn’t let me
You were so stubborn
You brought me out of that dark night
Even without the emotion of the words his breathy mournful vibrato gets the tears welling. How does it happen? At risky coin-toss odds two far-flung souls meet and love and walk together, guiding each other through their lives. It can be as simple as that.
Now Shelley is rolling up the headphones, she stretches like a waking cat and points out the window smiling. She’s excited to see her friend soon. The bus engine roars as it drops down a gear. We’re here. I snap shut the laptop lid and we pull into the Barcelona bus station.
A Case for Falling Aeroplanes
This voting thing has got me thinking about two old songs. Even though they’ve been around for over 10 years now I still vividly remember writing both of them.
The background for Falling Aeroplanes basically came out of a long-held guilt I had at being born into a working class family and feeling this frivolous life of travel and adventure as somehow cheating. You see, I’m dangling from the end of a long line of farmers and manual laborers. It made me uneasy to think of my Dad wrestling cows out of boggy creek beds while the most taxing part of my day might be carrying a guitar amp up some stairs.
A concept of how I might frame this guilt-anxiety into a song hit me while at a backyard party in Newtown and I remember bidding friends a hasty farewell to rush back to my little room out the back of our dilapidated terrace to try and make it happen. Also my first release Early Days was about to go to press in a couple of days and since falling in love with the banjo I really wanted it on there somehow. Maybe this was the chance? I got it out of its case and paced back and forth strumming that opening riff. My room was only about 7 feet square so this soon made me dizzy. I sat down.
Now this share house I speak of could claim a considerable royalty on everything I produced whilst inhabiting its bounds. The place itself was a health hazard, the walls cracked, the frames had termites and the floors were rotting. We came home on a particularly soggy day to find four legs of an upstairs bed had breached the ceiling of our kitchen, poking down at us. Another day we returned to find the front door completely missing. My room, tacked on to the laundry out the back, seemed to be the most structurally sound part of the place, although a foot off the bottom of that door was missing too after a drunk friend kicked it in one night when I wouldn’t wake. It felt a bit like camping. I’d come home after weeks on tour to find stray animals had fashioned nests out of the doona on my bed.
Curtis, the medical student, was the mainstay at the house. When he finally moved out kicking and screaming he counted he’d shared with 36 different flatmates. Soon after I moved in he became my unofficial lyric consultant and I remember rushing into him that evening, seeking a metaphor, urging, ‘Curtis! What’s something you could do… that although an admirable effort… is actually impossible or even harmful?’
‘Hmmm,’ he sat on the moldy, musty lounge with some voluminous textbook open, ‘like, smoking a cigarette on a motorbike? Or….’
My mind was turning, just him listing weird things helped me get it.
‘I got it!’ I rushed back to my room calling back, ‘Like trying to catch an aeroplane…’
I recorded it the next day and it made the recording by a hair. Who knows where I’d be now if it hadn’t have? I went overseas as soon as Early Days came out and after a month or so people started emailing saying that my song was on the radio. It wasn’t until I got back that I realized just how much Triple J were playing it. I must say I never thought for a second that this solo thing would lead to anything much but that CD sold pretty good and soon I was being asked to make another one.
I wrote Punks Not Dead in a room at the Mount Victoria Hotel in the Blue Mountains about another flatmate who, along with the others, I went up there to get away from. I needed some peace and quiet. Seeing the ripe market for leather goods within her community and being a savvy business woman, Jade –an unusually earthy name for a hardcore punk- would hammer studs into belts, collars, wristbands, key-rings and whatever else, on the cement path outside my bedroom at all hours. With help of a half plagiarized melody from a song my sister wrote called ‘I Love Trucks,’ mine practically wrote itself. I took it back to the city the next night for a gig at the Landsdowne Hotel supporting Sounds Like Sunset and I attempted a first airing (with med student Curtis standing side-stage as lyric prompt) and it went down better than I could’ve ever expected. I always thought it to be a throwaway, but there you go.
When it came out on Hello Stranger, Punks Not Dead was picked up unprompted by Triple J and was given a thorough thrashing, back when high rotation meant airwave saturation. I remember taking a tour van to a mechanic in Sydney and Punks Not Dead coming on the radio in the workshop and the burly grease monkey growling, “Not this bloody thing again.”
I don’t really believe in polling and competitions when it comes to music, and most of what I would think were the best songs of the last 20 years wouldn’t get a look in here. I don’t expect mine will either but it’s interesting to look back at these two songs beside each other, written in a very close time frame. One meant as a whimsical snapshot, the other heart-felt allegory. But both coming from very real places.
I’ve played many shows since without a second thought to Punks Not Dead but when Falling Aeroplanes is neglected for whatever reason someone always comments to me after. So many people over the years have approached me to say they remember where they were the first time they heard Falling Aeroplanes and what it meant to them. Once at an after party in Launceston a drunk stranger, in an earnestly passionate tone, told me how he was fruit picking when the song came on a portable radio hanging from his ladder. He said he became transfixed, lost his balance and toppled to the ground below, paralyzing himself for a short time. He remembers lying prostrate, gazing up at the concerned faces of his fellow pickers while the last strains of the song played out. I bought him a drink to apologise.
Songs mean different things to the different people who hear them. And there are precious few of mine that give me great pleasure to sing time and time again. Falling Aeroplanes is one. It’s a weird thing, it has no real chorus or traditional structure, which is why I’m constantly losing my place in it live. But the feelings that inspired it are still a part of me. To keep singing it is a good reminder that I’m lucky to be still doing what I’m doing. And 10 years later, my Dad is still wrestling cows.
There’s a single tree that grows in the square opposite the Church of St Peter and Paul, up from a round hole cut through the granite pavers. If you stand at a certain position a few feet away and look back up at the church, that tree is the only evidence of nature amid all this cursed medieval development. Some of it’s branches are horizontal, almost like outstretched arms saying, “how did I get here?” or, “please accept my gratitude for leaving me put.” I shouldn’t be surprised, I know there are still gum trees in Sydney Harbour that were growing there the day the HMS Supply poked it’s wooden nose around South Head, but this tree here has heard more than it’s fair share of bombs and bullets and the general ravages of modern history….and survived. To think who these branches cast shade on! Soldiers, survivors and the doomed, royalty and peasants.
There are indiscernible symbols cut from a knife into the bark long ago that could be letters. Directly across under the church, statues of the 12 apostles throw flamboyant poses. As always, Peter has his set of keys that fit the lock of the gate to heaven but he’s twirling them on his finger. It’s like on school photo day when the photographer says, “Now lets take a fun one. Do something crazy!”
On my first night I throw my belongings in my bedroom, a second story creaky-floored high-ceilinged generous twin, with double door windows out onto the unkempt and lustrously leafy back yard, and rush to see the town. The room itself is part of private house that lies beyond the central precinct and I have to pass weedy vacant lots and crumbling graffitied buildings, and leg it through a long dark echoey tunnel under the highway to get to the streets with people on them.
Music draws me to the door of a restaurant where an old man hunched over a piano is accompanied by a violinist with an eagle’s face, and they are involved in a sprightly gypsy waltz. It’s moody inside and each table has a lit candle casting quavering circles on red chequered cloths. My stomach says it will accept food as an excuse to investigate.
A beautiful waitress in traditional folk dress and with 18th century posture comes to take my order and I blush and say, as my finger scans down the menu list, “I’d like to try the Russian Borscht and a plate of assorted Pierogies please.” She neither smiles or answers, just writes it down and pads back to the kitchen in flat soled ballet shoes and I’m paranoid I’ve made a rotten tourist cliché decision. I notice then the violinist is glaring at me down his beak of a nose as he bows the strings, a protective warning. Maybe he is her father?
I sit and write in my diary and read my guide book to the flickering flame. There’s a glossary of simple phrases in the back and I try and say them by the accompanying phonetic examples. The food comes and even if it is a cliché there’s a reason for it. It’s the taste of centuries, the hopes, dreams and … of a whole country right there on a dinner plate.
When she comes back to brusquely clear the table I ask if she’ll help me with my pronunciations. She takes my book and holds it up to her face. “Na Strovia,” she says and mimes the action, “it means cheers for you.” My ears pick up that the piano player is now solo and I glance to see his partner is glowering at me with beady eyes, standing with his violin by his side.
I’m not qualified to sum up this place after only 3 days, but here are some general impressions:
Every taxi ride within the city limits costs 7zloty ($2AU); Architecture students sit on the steps in the main square opposite the Cloth Hall and draw perfect straight lines freehand; drivers prefer not to stop at crossings and will park haphazardly on footpaths giving some streets the appearance of zombie holocaust film sets; on hot days some men pull their t-shirts up to rest below their chests to cool their bare round brown stomachs; There is a soup available in the Jewish quarter called ‘Yankiel the Innkeeper of Berdytchov’s Soup’; Pope John Paul 2, having been born and raised into priest and bishop-hood here, is the official mascot and his image is ubiquitous, even bakeries have pictures of him in their windows endorsing their bread; In the centre square there is an old woman who reads fortunes from a regular deck of cards in a cramped nook in the side of the garment hall, and at night when she’s gone she leaves her little cardboard box table there to mind her place.
The lady of the house is always flitting here and there in dark flowing Gothic gowns. She always has a smile and offers coffee whenever I’m loitering downstairs. She wears black nail polish and speaks scant English and will go fetch her son to translate if I ask a hard question. He’s the conductor of the orchestra – which costs as little as eight Australian dollars to see – for the Krakow Opera. His hair moves separate to his head in a plush wavy bounce.
“This house has been in our family for many years. It was a great meeting place for the bohemians of the town. My mother used to have parties here with Polanski and other artists… actors, singers. And the Pope John Paul has been here.”
“Really?” I’m impressed, “At the same time as Polanski?”
“No, of course not,” he answers dourly, “He was once the bishop of this area – before he was Pope – and it’s tradition for the bishop to visit each and every house on Christmas Day.”
“So this is quite a special house,” I say.
“It is a special house.”
I’m going to climb the mountain today. The Sleeping Knight that watches over town. The lady at the hotel draws me a mud-map that’ll lead me to the trail head but I get lost just the same. I’m on a narrow leafy street on the outskirts, looking back and forth and a barking dog brings its owners to the front yard. They’re an old couple, probably in their 60s and the man is holding gardening secateurs and gloves in one hand. I show him the map and I try to explain where I’m heading, “the red trail…”
He points up the road and makes a curved hand gesture that I must go right and…. he stops talking, turns around and whispers something to his wife and she takes the dog inside and shuts the door abruptly. He opens the gate and gestures for me to follow. I expect that we’ll just get to the field at the end of his street and then he’ll point out my direction from there. When he gets to the gate he keeps on walking along the dirt road, through the field. I keep up with him, scrambling and tripping just behind. We come by a wooded area and he turns to me and says, “Op!” and points towards the forest and he climbs the bank off the road and walks into the trees.
This is getting really strange. We walk for 10 or so minutes and get deeper and deeper into the woods. It’s darker now as the sun can’t find it’s way through the canopy, and the only sound is our mulching footsteps on the soggy ground and a far off crow. This is the sinister forest of fairytales. We’re walking a few meters apart and there’s no point trying to talk. He’s still carrying the secateurs and gloves. My heart starts beating faster and it’s not from the brisk pace. Should I be following a stranger into the unknown like this? A little way off I see a structure with a high barbedwire fence around it and we seem to be walking towards it. I can hear a screeching noise and as we get closer I recognise it as the high whine of a bandsaw. I look up and see a surveillance camera above, attached to a tree. We step over some freshly cut logs and appear to be walking into someones compound. A thought flashes through my brain that I should turn around and run.
He turns just before the compound and we skirt the fence for some time longer. Suddenly I see light rays again and we’re at the far edge of the forest. He stops at the tree line and points across a shallow valley way off to a cluster of houses, a pencil line of smoke coming from a chimney. That is the head of the trail. He says something in Polish and I’m so happy I grab his free hand and shake it generously. He nods without expression, turns on his heel and heads back into the forest for the 20 minute walk back to his house, garden, wife and dog.
After several hours of strained trudging up through pine forests of dead straight vertical lines, it opens up and the view is like nothing I’ve seen before. The eyes can’t take in all this visual data and depth and it all distorts at the edge of vision.
Muddy snow drifts putty the mountain creases, a ragged black bird of prey circles overheads like a halloween costume. Every so often I pass someone and exchange a breathless “Dzien dobry,” but no one stops to talk until I’m pulled up by a cheerful peculiar man in full fluoro climbing regalia, a professional mountaineering pole in each hand. I’d made the mistake of saying, “excuse me,” in English so he puts out one of his poles to block my path and exclaims, “whoa! you are a foreigner,” and asks me where I’m from.
He says it again pushing his glasses up on his head, “but where are you from?” and as I repeat he cuts me off with, “I know this already! I know it from when you first speak! Where are you from, Sydney or Melbourne? I have visited both cities”
“Oh…” I really don’t want to get caught up here, “I’m from Gympie.” This means nothing to him so he just starts telling me of his Antipodean adventures and I have to wait for a breath to say, “Ok, really nice to meet you…but I’d better be off now,” and he looks piqued.
“Where are you going today?” he wants to know.
“To the top. To Giewont.”
He shakes his head and says, “Oh no, no, no. It is much too late in the day. You will not get there with the sun. You should turn now. You should walk back with me.”
“Sorry,” I said, more determined than ever, “I’ll try my luck.”
As I near the base of the final accent I can see patches of stark black and white against the rock-face like a giant chess board was smashed over the peak. As I get closer I find they are a group of nuns (what’s the collective noun?) hauling themselves to the top by the chains. They don’t seem to be moving. An older overweight nun has become stuck and the younger ones behind are laughing at her.
I reach the first post where the chain starts and I add my walking stick a growing pile that looks like an art installation. The path straight upward is a spiral of narrow ledges and one-way, there’s no turning back once begun. A foot wrong and you’ll have a date with sheer openness. A British man nudges his girlfriend gently upwards. She’s crying in fear of the height and drop and whimpering “I just can’t.”
I reach the top to find a cramped craggy crest where people look out and back to each other in shared accomplishment with glowing cheeks. Most are gazing up at the giant steel crucifix, that some crazy Highlander pilgrims lugged up here in 1901 in tribute to their God and master, or perch on it’s concrete base. The nuns are all chattering giddily and taking photos, girlishly hugging and holding hands, but suddenly, as if on some hidden cue, they take out Rosary Beads and all start a prayer round in unison. A quiet peaceful lull falls over the summit and it even feels like the air pressure just dropped. Us layhikers stop all talking and rustling of chip packets. We feel we’re a part of this holy moment too, even if we can’t understand their Polish devotions.
When they finish they take out sandwiches from their packs and scatter themselves around, still quietly under their meditation. I turn to ask one sitting near me where they have come from and she looks down and blushes bashfully and won’t answer.
I know all too late that I should’ve left before the nuns, but suddenly they’re up like a startled flock and heading for the chain path down the other side. It’s slow going and they’re all chortling gaily again but then a shriek from somewhere down below as they realise the chubby one is stuck again. This time its serious nun block. She’s wedged between two boulders and can’t stretch her short, thick leg down the drop to the next step. No one can reach her with her fellow sisters crowding the chain either side. The summit starts to fill up with people coming the other way. I ask if I can help but some Polish men are already on the case telling people to stand back so there’s nothing to do but wait.
It suddenly feels claustrophobic so I break the rules by scrambling back down the way we came up, praying I won’t meet traffic. Luckily when I do, the ledge is wide enough for me to press myself flat against the rock face to let them pass, frowning. I think about explaining but they’ll know soon enough.
I’m down and grab another wooden stick from the pile and hit the long trail back around down the east side of the range and home. I walk for a while and look back up the rocky peek far off and the splashes of black and white are still stuck on the side of the mountain.
The next morning the pain in my legs isn’t apparent until I get out of bed. My leg muscles rebel when my feet hit the floor. The journey to the breakfast buffet is epic. Still, I’m determined to go back up. This time I’ll take the funicular up to Kasprowy Wierch and follow a path along another mountain range further into the Tartras and see where I end up from there. My free map has already ripped along the folded edges making neat jigsaw squares. The path undulates and curves along a rocky spine, I step aside to let a football team jog past in red jerseys.
Again the view is overpowering. To look directly south at the endless folds of mountains is to look straight into Slovakia. Far off I see the iron cross of Giewont, I could just pick it out of the rock and wear it on a chain round my neck.
I arrive at a cross roads, check my watch. It tells me it’s 4pm. I look at the sun and it’s very vague in what it says. It really feels like there should be a lot more hours left in the afternoon. I’m alone and the only sound is the air-conditioner whir of the pine forests way down below. I fit the squares of my map together.
There were only two other hikers behind me and I’ve notice they’ve turned back. I can’t see anyone else around. Up ahead coming down the steep path towards me is a single solitary figure. From a distance his thin hiking sticks make him look like a praying mantis. Before he gets to me he starts calling out.
“Turn around!” I think he’s saying.
He’s waving one of the sticks.
As he gets closer, “You’re going the wrong way. It’s too late. You must go back!”
Something sounds familiar.
“Hang on,” I recognise him as he gets closer, “I met you yesterday.”
“Oh. Crazy Australian!” he chides as he pauses to wipe his brow with a rag he takes from his pocket, “You can go up there but don’t take the blue path. Come back down this way.”
He waves a pole with a ‘pfft’ and keeps going.
When I reach the top it’s a 360 degree panoramic feast. Miles back down the slope I can see walkers draining back into the valley and the trail home. I find a patch of green grass and sit and just be. This is the first time in my life I can lay claim to having a mountain all to myself. It hits all of a sudden; a flood of emotions courses through me. I’m overwhelmed and am surprised by my own tears. I weep out of love for all people and am grateful for whatever events have led me to this top shelf of the world at this very moment, being able to look down at it and begin to get a sense of it all, a lofty perspective without leaving the ground. At my age, and not even having begun to learn anything about anything, but holding a knot of feelings in my chest. I weep for the love of a mother and father and sister and every soul I’ve encountered and called friend. I weep for the mighty mountain, who lets me scramble up its back and doesn’t shake me off like a dog would a bothersome flea.
But even a life affirming moment must be cut short if the fading day threatens to separate you from safety and a warm bed. With a last sweep around I pick myself up and brush the grass off my jeans and wonder about turning back, like my peculiar friend had urged. Well I didn’t heed his advice yesterday and that worked out just fine. I’ll take the blue trail.
There’s an antelope in the Tatra, only native to these mountains, that will graze on grasses disinterested in human presence and linger audaciously close if you happen to be sitting still and minding your business. But if you face her and try to approach she will back away, sounding a warning that’s akin to when the valve of a compressor is released, or the air-brakes on a semi-trailer.
The whole side of the hill is a steep wide sweep of shale and loose rock and I have to back my way down steadily, on hands and feet. The path is unclear and obscure painted arrows on larger fixed stones point me back on course a few times. My grip-worn Blundstone loses purchase and I slide a few feet before I reclaim my footing. If I slip and brake a leg I’ll be spending the night. There’ll be no more pilgrims on this path today.
The track, even when it became more solid, keeps pointing downwards for hours and hours and the upward incline seems like a distant memory. I wish for upward, if only for a couple of steps. My legs feel like houses of cards and threaten to topple at any moment. This is what I’ve learned about climbing mountains: going up is about the heart, going down is about the legs.
The path sinks into the woods. The nerves start to bite and the mind plays horror movies starring me and this forest; I startle at low hanging leaves brushing my forehead. The sound of a little bird picking through leaves nearby might be a rabid yeti. When I feel I can go no more I sit and the muscles lock tight and threaten to keep me in that position if I don’t move again soon.
You fool, you fool! Why don’t you ever listen? It’s all well and good to cry for all living souls on a mountaintop like some pretentious twit, but now you’ll die in it’s valley. You think you can square up against nature like it’s a sunday stroll? I hobble upright. Now it’s self-anger that’s the steam in my engine. Hours fall away and the sun is taken by the range above me and when I hear the sound of a far off car it might as well be Chopin. When I step off the track and back onto a bitumened street it is 11 o’clock at night.
I go back to the tree to play my guitar and maybe earn some money. I just feel like singing, the money wasn’t really important, laying the guitar case out was just an act of commitment to the singing. That’s lucky though, as being in the middle of an affluent tourist area, people’s pockets aren’t exactly overflowing. Any busker will tell you it’s the poorer working class neighbourhoods where pennies are more likely to drop, in whichever city you’re in.
So standing there, under the perpendicular arms of the tree I belt out well-worn tunes I’d rote-learned as a voracious teen hungry to unlock their secrets so that I might have a go too: Paul Kelly, Slim Dusty, Go-Betweens, the Triffids. And now these my brain, written in and about my own homelands a hemisphere and a full day’s flight away, somehow peg me to the ground -in the mind at least- amid this years wanderings, and I remember who I am again.
“Cause that’s not her, it’s just the light. It’s only an image of her, just a trick of the light…”
A student strolls by and throws in some zloty and five minutes later an old alcoholic with wine-blushed cheeks asks me for money so I hand it straight out again.
Some rough looking kids are doing extreme BMX tricks in the square, mostly falling off and scaring pedestrians by peddling within an inch of them as they walk past. They eye me warily and occasionally ride right in front of me starring into my face, sizing me up. I’m just happy to sing to the apostles lined up in front of me, so try to ignore them. After an hour my voice gets tired and I’m running out of songs so I scoop up the fist of coins into my pocket and clip the case shut and walk off up the street amid the tourist current in search of coffee. I feel a tap on my shoulder, it’s two of the young bike riders from the square.
“You have a good voice,” one of them says carefully.
“Aw, Thanks,” I reply.
“We don’t have any money but we want to give you this,” he holds out his hand and drops a scrunched up silver foil into mine and closes my fingers around it.
Then his friend, who’s smiling broadly giving the thumbs-up and says, “It’s Polish, so it’s good shit!”
It’s nearing my last days and I decide I’ll go to the old fortune telling woman in the garment hall wall recess. The main problem here is that I don’t speak Polish. I ask a middle-aged man waiting on a bench to hear about his future if he speaks English. He says a little. I ask him if he’ll translate for me. He folds his newspaper and tucks it under his arm and looks at me gravely and says, “No. It is between you and she. If I tell the wrong thing it is very bad luck for you.”
It’s my birthday and I’m alone in an Eastern European city so I make a practical decision on how to spend it: I book a Communist tour. It’s been arranged through a telephone call to a tour company that I’ll be picked up at 2pm outside my lodgings. An old East German car putters up and the engine sounds like a mower. It only holds four people and the other two have cancelled so it’s just me and the young guide and it feels strange to sit quietly while he reels off his well-practiced tourist spiel. I feel like I need to make the reactions on behalf of all the missing people. I use “Wow” a lot.
“Welcome to crazy guides,” he started enthusiastically as he navigates the erratic traffic, “this tour is so crazy. Once even a wheel came off the car and bounced down the highway!”
I say, “Wow” again and raise both eyebrows but he reassures me and pats the dashboard, “Hey, don’t worry. We are very safe today.”
We drive out to the Communist designed post-war suburb of Nova Huta, a symbol of Soviet Union’s might and efficiency that was built to eclipse the quaint old-world Cracow. The first stop is an old Soviet milk bar, a place that hasn’t changed a single mirror tile or Stalin statue since 1950. Without being summoned a silent aproned waitress brings a tray of refreshments.
My guide throws a plastic folder of photos on the table. He is young, athletic and has a haircut to set your watch to. He starts off, “and now for some crazy facts,” and launches into stories of struggle and sadness, perseverance and victory.
Whilst mid sentence his mobile phone rings and he looks at it for a few seconds as if he’s never seen it do this before and then says, “excuse me, I must get this,” and walks over to the side of the room and takes the call. I just sip on my Coke through a wax straw and look at the photos. There’s one of Communist Propaganda on the construction site: a job for every man and woman! Three hands on one brick, placing it on a wall.
He comes back over and you can tell his mood has darkened slightly.
“Everything Ok?” I ask him.
“Yes, of course,” he says, and picks up the folder obviously trying to catch his train of thought, “let me see here…”
A flipping through pages. He looks forlorn and admits, “that was my ex-girlfriend,”
“Oh…,” I say, “One of those phone calls.”
“I will meet her at our old apartment today to go through our belongings. I just don’t know…,” he shakes his head and asks me earnestly, “do you think we can still be friends?”
I look at another black and white photo open in the tourist folder of a giant Stalin monument toppled by a cheering mob and I think that all the violent history of the world can seem like a nursery rhyme when played on the heartstrings.
“Hmm,” I thought out loud, “Well, you’ve come to the right place.”
“What do you mean?”
“Should we skip that church and go and get a beer?”
The colossal Nowa Huta steelworks was built to resemble a mighty castle from the front and placed thusly so the sun could rise from directly behind it each morning and the workers travelling towards it by foot or tram could be blinded by the majesty of their lives.
The beer has made him a new man.
“We still have some time left. I want to show you something,” he says to me.
We’re back in the car and circumnavigating the steel works on unkempt potholed roads. He turns into a back lane that skirts the high chain-link barbed wired fence, stops the car and gets out.
“It is against the rules but I would like you to drive the Trabant now,” he says.
I don’t need convincing. Once in the drivers seat I test the pedals and reef it into gear and bunny-hop into forward motion.
“Now you can change into two because one is for start,” he instructs, “A lot of gas now… and three…go, go!”
We’re flying along now and the overgrown bushes are whipping the shell.
He starts relaying facts about the car, yelling over the straining engine.
“This one is a 600cc 2 stroke engine, and the body is basically plastic.” He thumps his fist on the roof, “Can you hear that?”
“This is cool!” I shout back, “What’s the fastest you’ve taken it?”
“About 100 kilometers an hour…but with a good wind,” and we’re both laughing, but mainly from the glee of speed.
Around a bend the deadend catches me by surprise and he barks and reaches over and pulls down hard on the steering wheel, “Slow, slow, slow, slow!” and we nearly end up crashing into some old wooden packing sheds but the brakes are good and the turning circle even better.
“Shit, that was close,” he says grinning, “Ok, let’s go again.”
Taking local-knowledge back streets we avoid the afternoon traffic and we’re nearing the city again where he will drop me off.
“What do you think of Polish people?” he wants to know.
“Honestly, I don’t want to generalise. I’ve only met a handful of you,” I say, “but I get a good feeling from being here.”
“Some of my customers have said we don’t smile much. You must understand, we are an optimistic people. But to have lived between two superpowers for centuries it is impossible not to get crushed.” he explains and pulls into a vacant space, “We are still learning how to smile.”
I’d been copying down names from gig posters around town that look interesting. One that caught my eye had a colourful lo-fi aesthetic and I wrote its details in my notebook: ‘Rachel Orette.’ A google search bore no fruit and I was about to give up on that one but as I stared at the scrawl on my notepad my crossword brain deciphered the mistake. The poster was two-lined when the words should be joined, and the confusingly ornate ‘R’ is actually a ‘B.’ – It’s Bachelorette! A great band from NZ, we played together at a festival outside Wellington years ago so maybe they’d remember me? It’s my last night.
I walk into the club and Annabel, the creative heart and singer of Bachelorette (she’s playing alone tonight), does indeed recognise me and I join her entourage at a table where she implores me to sing a few songs before she starts, and after some drinks I think it might be okay. It’s downstairs in a cramped basement bar and people have wedged themselves in every available space, all smoking and adding their share of body heat to the rising temperature.
For a solo performer Annabel is travelling with a lot of gear, the stage is cluttered with laptops, instruments and effects pedals. She loans me her guitar and I get three songs out and people are polite considering they have no idea who I am.
“Dziekuje, Krakow,” I banter with the audience, “I’ve had a great time here, you’ve been good hosts. Plus it’s my birthday today, and it’s nice to spend it with you.”
A cheer goes up and when I leave the stage and squeeze into a space by the bar the barmaid puts a shot of vodka in front of me and says Happy Birthday. I thank her and to my surprise she has one ready for herself just under the counter and we shoot together.
Some of the punters nod at me as they pass en route to the bathroom, some even shake my hand. Annabel steps up onto the stage where she and her various machines burst into an electro-pop aural opulence. She has a projector that beams morphing patterned hypnotic synchronised images onto a screen behind her and her floating vocal melodies are just as entrancing. I notice the shotglass in front of me has somehow filled itself and the barmaid is there miming a down-the-hatch. Again it’s in unison. This one is harsher on the throat and I grit my teeth whereas the kick sends her face into a dimpled smile. “You must try this one too,” she yells above the music with a devilish grin, “It has honey.” We cheers and down-the-hatch.
People are trying to dance on the sides of the room and I get pushed back away from the bar in the crush. The music, and the potency of the local hospitality, is sending signals to my brain and feet too but there’s no room move. Annabel is making a song out of a disco beat. What a great and unexpected way to end my days here. This time tomorrow I’ll be in Berlin, a full days speeding train ride away. That reminds me, I still have to pay my board, pack and be up before dawn. Should probably leave soon. I feel a finger poke me in the ribs. I turn around and it’s the cheeky barmaid and she has a shot of vodka for me in her hand, and one for herself in the other.
I have two seats to myself and stare out at unkempt fields beneath a sprinkling of lite European rain and when we go through a tunnel it’s suddenly my own reflection. I’m mortified to remember stumbling home last night and singing at top note. I was getting off on the reverb in the tunnel. Dear God, I even sung the Australian National Anthem. I never thought I’d be one of those travellers, heady with pride for their own country and not shy of letting everyone know. My brain was poisoned, that’s what I’m telling myself.
We’re getting close to Warsaw now and we ease into a suburban station and I see on the platform policemen with dogs on leashes and it’s then I remember the foil of marijuana that is still in the back pocket of my jeans, forgotten. It suddenly feels like a giant conspicuous boulder beneath me, the princess’s pea. I leap up and try to get to the toilet but there’s a line of people wrestling with bags, pushing their way to the door.
I carefully take it out of my pocket and, holding it in the palm of my hand, pretend to rest by holding onto the luggage rack above me. I mould the foil around the chrome bar and when I take my hand away it stays, camouflaged. The people are off now and a policeman is coming on board so I sit back down and open my book. He strides through placing his hands on the headrests either side as he goes. I feel his gaze but don’t look up from the page. He passes and outside on the platform a dog starts barking.
I read the same line over until it makes no sense. “We mix watermelon sugar and trout juice and special herbs all together and in their proper time to make this fine oil that we use to light our world.”
The carriage lurches.
We’re moving again and the last thing I see when we leave the station is a man brushing beads of rain from a women’s coat.
The Last Tourist
Early last year I got an email from Mick Thomas saying he was unsure of which direction to take with his new album. He said he’d liked the sound of my last one and asked if I had any ideas. My reply suggested that if it was that sound he was after he might as well come with me to Portland, Oregon – where mine was made – direct to the source, and record it in the very spot. The journey over there was half the battle as far as I could see. The rest would hopefully take care of itself, just as it had done for me a year before. This is how it should work: The studio, all warm and wooden and capacious, bedecked with various musical instruments; its taciturn and purposeful engineer Adam Selzer who knows its dimensions and workings with his eyes closed; the coterie of musicians and friends who drift in and out of the studio, all happily willing with hands, plectrums and bows at the ready. And Portland itself, the river town, in all its industrial hazed, steel bridged glory, its gutters flowing with fresh coffee and micro brewed ale. Geography always has a sound.
Mick flew in from Canada carrying a hangover. He had the usual trouble at US immigration from him sharing a name with an FBI-listed convicted murderer who happens to be African American. The border official eyed him suspiciously and said, “you’re not black are you Mr Thomas?” and he shook his head and went to say, “wait till you hear my music,” but wisely thought better of it. He just wanted in.
Along with him for the sessions was his long-time accordion-playing collaborator Squeezebox Wally. I picked them both up from the airport and took them straight to a basement bar in the downtown area for hairs of dogs. It was dark and pretty empty being early week, though the barmaid was amiable and a Wilco record purred low over the PA. I could see Mick and Wally had that wide-eyed buzz at being on uncharted ground.
“This is more like it,” Mick exclaimed after a while, “It’s not bloody rocket science.”
“Which bit?” I asked him.
“This place, the music,” he clarified, “I just don’t understand why more places in Melbourne can’t play stuff that doesn’t alienate people. Even just to hear whole albums! It’s sad but I don’t go into my local much anymore. Used to be there all the time. It’s supposed to be a music venue and the shit they play in the front bar is so…obnoxious!”
“So you can’t bring yourself to drink there?” I said.
“No, I’m literally not allowed in. I have a few drinks and ark up a bit and tell em what I think and they say ‘Mick maybe you shouldn’t come back for a while.’”
We sat there for a couple more full albums (The Kinks, Iron and Wine) and glasses before I dropped them slurring and fatigued to their lodgings with tentative plans for meeting at the studio in the morning. It was quiet and drizzly over the city and the road shone like seal skin. As I drove off with their hotel’s giant florescent neon palm tree colouring my mirrors I wondered to myself for the first time, what the hell do producers actually do?
Mick Thomas first happened on the scene as the front man and principal songwriter in the powerhouse Australian folk-rock band Weddings Parties Anything, formed in the early 80s, touring the world and releasing much great recorded music for over a decade. I first heard them when a school friend had just seen them support U2 and had been impressed enough to order a double cassette through Hoopers Music Centre in Gympie (Scorn of the Women/Roaring Days) and loaned me that to listen to. It connected dots between some of the Australian country music that I’d been reared on and energetic punk stuff I was growing into now. I went to Hoopers and ordered more tapes.
Years later when I was playing in my first band The Simpletons we were granted a support tour with Weddings. This led to a kind of mentoring friendship with Mick and the others and more shows followed in different cities. I felt it was always better to not hang around backstage eating their chips but go out the front and watch them, to morph with the feverish crowd that’d jump and yelp and sing like a single beast fit to consume the band out of religious zeal rather than hunger. I learnt the cues: the chorus to peg coins at them, the fists in the air, the shouting of the lyric “some people pray for holidays,” all of the backing vocals. Ritual, tribal.
Amid all the rollicking adrenalin there were moments of sweet reprieve, gentler songs that touched nerves we all shared as humans and Australians. Men who looked like Rugby full-forwards would hold each other around the shoulders and croon along, swaying gently. Hearing it only once, I’d ever after wait the whole show to hear the devastatingly arresting For A Short Time and would look around at the crowd to see real tears on stern faces and could feel myself misting up too at the upward souring chorus. It always baffles me that it’s not an easy selection on classic Australian song lists.
I’d kept in touch with my old tape-lending school friend and he was tickled that my Weddings journey had come full circle and I was thankful to him for starting it.
“So what’s Mick like?” he asked me over a few drinks at the Royal Hotel in Gympie.
I wondered where to start.
“He’s an interesting character,” was an understatement.
“I remember at the U2 show when they played that song about the Tasmanian convicts eating each other how he held his guitar above his head like an axe. He looked like a mean bugger. I mean he even looks like an escaped convict!”
“Yeah, I was pretty intimidated meeting him,” I admitted, “but he actually seems like a sensitive guy. He reads a lot. Knows a lot about history. He loves a good story…when you get him started. But other times he can be quite blunt… which can be offensive or refreshing, whichever way you look at it. On my first conversation with him I was feeling a bit self conscious about an accordion solo I’d played on one of the Simpletons albums and I asked him what he thought…”
My friend sipped his rum and coke, listening.
“…He said it was ‘pedestrian at best.’”
One day I heard that Weddings Parties Anything were breaking up, and around the same time my band looked like imploding too and Mick had hinted he might need a guitarist for a new project he was putting together. I was excited at the prospect and then one night after the last Sydney show on their farewell tour as he rushed out the door to an idling van Mick thrust a demo CD of new songs at me and said “Learn it.” I guessed this meant I had the job.
It was another demo that started the ball rolling in 2011. Mick sent me rough recordings of all the songs he could possibly dig out of his archives; the misfits, the discards from previous recordings, the newly penned. He said he wanted me to choose 10 songs, out of about 50 or so, I thought would make a good cohesive collection and he would do the same. I felt I could do this not only as a fan, but as a spokesman for all his fans. I had an idea of what his public might want to hear. Since his days with the Weddings he hadn’t put out anything that showed the bare-bones storyteller that lay beneath thundering folk-rock layers, the captivating troubadour I’d witnessed at some of his solo shows. When we compared our lists only one song crossed over, and to his credit he went with mine.
We surprised ourselves by getting in to the studio early and found Adam spooling the tape while coffee brewed. It made sense to start with the one song we’d both chosen, Gallipoli Rosemary, a sentimental ballad about a herb in Mick’s garden whats horticultural heritage can be traced back to the great battle, smuggled to Australia in a diggers knapsack. All this song needed was a simple good performance, the story and lyrical poetry did all the work. He sang it twice and that was that. As Adam rewound the tape for a listen Wally piped up, “Bugger me! I just realized that back home it’s Anzac Day!”
But then most of the songs took only a couple of run-throughs. Mostly Adam would set the sounds and sprint through to the live room to play drums while I held down the bass at the control panel. It was fast and easy. Wally being a master of the accordion had duties on only a couple of the tracks so for a lot of the others he cautiously felt his way around pianos, pump organs and a Chromaharp. This fragility with his inherent strong melodicism was the perfect aesthetic I was after. Anything that sounded premeditated or hinted of ‘production’ stood out as inappropriate, I wanted Mick’s songs to sound fresh and not be weighed down with studio trickery.
I assumed that wearing the producer hat meant I could just suggest things I’d do if it were my own recording. But the strangest thing was they actually listened to me! I became drunk with power.
“Maybe we should put the bridge riff as the intro and drop back for the verse,” I’d gingerly offer.
“Yeah, perfect,” Mick would say after not too much contemplation.
“Really?” I’d check, “…..Ok, swap the riff!”
Fast and Easy. At one stage I felt the minor-key toe tapper The Last of the Tourists was starting to head into Jonathan Richman dance-track territory but still needed another verse to balance it out. Mick, in true Jo Jo style, improvised one almost on the spot.
Two local singers Shelley Short and Alia Farah had only met when Adam called them both in for a session on my album, and their voices had blended so neatly that they’d been singing together in various projects ever since and had become fast friends. They came in and teamed up again on a 70s styled track, Goodbye Slowly and brought the whole thing to life, if life meant a 70s AM radio early Rod Stewart existence.
There was another song on my mind that night. I imagined The People You Meet Along the Way as a plaintive showtune but felt it needed another voice. I wasn’t sure if Mick was hurt by this suggestion but he scratched his chin and looked off into the corner of the room and said, “well I guess we could at least hear it.” I scrawled out a basic chord chart and Alia sat at the piano and gave it a shot while Shelley grappled singing with an Australian accent. I didn’t want to push it too much but a simple vowel sound can change everything.
“Shelley, the line is ‘until meet someone with whom you can yarn half the night.’ It sounds like you’re saying yawn, and that could be offensive to this person you’re spending the night with,” I said into the talkback mic.
“What’s yarn?” she asked, “Oh, you mean like you knit together!?”
One of the last songs we recorded was Star-O a tribute to Mick’s recently departed mother. After quick rehearsal we pushed record and just started playing it once and it felt right, wistful and loose in a good way. Sometimes after a single run it’s habit, or maybe suspicion that anything of worth can be achieved with such ease, that makes you say, “ok, lets just keep playing it,” but this time Mick said, “Nah, I reckon we got it.”
We listened back and without meaning to I forgot about form and science and I just felt the song. Sure there were edges we could smooth off but this sounded like a moment in time that could not be replicated; rehearsal would be uncouth. Right at the end of the vocal, if you listen carefully, you can hear Mick’s voice curl up like a burning gum leaf and break with emotion.
“Yeah, we got it,” I agreed and the tape machine clunked stop as Adam hit the button.
For two years I became a member of Mick Thomas’ new roving family ‘The Sure Thing.’ We worked hard, crisscrossing the great Australian tour circuit a few times a year.
We traveled to England as a duo for what was my first visit there. Without the constraints of the full band it was a chance for me to request older songs from the Weddings back catalogue and I could wing it without rehearsal cause I knew them so well. We’d turn up at these weird folk clubs and Mick would say, “Where do we plug in?” and they’d look bemused and echo, “plug in?” having never heard of a PA system and Mick would have to project his vocals above the seated audience and in song breaks old ladies would just stand up unprompted and eerily sing Scarborough Fair and Barbara Allen and sit back down again to no applause.
Back in Australia I played as a guitarist on the first proper album post Weddings called Dust Off My Shoes. Mick had imported veteran British producer Jerry Boys, famous at the time for his work recording the Buena Vista Social Club and the Billy Bragg/Wilco album of Woody Guthrie songs. Neatly dressed and twinkly-eyed with trim white Santa beard, he remained heavily jet-lagged for his entire visit and would often fall asleep at the mixing desk between takes. He’d recorded so many bands he was through dealing with fussy ego-driven guitarists wanting to redo solos until they sounded suitably thrilling and spontaneous. He’d ensure this wouldn’t happen by putting me in the room with the drummer so that if I made a mistake, we’d have to redo the whole song again.
Early in the week we took Jerry out for dinner and Mick casually asked him about other projects he’d worked on.
We were all floored when he came casually out with, “When I was 16 I did work experience at Abbey Road recording the Beatles. I did a lot with them. I didn’t end up enjoying it that much so went on to work with the Rolling Stones.”
Mick was trying to sound composed and pressed him further.
“Yeah, I’m not really credited but I was there for a session on Paperback Writer. You know all those overlaid vocals? We only had a certain amount of tracks available so we had to sync two machines up together. The technique for getting all those vocals together was called ‘spinning in’, you had to manually spin the reel of tape at exactly the right time….”
He was miming the action with his hand as we sat around the table like avid students.
With money Mick paid me for touring, plus a little on the side from operating a few pinball machines around Sydney, I was able to pool enough cash to make my first record. I really didn’t have big aspirations for it, I never considered having my own band or having to write songs for anything other than a pastime.
But then one night at a soundcheck in a dodgy pub Mick pulled me off an electrified microphone connected to an unearthed 750 volt power supply and literally saved my life. My fingers and shoulder had already started to burn. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital the nurse said that if I’d been stuck to that mic 8 more seconds I’d have been toast, well and truly. So it wasn’t just financially that Mick Thomas helped kickstart my music career. I remember thinking clearly in that ambulance if I was going to die for rock and roll then it might as well be playing my own songs.
At the end of the recording, just before Mick was to fly home, I booked a night in a beach house on the Oregon coast. Shelley and her comic illustrator friend Ezra came too and we all drove up through the heavy wooded hills of the State Forest and broke through into the dairy pastures around Tillamook and not far past that you get your first glimpse of the Pacific. Mick and Ezra sat in the back seat. At first I had compatibility worries at bringing two untested people together but they chatted away throughout the whole journey about films and books and the Eightball comic book series. When we got to Oceanside we were all astounded at how close to the water we were staying, the house jutting out over the sand. Monolithic rock formations rose up out of the waves. Mick was taken with the coastal scape saying he’d seen nothing like it.
Shelley explained, “My family and I have been coming out here for years. It’s not like your Australian beaches. It tends to make me contemplative. Think about life and death and stuff.”
“Great, we’re hanging out with Ingmar Bergman,” said Ezra.
In the afternoon we got a coffee from the local hippie cafe ‘Brewin in the Wind’ and took a long walk miles up the beach, fording the fresh water streams on fallen logs and talking easy with that warm sense of accomplishment.
“Remember that time we supported Ian Brown in Cardiff,” Mick asked as we were going over old times.
“Geeze, I hadn’t though about that for ages. We actually played after him… when most people had left and for some reason the audience threw lollies at us,” it was all coming back to me fast.
“Yeah, that crowd had waited for him for hours and then he came on stage and played two songs, did a weird mime thing, and ran off stage and hugged some girl like he’d just run a fucking marathon or something.”
We climbed wooden stairs up the steep bank, past empty beach shacks with salted up windows, in search of fresh fish for tea. On the walk back the wind was in our faces and we had to shield our eyes for sand.
Later that night I BBQed on the deck to the wave sounds off in the darkness. Mick leaned on the railing and looked out to sea with a glass of red wine in his hand and whatever he was thinking of made him rock back and forth on his heels. I broke the ice by explaining to him how this coast was the Hollywood of the North West. Inexplicably he’d never seen the Goonies and lucky for him I’d brought a DVD copy with me and before sleep he even admitted he enjoyed it especially as it was concerned with pirates.
In the morning I got up early and made a list of filming locations so we could visit them on our drive back to Portland. We poked around the old fashioned amusement parlors, the bumper cars and video games, in beach towns along the way north before reaching Astoria where the coastline is cut by the mouth of the Columbia River. By the time we’d driven past the motel featured in Kindergarten Cop I’d played The Goonies Are Good Enough song for the eighth time and Mick finally cracked and said, “For God’s sake, I can’t listen to Cindy Lauper anymore.” I dragged him to the prison and made him pose for a mug shot, past the museum and finally up the hill to where Mikey and Data’s houses were once joined by a flying fox wire. I looked back down on the town where the colourful wooden houses clustered to the contours of the steep hills all the way down to the river where the seals were making a racket. It was a familiar panorama of my youth, learned through a TV set.
Shelley, Ezra and Mick left me to my moment and went back to sit in the car. I approached a guy who was out the front gardening assuming he must live there. He was reluctant and must get badgered all the time but when he heard my accent he softened.
“You know we get about 30,000 people walking up our drive with cameras each year,” he complained, and I thought, what did you expect? If you don’t like the heat don’t buy a house in the kitchen.
It was a bizarre and beautiful way to end a single week of work in our lives. We got back to Portland and I dropped off Shelley and Ezra then picked up Wally waiting at the hotel. The huge metal palm tree looked silent in the daylight. We wolfed down a last meal and then I drove them both to a room at the airport for tomorrow’s early flight. I helped myself to the complimentary instant coffee in the office as they checked in.
“Did you hear the news?” asked the attendant as he handed over the room keys.
“No?” said Mick.
“We finally got Bin Laden. Blew the somobitch away,” he continued ecstatically, “You gotta love that shit!”
Mick just stared at Wally and I popped a tiny cap of creamer (with a hint of vanilla) into my cup and put a biscuit in my pocket for later. No one knew what else what to say.
usa tour diary week 3
Monday 28th: WILMINGTON, NC
There wasn’t much rain but still bright lightning strobing every few minutes most of the night and that was enough to keep me awake for hours. The house was empty in the morning, our hosts at work long ago. As we readied ourselves for our drive we fielded a door-knock from a disgruntled postal worker about the position our car. “I’ll ask ya’ll to not block my box!” she yelled and then trudged off with her mailbag swinging and we used that as our cue to hit the road.
Somewhere before we leave the state of Georgia we spot a sign advertising a local shooting range so I ask the girls if they’d mind a detour. They’re rightly uneasy about it and really I am too, but my stubborn curiosity is greater than any misgivings I may have (which is the reason I often end up in compromising situations).
We park and tentatively approach the unprepossessing square brick building. It’s eerily quiet here in the carpark at least; it could be a simple pawn broker or community hall but when we open the tinted glass doors it sounds like someone far away is popping balloons. The guy behind the display counter is more than happy to oblige me, “Sure you can shoot here!” his grin is as wide at the brim on his camouflage-print cap, “Would you like the Glock or the 357 Magnum?”
“You shot a handgun before?”
“Well then I’d suggest the Magnum. It’s a good piece for beginners. The next question is do you want the classic round target, or would you prefer the human shape?”
Amazingly, after submitting a no-fuss perfunctory background check, I am on the range within 5 minutes of stepping out of the car with a small cardboard box of 50 live ammo shells. The girls follow me in there, us all wearing industrial earmuffs, and we gingerly creep past other shooters in their designated lanes separated by makeshift carpeted plywood shields. The low ceiling makes the atmosphere even more oppressive and our innate animal survival instincts are on red alert; there is danger in this room. The girls give in to this feeling and leave me there alone in my booth to clip on my broadsheet paper target and winch it down to the end of the range where mounds of dirt behind take the impact of the bullets in little puffs here and there. The dull muted thump of gunfire around me makes this feel ever more treacherous; with the earmuffs on it’s almost as loud as your own heartbeat.
I look to the left of me and there are two overweight men in cowboy hats shouting instructions to each other and taking turns with a hunting rifle. To the right is a young guy in full camouflage using an automatic machine gun with laser scope who’s bright red dot searches out it’s target of the brain and heart sections of the human silhouette accurately. Pop, pop, pop. Further on down the end a short Asian man presses seductively up against his date, who looks like a Russian Bond villain, long blonde hair and nearly a foot taller than him in high heels as she squints down the sight of a hand pistol and squeezes off shots. They catch me looking at them and stare icily.
I have to do this now and get the hell out of here. I fumble the 6 bullets into the chamber and snap it shut. I cock the hammer and outstretch my arms, fill the tiny gap in the rear iron with the nub of the site and shift my focus to the bulls-eye way off. I search the trigger with my right forefinger. Here goes… I’m not prepared for the power and the barrel lurches off target. The force of it doesn’t match at all with the dull sound. I think I’ve missed the circle completely. My heart is faster now in my ears and a voice in my brain is saying, “Ok, you’ve done it now. Leave the other bullets and get out. Any one of these people in here could be having problems at home, or have just been fired from their job – I mean it is a recession – and are thinking ‘damn the world and everyone in it’ and turn towards me and….” BANG! The next bullet at least has punctured the white paper border around the target, but I’m still leaning to the left. I just pull the trigger without cocking for the next two and they’re in the black now. By the end of the box I’m hitting dead center every time and there’s a litter of empty shells around me and acrid wispy smoke coming out of the chamber.
I find the girls reading hunting magazines on the lounge in the reception and they both give me a look that says, “can we please leave right now!” Before we get to the door my friend behind the counter calls after us, “You can’t leave without a photo, I can take one for you guys. And here’s your target. You did real good for a first-timer.” Instead of bringing over the target though he grabs a selection of guns from the cabinet and thrusts them into our hands and tells us to pose like Charlie’s Angels. I get the AK47. “Say Cheese!”
By the time we finally get away from him the man and his statuesque Bond girl are inquiring to another staff member, “If we come back tomorrow can we bring our children?”
Back in the car our collective mood is dark and pensive. Somehow we feel dirty and ashamed. “You can never show anyone those photos,” Steph makes me promise.
We switch the radio to NPR and Obama’s speech beams out live from the Defense University outlining his decision to send troops to Libya to face-off Gaddafi. His crisp, calm and firm sentences and the gaps between them, even the endearing sibilant whistles on ‘s’ words could make you believe, or want to believe, whatever he says is true. The remaining light drains out of the day and it’s pitch black as we cross the border to North Carolina. I feel like night driving is the closest thing to dreaming while you’re awake; dark scenes change rapidly, you’re eyes play tricks and your mind is free to wander on it’s own.
We pull in somewhere for fuel and when the girls go inside I walk out past the glow and stand by the ditch bordering the road and take in the swath of stars above. In the distance I hear a sharp scraping noise and look up to see sparks out on the highway. From the darkness a car lumbers in to the bowser without headlights and one tire missing, driving on the bare metal rim. They pump in some petrol and drive off again.
We drive; hours flying past. Somewhere along we approach unearthly glow on the horizon. Closer still we make it out to be some kind of tourist attraction service centre, it declares itself as ‘South of the Border’ a blossoming neon faux-Mexican theme town. It’s oddly quiet, most of the attractions are closed, although all lights are still on, and there’s no one around. We stretch our legs illuminated under the buzz and hum of 50,000 watts.
It’s after midnight and we’ve made it to Wilmington. Tonight we’re sleeping in a friends private movie theatre on the second floor of his downtown office building. He’s asleep in the apartment next door but has left out a pile of films for us, most of them Elizabeth Taylor classics in memoriam of her passing a few days ago. We make the bad decision and neglect A Place in the Sun and opt instead for a forgotten 80’s teen comedy 3 O’clock High at the bottom of the stack. It’s like a low-budget John Hughes, complete with a poor mans Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall.
Tuesday 29th: WILMINGTON, NC
My thoughts are still haunted by yesterdays Shooting Range experience. Today it seems even more poignant when I try and use the pool at the Wilmington YMCA to swim some laps. It takes half an hour of paper work, they need a photo for security purposes, fingerprints and even a next of kin! The girl at the reception struggles with putting my information into the computer and curses in words I never thought I’d hear in real life, “Oh Phooey!” I’m assigned a personal assistant to show me to my locker, wait for me to change into bathers and lead me through to the swimming area.
I choose the medium-pace lane and am only in the water a few minutes when I get a crash course in American lap-swimming etiquette. In Australia a person generally swims in a clockwise direction around the black centre line, even if alone. Here it seems that if the lane has only two people you must stick to your own side, going up and back beside each other. When I started out my laps there were three of us in our lane but somewhere along, unbeknownst to me, one third of our gang hopped out. I didn’t make the switch and therefore swam head-on into a guy coming right at me at a swift clip. “Jesus Christ!” he howled and lurched up out of the water like Poseidon himself. “Sorry mate,” I offered meekly, even though in shock myself. “Stick to your own side,” he ordered me, slapping the water surface with his hand for emphasis, which caused the water to splash back on himself. My first experience of lane rage.
Wilmington, little Hollywood of the east coast. The film location for, amongst many others, Dawson’s Creek, Weekend at Bernies and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. And lately the comedy sensation Eastbound & Down. Dave Dondero first brought me here a few years ago, this being his adolescent stomping ground (he once told me of his show here where two weird drunk audience members came up imploring him to follow them to a party. He declined on grounds of suspicion and later found out regrettably they were the actors from EB&D who played Stevie Janowski and Principal Cutler). He’d moved back here and was living in the back room of the cinema owned by his friend Fred. He organised a show for both of us in town and the next day took me fishing out in the Gulf Stream with his high school buddy where we netted bait fish early in the morning in the estuaries around Wrightsville Beach and when we had enough supply putted out to deeper water and the bigger game. They became annoyed when I got seasick while still managing to reel in fish after fish. They had to take me back to land, green-gilled and holding my catch. We fried them up later that night in Fred’s apartment and it was some of the best fish I ever ate.
Tonight the show is in the very cinema on a snug stage tucked in the corner beside the screen, its walls lined with silver tinsel streamers. Fred, our host, is a champion of the Wilmington music scene, once owning a thriving independent record store in town that eventually became yet another casualty of the New Age of Free Downloading. Since then he has held a free community film night in this building once a week, and sometimes hosts shows for touring bands if they can’t get one elsewhere. Tonight he’s trying to decide on an Australian film to play before our set and I urge him it not be Mad Max. He chooses one I’ve never heard of called Body Melt. The title pretty much spoils its main plot-line; the characters contract an infection which causes them to dissolve into bubbling fleshy messes at indeterminate moments. There’s gratuitous sex scenes too. And to mix it up people sometimes melt during the sex scenes. Andrew Daddo, Lisa McCune and Harold from Neighbours thought this film a good career move for them, and therein mutate, sprout face tentacles and liquify convincingly.
People arrive for the show quietly and tardily in ones and twos and therefore the film goes on late and cuts into our set time so Shelley starts while it’s still projecting and they just turn the sound down. It’s disconcerting to hear her pure fragile tunes as a soundtrack to these actors simultaneously copulating and melting in full screen cinematic glory.
There’s no cover charge tonight so I put my cap out at the front of the stage for people to hopefully donate fuel money. They’re attentive and loll around the room on lounges and chairs, smoking and drinking wine and beer out of plastic cups. Someone has brought their pet German Shepherd and he bounds up and down off the stage, loping between my legs while I’m playing my set.
Afterwards we chat with the locals. Fred is tried from working on a TV show all day and his charming southern drawl is flagging so he collects his cat and wanders off to his bed. The cigarette smoke is making me queasy so I go out for fresh air and walk the streets to find the Addams Family pinball machine I’d gotten a Grand Champion score on last year. I am elated to find my tag still in top position, as if proof of some profound enduring legacy, in all its orange glowing dot-matrix glory. TCB!
I play and am doing okay when I feel the presence of a random onlooker behind me and I self-consciously fumble the last ball which leaves me on a score far inferior to last years glory but still enough to punch in my tag.
“Man, are you TCB?” my spectator asks me. I nod humbly and he says, “I’ve been trying to beat that score for weeks.” I feel like a sporting titan, a supple-wristed master of reflex and skill. I stand up straighter and put my shoulders back.
“How did you get it?” he wants to know.
“Well…,” I get technical, “it was a rare game. I got the ‘Search the Mansion’ feature twice, you know where you finish all the rooms and get to unlock the question mark in the attic…?”
“…Yeah, of course…”
“…and that gave me a few extra balls up my sleeve… it was just one of those moments of pure vision.”
He is nodding and digging change out of his jeans pocket and says, “Lets play!”
So here we stay for the next while, chatting and flipping, neither of us doing very well… in fact he beats me mostly but we keep getting enough replays for us to continue without extra coins. When they dry up we turn and shake hands.
When I get back the party has died. The girls are getting ready for bed and there’s only one guy left sitting up the back smoking in the dark and watching old Katherine Hepburn interviews from the Dick Cavett Show on the big screen. I sit with him for a while. Cavett looking like a 70’s porn sailor in white slacks and shoes is as relaxed and disarming as ever and Hepburn in her refined quaver says of acting alongside her lover Spencer Tracy, “I copied him, he’s the style… he is my ideal.” She’s sassy and cheeky and forthright and has one foot up on the coffee table. Soon we’re falling asleep on our chairs so my friend stubs out, powers down and switches off the lights on his way out.
I’m bunking in the back room, Dave Dondero’s old space, and It’s cold and blankets are rare. The girls share the double bed and me on the noisy leather couch that talks back whenever I roll over. We’re all wearing our coats and I can see my own breath.
Wednesday 30th: GREENVILLE, NC
The tinkering rain on the roof wakes me. I get straight up and throw my blanket over the still sleeping girls and head out for a cup of tea. There’s a homeless guy cowering in the door space with a transparent plastic rain poncho on. He asks if I could light his cigarette for him. At first I didn’t understand until he fished into his pocket and his hand was shaking badly as he handed it to me. His head quivered too and I felt his whiskers brush against my wrist as I held the flame up to the half burnt butt in his mouth. He mumbled thankyou and I walked away pondering his situation.
I wonder of his life-story and what random events pinballed him around for all his years until today when he finds himself in this doorway shaking in the rain. Is he a war scarred forgotten soldier? Does he have some hereditary illness that is too expensive to treat? With a socialised medical system he would have a fighting chance. If he has no family who takes care of this guy? I double back and ask him if he wants a coffee. He has a lot of trouble understanding my accent but then he says he can’t drink it. I say, “what about tea?” He says he can’t drink anything without a straw. We walk side by side for a few blocks in the spitting rain trying to communicate and it’s him that gives up first, says goodbye and shuffles off down a side street.
Hours later and tea-sated I return and Shelley is alone in the dark in the cinema watching Reflections of a Golden Eye with Liz Taylor and Marlon Brando. She’s just finished Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and feels strung out, as most people do after watching Taylor and Richard Burton bludgeon each other for two or so hours with their strained marriage. This one, although written by one of Shelley’s favourite authors Carson McCullers, is overly dramatic and when Taylor starts violently flagellating Brando in the face with a horsewhip we switch it off. When Steph gets back we pack the car and drop the cinema key in a nearby shop for Fred to collect later.
It rains all the way to Greenville and the wind blows broad red leaves onto our windscreen where they stick, ride a few times on the wipers and be gone. We find the Tipsy Teapot, a homely cafe and bookshop, where we’d be playing tonight. Run by a generous and earthy lady Delia, she’s there to greet us with warm embraces and free Chai. She says there’s vegetarian food for us too as she re-pins her colourful headscarf and urges us to sit on couches and unwind after our long drive. We all scan the shelves for dinner reading material and I lever out the Tatum O’Neal autobiography A Paper Life. “Take that one with you,” says Delia, flitting back and forth on the phone drumming up business for our show tonight, worried the incessant rain will keep people snug in their houses.
Shelley’s friend Jeff bounds into the cafe, surprises her and is introduced to Steph and I. He’s a local promoter and has another show happening tonight. So as not to hurt our turnout he’s pushed his show back and has invited his friends, his Dad and the band members themselves. He also offers to sort out accommodation for us tonight if we haven’t already.
A few other familiar faces show up, nice people I’d met playing here only few months before. We assemble plastic chairs into a theatre setting and those milling around fill them, Jeff and his Dad right up front. The stage backs onto the shopfront window and the audience can just watch pedestrians if we fail to visually entertain. Tonight they’re lucky enough to be treated to an arrest as three cops descend on some guilty offender and take him away in cuffs. Just after that Jeff’s Dad’s mobile phone goes off with the loudest ringtone I’ve ever heard. He embarrassingly gropes with the buttons to turn it off but I stop my song and tell him he should answer it so we’re all quiet while he tells the caller where he is and what he’s doing.
People leave quickly after we finish. Delia tells us we’re welcome back for breakfast. Jeff has put us on the doorlist at his late show so we pack our gear and drive to find the venue which turns out to be in a shopping mall. It’s packed, smoky and rowdy inside so we head straight for the back and the pool tables. The headliners- Royal Bangs- come over and politely introduce themselves and compliment us on our show. They’re all anxiously excited as they’re driving to New York for an appearance on Letterman tomorrow. Steph and I share tequila and games of pool with them.
Jeff introduces us to one of his friends, a wiry haired loon who kisses the tops of each of our hands, Casanova style and tells us he wants to be a comedian. I tell him he reminds me of 80s British comedian Kenny Everett and he says that’s funny cause his name is Kenny. He goes to the toilets and Google Image searches while he takes a piss and comes back and agrees he does look a bit like that guy. He then goes into an in depth analysis of the book he’s reading on Bobby Kennedy.
The band starts playing and it’s high energy keyboard pop and Steph and I dance amongst the disjointed throng. Shelley sits it out on the sideline and when I realise she’s on an office swivel chair I push her around on the dance floor for a song or two and she laughs like a little kid. Kenny rushes over and stops me with a hand on my shoulder and shouts in my ear over the music, “You know I had that same idea a while ago. Did you see?”
“The chair thing,” he clarifies, “I knew you were a good guy when I met you. We have the same ideas.”
I see Jeff’s Dad sitting at a table by himself, smoking a cigar. I go over and thank him for coming to our show. He says Jeff sometimes brings him along to these things from time to time, and although he finds this music good, he preferred our lower volume.
When the band finishes people mill about and I get tired and bored of waiting so go to the car. There’s random fireworks littering the backseat floor everywhere so I decide to orchestrate a good-luck pyrotechnic display for Royal Bangs and their Letterman spot. I dig out some empty plastic bottles and set up some bottle rockets in a neat row in the shopping center parking lot. When the band comes out to load up their van I light all the fuses and run and duck behind our car. I wait to hear the shush-shushing sound of ignition and then the sky blossoms in colourful sparks and bangs and pops and everyone cheers.
We follow Jeff to tonight’s mystery sleeping venue. A narrow staircase leads up to a clean modern loft apartment and even though there’s a low-key party going on we’re led straight to the bedroom where three mattresses have been placed to fit around the room like giant puzzle pieces. Someone else will be coming in later to sleep in the main bed and we’re told not to worry about it. We stake our claim and close our eyes as the intimate gathering bubbles away on the other side of the wall. The front door bangs open every now and then, people are coming and going. Kenny arrives and even though I met he and Jeff only today I’ve learned their voices.
“What the…,” Steph exclaims from over in her corner, “There’s something alive here.” She lifts the cover hanging beside her bed to reveal a cage containing a ferret darting back and forth. We’re all too tired to care about anything right now.
I wake some hours later to hear Kenny’s hushed baritone engaged in endless monologue seeping in from the other room. It must have been going on some time as it had started melding with my dreams. As I gain consciousness I realise that he is one half of some controlled hushed argument. I can hear a girl softly sobbing. It’s something about a borrowed car, and what responsibilities the borrower has in regards to driving the borrowee around at their beckoning. At first annoyed I’ve been awoken, I start forming prosecution and defense arguments and feel like getting up to adjudicate. But it’s Kenny’s warm deep interminable patter that lulls me back under.
Thursday 31st: DURHAM, NC
I’m next awoken by lips on my forehead and the light brushing of stubble on my skin. A demure purr explains, “in case I don’t get to see you in the morning.” The breath is close and I can smell some indiscernible liquor. I open one eye and confront Kenny’s face hovering a couple of inches above mine in the pre dawn glow, he’s straddling me. I have no faculties alert enough to deal with this. He kisses me gently again and is gone. I’m so tired, I’ll decipher this later, sleep more important.
I wake with a start and daylight is now flooding the room, the girls are stirring restlessly. I creep out to the kitchen to investigate tea making possibilities. There’s a computer at a desk and it’s time I checked for news from home. Distractedly engrossed in an email I don’t hear the footsteps behind me. Suddenly a pair of arms are wrapped around me and I feel that all too familiar stubble on my neck. It’s like braille that spells, ‘I’m back!’
“I just want to hold you for a bit,” Kenny whispers to me, “Is that ok?”
My arms are trapped from typing, “Umm..”
“Is this weird?” but it’s not a question.
“Seems like you’ve had a hard night. Whatever helps get you through.”
We stay locked together like that and after a while the computer screen goes dark as if it’s giving up on me. At the sound of a shower coming on in the bedroom en suite he releases me to go pester the girls for a bit.
Soon the kitchen is filled with bleary-eyed inhabitants seeking food and coffee. Kenny plays some old ska music for me on ipod speakers and gulps from a bottle of vodka, then tomato juice and mixes the two in his mouth before swallowing. He’s on a bender.
The girls and I thank our hosts and drive to the Tipsy Teapot to redeem Delia’s breakfast offer from yesterday. She’s not in yet but the staff believe us enough to dole out coffees and small plates of food for us poor hungry pilgrims. Jeff turns up ever-smiling and we thank him for the door spots last night. As I stand at the counter with him while he orders I look down the corridor and see Kenny pacing back and forth out the back in the parking lot. He walks in through the door towards us and then spins on his heel and goes back out again. “What’s going on with that guy?” I ask Jeff, who’s sipping on the excess of a too full hot coffee to enable him to carry it. He looks out to where I’m pointing and says, “Oh no, he’s been up all night. And now he’s losing it a bit. We told him he should probably stay at home.” Jeff gently places his coffee on our table like a live hand grenade and goes out to tend to his distressed buddy. He’s escorted back in and to our table his eyes are wild pin pricks. He shakes my hand but pulls me into another embrace. “Morning all,” he says in a faint croak, and sits down and after a while coffee actually calms him enough to tell us intense stories about this and that.
I go sit in a hanging 60’s space pod chair at the front of the shop and stare blankly out to the street, like watching television no matter what’s on. This chair thing actually mutes the outside noise and when I test the acoustics my voice surrounds me like it’s coming through speakers. I want to curl up and sleep in this cocoon. Back at the table the girls have been involved in conversations way too intense for the hour of day and come to drag me out by the ear and into the car.
It’s a short trip to Durham. It feels a bit like a homecoming, me having been here about five times in the past year. We’ve very near the little town where my US label Yep Roc operates out of an old hose factory. It’s hard to believe it was not so long ago my manager Matt and I had walked out of that very building in the freezing drizzling rain after having come from a meeting where it seemed I’d be soon part of its roster. I was elated that people so far from my own home believed in my music enough to want to help me out. We only had enough time to celebrate with a can of Root Beer at a service station before I dropped Matt at his waiting plane.
But now Shelley, Steph and I find tonight’s venue and kill time waiting for Steve Gardner to arrive. Steve is the guy who’s basically responsible for me having signed to Yep Roc in the first place. He and Matt had been emailing and he mentioned that he’d enjoyed the Hello Stranger album and wondered if I’d done anything since? Sadly he no longer works for Yep Roc now, but has set up this gig for us and has put a lot of work into it’s promotion. He’s running is as the first of a series of monthly unplugged shows. So no PA. We set up in the corner of the bar and seats are arranged neatly around us.
Various members of the Yep Roc family arrive, led by enthusiastic label boss Glenn and his radiant wife Elizabeth and we’re treated to a meal in a nearby bar.
When we come back from dinner the place is packed and a bolt of nerves flares up in my stomach so I do an about-face and hit the dark footpaths to get my head together. When I return Shelley is just starting and the room is silently leaning into the notes she’s singing and the between song applause is rapturous. This intimacy can be really unnerving, I urinate about six times and go and play my own set.
A few solo numbers and then the full trio, Steph taps gently and I strum lighter so all our voices have enough room to blend and reach the people.
We stick around for a few drinks after so Glenn writes his address on some paper for us to feed to our GPS.
I remember his house fondly having spent last Thanksgiving with Glenn and his family last year in between shows. A nice big brick house with a steep sloping driveway in a neighbourhood of such houses, surrounded by light forest from which the nocturnal deer lope in the fog across the road and into backyards and onward beyond. The thick looming whiteness makes everything quiet.
There’s beds made up, mine a blowup mattress in a rumpus room where their son is up late playing ‘Call of Duty’ with other internet connected gamers elsewhere on the world, probably in more acceptable timezones. He’s wearing a mic and headset and I’m worried I’m distracting him from some serious bloodshed so drag my blankets up to the girls room in the converted attic where they’re both still awake quietly reading magazines. I set up camp on the daybed in the bay window.
Notes on Spain
On other days I’ve started to buckle under the weight of all the travel of the past four months and stimulus overload. Do you get that too? A good way to clear the mind is just look at a photograph of a good friend from home, or close your eyes and pretend it’s years ago and you’re back sleeping in the bed in the house you grew up in. Right now I’m trying to take myself back to the day on the steps of my Grandparents house at the farm where my Pop lists all the dogs he’s ever owned and their relative qualities. “You never can tell which one’s gonna turn into a good snake dog…but the snake will always get them in the end.”
I have to snap out of it. On the other side of my eyelids Spain is rushing past me. I’m on the train traveling to Madrid to meet Gary Olson, my old friend and frontman of Brooklyn pastoral popsters Ladybug Transistor. We’re doing this tour stripped back -I play my set solo and then back up Gary for his- and they are calling it ‘My Dear Crooner’ on all the posters and promo. I have to learn the guitar chords for his songs so listen to them on headphones as I go.
Pedro is the man responsible. He’s a local label guy and promoter and has brought us here. He comes to our claustrophobic hotel room to introduce himself. His warm mischievous smile and sad eyes are at odds. His eyebrows are proper arches which makes him either curious or surprised at all times. He reminds me of the actor Jean Reno. Along with him is Eric, our French support act for these shows: El Brindador. He’s a lean, handsome Serge Gainsborg in a cardigan, to give you an approximate visual reference. He’ll also prove to be the unofficial translator, as Pedro makes up in enthusiasm for what he lacks in English. We all shake hands like it’s an International summit.
Midnight Tapas outside. Gary is walking different directions with his laptop looking for wifi like he’s divinging for water.
After spending just a few hours with Pedro I can tell he’s one of the good guys; extremely passionate about what he does. Music comes first and business second. As he smokes and looks away from the group with eyes pointed up at the buildings you can feel his brain is firing with ideas.
He buys a round of some local digestif. Salute!
“How long do you know Gary Olson?” he asks me.
“Gee,” I have to think, “About ten years.”
“Uh!” his eyes widen, and he mimes swatting a ball with a sweep of his arm, “You met him playing tennis?”
Gary and I sit in the square after lunch practicing the songs for the benefit of the pigeons and passers-by en route to siesta. 12 in all to learn, some great tracks from the ladybug new album. With each new song locked in does my brain expel an old one? We put the guitar case out (and add our own coins so it looks good) as it can’t hurt. An old guy and little girl sit on a bench listening to us for as long as it takes them to eat their ice creams.
The first show is in an old classic rock club, but tonight looks more like a cocktail lounge. A heavy black curtain at the back of a curved stage surrounded by little tables and chairs. I learn some basic Spanish for my set: “Esta canción habla..” (this song is about), “Mi nombre es..” (my name is), “Que son un público atractivo,” (you are an attractive audience). It seems to be going okay until I try to relate some graffiti I’d read scrawled on the wall of the band room concerning Satan. People look confused and I find out later that it was written in Latin. Some of my faster songs – mostly ones with many lyrics- seem to draw blanks.
When Gary and I play next, a drunk guy in the audience shouts and waves his empty beer bottle in the air after every song. I suppose this to be a local custom and encourage him by thanking him personally over the mic but find out later that no, he’s just drunk.
There’s a massive Nation-wide protest movement happening. Tent clusters have sprung up in the city squares. There’s an anarchist feel to the whole thing, lots of punk haircuts and piercings, but there’s older intellectuals with wild grey hair and floppy jumpers in the mix too, even some suits. Double bedsheets with black slogans in house-paint: DEMOCRACIA? QUE DEMCORACIA? hang here and there. Tables with books laid out for sale, Spanish translations of Orwell and Huxley and lesser known incendiary texts and leaflets. In Madrid the protest covers a massive area and people have set up temporary homes with caravans and generators and portaloos, and little suburbs have formed within the tight-knit cluster. People sit in circles cooking food on camping stoves. A guy in the middle of one group plays Bach on a harp.
It’s 3am and Gary and I have just walked our friend Mercedes back to her apartment and are now considering the tent city. We enter through a gap and find ourselves in a maze of streets and shops. The whole thing is covered by acres of blue tarpaulin. In the wind tonight they flap like ship sails and boys climb poles to try and secure them with ropes and string. There’s a makeshift cafe selling hot food, unconcerned by the late hour.
Homeless drunks have morphed with the group on the fringes and are ebullient with all the activity in their usual place of rest and their dreams of a vagrant city have come true. They try and share their wine unsuccessfully with the industriously active protesters.
“Tomorrow we’ll have coffee in Huesca,” was a premature remark made by an overconfident general in the Spanish Civil War. When the town of Huesca, cradled safely by the Pyrenees, held fast to the enemy it became a running ironic joke amongst the militiamen and duly reported by George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. Here we are 70 odd years later and coffee is on our minds too. While the other are loading gear into the community center I go off for supplies and find a little cafe open and order takeaway Cafe Solos as a beautiful stylish old woman sits at the counter sipping hers, continually clearing her throat like a truck driver.
After soundcheck, while the others go for what they tell me later was the best meal of the tour so far I go walking into the narrowing streets up towards the cathedral. In the square below the tent protest community is holding a circle debate so I stand to the side and wish I could understand. Next to me there’s a giant map of the world with the countries shaped out of bottle caps. It’s even topographical, mountain ranges are given another layer of caps. Some small girls are playing nearby and one of them says something to me in Spanish. I gesture that I can’t understand and as I turn to walk away she shrieks, “Where do you come from?!” in practiced English and I’m startled. She stands indignant with her hand on a cocked hip. I point to a little Heiniken cap that could approximate the location of Gympie, Queensland, and she smiles, “Oh Australien!” and breaks into a victory dance.
Pedro and I sit at the back of the hall and discuss last nights show.
He’s looking serious, “I don’t have your trust yet… but I must say, and this is only my opinion… you may think different.”
“Last night I feel you are too much entertainer. I wait for the sentimental songs. I wait for Scenes of a Separation and such like this on your last album.”
“But I played Butterfly Bones,” I interject, “Isn’t that sentimental?”
“….but you don’t have to play these funny songs,” he strums an air guitar and adds, “Chuck Berry… no!”
“Oh, you mean the song about the 17 bus?”
“Si, si… in Spain most people don’t hear all these words, they cannot understand English, maybe one or two.”
“Yeah, I feel that,” I understand what he’s saying and remember the shows with the Magnetic Fields here years ago were hard too, “It’s different in Australia and America where people request those songs. It’s just the way I’ve been playing.”
“Si, but no need in Spain… I think you are emotional singer, with much beauty. You don’t need to play funny. Is this what your life is like?”
At the foot of the stairs to the Church of San Lorenzo sits an old lady in black smock and head dress like a film extra. She sees my camera and pulls a shawl over her scowling face. I reach the top and the church doors are locked and bolted. The Saints by the door are lined up like the Usual Suspects poster. This church’s namesake Lorenzo was born in town here and thanks to the Romans, BBQed into prosperity and sainthood. Hence the ‘grille’ has long been the symbol of this town and adorns walls and shop doorways if you look for it. Looking back down the houses below seem poorer and some building’s ends have fallen away exposing new rough outer walls and these are covered in bright amateur graffiti. Sheets and cloth hang to dry from narrow balconies. Kids are playing nearby and the voice of a young girl sings the quarter tone melodies of something Arabic and the reverb off the side of the church is generous.
I sit on the stairs and think about what Pedro said to me. Should I be offended? You can never be everything to everyone. And everyone can’t like everything about you. He must know. I’ll try and approach it differently.
The sun has sunk below the building line and the clouds are bushels and very serious about their being pink. The swifts are darting in every direction possible, joyously chirping, trying to colour in every part of the sky, the last of the day.
I play the show putting more thought into just singing. The applause is warm and I can feel a tangible connection. It could be a relationship based on melody. At times I close my eyes which feels unusual, I usually like to see faces. With my eyes closed my mind drifts back to where and when I wrote certain songs, or people they might be about. After the show Pedro comes bounding into the dressing room and does a pantomime bow.
Gary and I are holding our stomachs and groaning. The past week has been have been a carb and starch frenzy and I’m craving raw fish. I’ve been asking Pedro for Japanese. He says for the third day in a row, “No, not today,” and adds, “tomorrow we have sushi in Valencia,” not realising he’s sounding like a modern day George Orwell.
In Barcelona Gary leads me back to the hotel he stayed at a week ago for Privavera and we sneak past security and elevate ourselves to the rooftop and a one lane lap pool overlooking the ocean. 40 minutes of swiming back and forth and then a spell in the sauna like Frank and Dean. We are Crooners after all! There are other men in there too, swathed in white towels, quietly staring into the steam. We talk across them like we’re on a business junket.
“How’s the merger?” Gary asks me.
“I have to go to Switzerland tomorrow to shore things up. Then I’m back here Saturday,” I say, “Also depends on how the Dow Jones is looking.”
Gary throws on too much water on the hot rocks and it overloads and everything shuts down, lights included.
Pedro has done his best throwing this tour together last minute. The only venue he could find available in Barcelona is a new gaudy nightclub by the sea. Gary and I have our names in huge block letters in the window display outside and two female models are in the window as well, dancing with oriental umbrellas. There’s a fashion parade and techno booming downstairs. It vibrates up through my feet as I play. Models in leather pants are standing around trying not to pick at the molehills of free corn chips at each table.
We drive through a Sergio Leone landscape, dry and sun bleached. I read the lines and hilly undulations as we go but it’s in a language I’m not versed in. Little villages here and there, you can see how they leak outward from the Medieval old towns, buildings seemingly carved straight out of the rocky earth. Church towers are capped with the nests of White Stalks.
Poor Eric looks tired today, and although it’s probably a culmination of booze and late nights, I suspect it’s also all the translating. He explains to me that as he’s a Bordeaux native, when he hears something in Italian, the train of thought must pass first the French station before it arrives at English.
An Argentinian Rum rep is giving a cocktail tutorial to the staff of the club as we soundcheck. Gary and I loiter in the background to get some tips. He’s a smooth-talking, peroxide-haired Brit, all gelled and Lynxed-up. He hands us various colourful concoctions to try too. Gary talks to him about his job and he tells him he basically flies around the world, “getting pretty girls drunk for a living.” He lights a bit of orange peel and the oils make it fiz and spark into a Daiquiri, “This trick has got many a bartender laid over the years.”
Gary is impressed by his confident sales patter and says to me later, “He sounds chauvinistic but he basically telling the truth,” and then thinks for a bit and adds, “We really need our own bartender to take on tour.”
I get back from a brisk walk around the center of town to find Pedro outside the club in deep negotiations with the venue owner.
I ask what’s wrong and he says, “We haven’t sold one ticket,” he looks as if he’s really upset and keeps shaking his head and blowing smoke from a cigarette, “never in my life has this happened.”
“maybe they’ll come late?” I try and reassure poor Pedro.
“There is much happening tonight in Valencia,” he says, “it is a bad omen. And I feel sad for you… you came so far.”
“Hey, it’s cool,” I tell him, “I’m just happy to play in Spain. I’ve never been to these places before. We’ll still sing our little hearts out.”
We move inside and poor Eric just performs to just us and the bar staff, but he plays a relaxed and wonderful set. There’s a certain liberation in disappointment. Then suddenly things start happening. As I’m setting up a few people straggle in. Half way through my set a good crowd has assembled. I get Eric up to translate long monologues for the audience and it’s good comedy. By the end of Gary’s set the place is seriously jumping. Pedro needn’t have worried, he’s proudly pacing the room and nodding to the music.
Afterwards, as we pack up a disco comes to life around us and we have to fight through the people. The British bar tender is back in crisp white shirt and black vest, juggling bottles and flinging shakers. He keeps passing elaborate tropical drinks over to us and winking as we take them.
We all stumble back to the hotel and in the foyer Pedro asks if I want one of the beers he’s carrying in his jacket pockets and I say, “No thanks. I don’t drink.”
“Sure,” he teases, “So it’s from swimming that you have red corals in your eyes.”
The next morning we head north again. We’ll be leaving the coast to head inland soon. On our way out of town Gary shouts, “Quick swim!” from the back seat and Pedro pulls over. Old men in Speedos with skin cooked like pie crust. The water is a clear warm broth and even the seaweed brushing our legs looks like freshly chopped lettuce.
Gary says this lifestyle suits him down to the ground. He wants to retire here and spent his days on the beach and make friends with the tanned locals, siestas every day. He wanders off in search of tiger nut Horchata.
Drive towards the last show in Zaragoza and Pedro lets me program a playlist on my Ipod. It sits on the dashboard in front of him. He’s tolerant at first but starts getting restless. I’ve tried to program to everyone’s taste. Ironic classics and new stuff they mightn’t have heard. When my karaoke favorite ‘Arthur’s Theme’ comes on he skips it instantly.
“You don’t like Christopher Cross?” I ask.
“No,” he shakes his head with eyes on the road, “I am boss.”
“Fair enough,” I answer as I really can understand some people can’t stomach Christopher Cross. Plus Pedro has driven the entire time, he should have music veto rites.
Two songs along it’s the Clash and he raises his finger again and it looms over the skip button like a chicken hawk. Gone. The Chills make it to the second verse. Bang. INXS. Forget it.
Strangely, it’s an old Chad Morgan song that piques his interest. He hands me a notepad and pen and asks me to write it down. Elizabeth Cotton as well. For the Go Betweens he even nods along. Next a song comes on written by a personal friend of mine and I’m nervous. Right at the chorus the Finger of Death strikes.
“What?!” I’m offended, “what’s wrong with it? I thought you’d like that one!”
“Sorry, I am boss.”
It’s hazy how I got here. I can hear Gary groaning in pain somewhere in the room. The little triangles of light poking from the edges of the curtain really seem to hurt. I can remember the show last night in the theatre and how people were surprised I wore socks on stage. Somewhere else later on we were locked into a cafe after midnight and a small feast of tapas prepared. The cafe had many homemade signs with the word ‘Champs!’ (mushrooms) in different sizes, everywhere. They were proud of their Champs. I recognised many of people in there as audience members from the show. They were insisting on us drinking shots of local liqueur. The group moved on. After another bar shut at 2am I expected the night over but someone grabbed my hand and led me into a room across the alley. “…they’re waiting for you to come and play…” I really didn’t understand, “What?” There was so much cigarette smoke in the place it felt like we were all wrapped in cotton wool. It gave the room texture and it really looked like the 1970’s does on TV.
More shots. Apparently this was a private club but someone had talked our way in. Eventually I was holding a busted-up flamenco guitar which had 3 strings left. The house lights went off, lo-fi disco lights on, and a guy with a razor blade voice holding a microphone on a long lead stretching across the room like Mozzarella put his arm around me and introduced me to the crowd like a Spanish game-show host. He lead me to a chair I’d stand on as a proxy stage. I could only think of Van Morrison. I’ve been going through a Van Morrison phase. People danced and sang. I danced too. A lot with the raspy compere. He was trying to dance the tango with me. Gary was grinning like a pirate. We were both wearing ceremonial neck scarves when we left. I wish I could remember everyone I talked with. I DO remember Gary and I saying goodbye at dawn, skipping up the alley hand in hand, Wizard of Oz style.
usa tour diary: week 2
Monday 21st: FORREST CITY
We drive north east from Waco and I try to picture where this siege may have happened. I’ve loaded up the Wikipedia page to read about it as we travel and the back-story is seriously mental.
It goes: A splinter group of a Seventh-day Adventist sect calling themselves the Branch Davidians settle on a hill outside Waco and build a church and proclaim it Mt Carmel. The wife of the founder predicted the second coming of Jesus on site and when somehow that didn’t happen authority was wrested and passed into the hands of another couple. When this next husband dies their son George Roden tries to take control but his mother thinks him unfit and is instead grooming another bright young acolyte Vernon Howell -who will legally change his name to David Koresh for ‘publicity reasons’- as her rightful successor. This created an apposing group calling themselves the Davidian Branch Davidians. They would be run off the settlement by George to relocate in Palestine, Texas, their leader Koresh taking along his multiple ‘wives’ aged seventeen, fifteen, thirteen and twelve (two of them sisters).
Here’s where it really gets weird: After the death of his mother, George dug up a decomposed body from their own cemetery and challenged Koresh to a resurrection-off to prove their leadership once and for all. Koresh alerts the police to the ‘corpse abuse’ but they do nothing so he breaks in with his gang packing Uzis to get photographic evidence which turns into an old fashioned shoot out. They were acquitted though George was jailed for contempt of court after promising he’d magically give them all herpes and Aids if he was found guilty. He was finally put away for good when one of his follows came to tell him God had visited to say that HE was now the chosen one. George responded by chopping him up with an axe.
Sometime after this Koresh took over the group and went about preaching his word, canvasing for the 140 wives he’d been promised by God, stockpiling a cache of weapons and recording soft rock ballads.
Enter The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms with their private army who after a long battle sent Koresh and many of his flock on an early trip to meet their maker. Whoever fired the first shot has been debated endlessly though an important side note is that amongst the Davidian supporters who gathered on site during the standoff was an impressionable Timothy McVeigh who started getting his own ideas.
In present day:
Steph has a lead on a cheap drum set in Memphis and makes an awkward call that she hangs up from visibly shaken. “That was the weirdest phone conversation I’ve ever had,” she says, “I’m not sure what just happened. That was a new benchmark of awkward.”
“Why? What were they like?” we wanted to know.
“I think I was either talking to a 12 year old boy or a 15 yr old girl,” she guessed, her forehead strained, “there was just way too much uncomfortable silence.”
“Maybe she’d never spoken to an Australian before and got nervous,” I wondered, “And you did sound very formal when you said ‘where should we rendezvous to make the transaction?’ That sentence could freak out a kid. It sounded like a drug deal.”
Steph just shook her head and repeated, “I’m not sure what just happened.”
Later in the night we choose the cheapest hotel in a colony of them off the freeway outside Forrest City, Arkansas. I’m restless so decide to drive into the town to check it out. All is quiet and closed up for the night. The buildings would fit well in a Cohen Brothers film. I take a photo between the open blinds of the old fashioned radio station with it’s wood paneling and big green vinyl waiting room chairs. Two flags on poles, country and state, either side of the studio door.
Over the train-tracks the neighbourhood changes instantly and I slow down to take a photo of a peeling 50’s motel but there are women in the parking lot who are frantically calling and waving me over and I realise at the crawling pace I’m driving it could be misconstrued as ‘cruising.’ I turn around to head back to the hotel.
In the back streets I pass a bar that has a dim light glowing in the window so I park and investigate. I peer through a gap in the grating to see the clientele are black and sadly assuming I wouldn’t be welcome go to walk away but then thought what the hell and turned and opened the door. It seemed like I’d stepped back three decades. Checkered lino with a foot-worn path leading straight to the bar, past circular booths of ripped red leather. The low ceiling was adorned with unseasonal Christmas decorations and there were old ads selling products that couldn’t possibly be still in production. The place was nearly empty, two ladies sitting close at the bar talking, an old lady wearing ornate jewelry folding napkins in one of the booths, six guys quietly brooding round a game of pool in a side room. Some modern blues music was playing somewhere but I couldn’t see a jukebox.
The one thing they had in common was that they all stopped what they were doing when I entered and watched my conspicuous walk to the bar. I sat there on a stool for a while quietly and no one approached me. I asked one of the ladies sitting nearby if they were still serving and it turns out she’s the barmaid so she steps round to the other side of the bar and asks what I’m after. I order whiskey, no rocks.
When I ask about the place she says it’s been a blues bar since the 1940s. Then she notices my accent. “I know you’re a long way from home, but where might that home be?” she wants to know.
“I’m from Australia.”
Her face becomes a wide smile and she looks over at the old lady folding napkins in the booth.
“You hear that Miss Rosie? He’s from Australia. That place with all those kangaroos.”
“I could see there was something strange about him,” Miss Rosie says in a thin shaky voice without looking up, just looking at the napkins, carefully folding. She’s wearing a lot of gold jewelry and a bright red sweater.
One of the pool players wanders over wondering what the fuss is about and when he’s told of my ethnicity he just says, “Shit,” really long and slow, gets a beer and goes back to the game.
The barkeep, who I learn is named Marcia, asks me where my wife is and I say I’m not married, though am traveling with two girls. “And they let you go off on ya own?” she asks, “What did you tell them?”
“I just said I was going out for some fresh air,” which was true but my new friend thought that was the funniest thing ever. She looked this time to her other friend sitting at the bar to see if she was listening. I went to say that it’s really not like that but…
“Did you hear that Rachel? He told them he was after fresh air!” and they were both laughing now and Rachel was also nodding and repeating, “that sure is a good one.”
Marcia started telling me about some of the blues musicians who play here, “You know, some of these guys have been comin here for years and I see wedding rings on their fingers and I start thinkin why I never see their old ladies. One night I asks one of em why I ain’t ever met his wife and he just says to me ‘why take sand to the beach!?'”
They both start laughing again and Rachel is nodding and shaking her head at the same time and repeating, “Why take sand to the beach… it’s true.”
I want to stay and see where the night could lead but sensible judgement kicks in and I say I should go, we’ve got an early start. “You come down here and get breakfast before you go. Miss Rosie will be here,” she says, “You just ask for miss Rosie.”
Miss Rosie confirms this and by now has a triangular column of napkins in front of her. “What do you want to eat?” she asks, “we got grits, bacon, sausage.. you think you can get those girls of yours here on time?”
I tell her we’ll be there by 10 in the morning and walk out and wave to the guys playing pool and say see ya later and only one of them waves back.
Tuesday 22nd: NASHVILLE
By the time we get up and out and down to the Blue Flame we’ve missed breakfast and Miss Rosie is nowhere to be seen. We instead stroll around and I show the girls the buildings that caught my eye last night. Steph and I check out a scantily stocked music store where she buys a banana shaped shaker and when we tell the old man shop assistant where we’re heading he goes, “Nashville huh? For a big city people sure don’t know how to drive,” and then chuckled and chuckled until it got slightly weird and uncomfortable and we left his store.
We drive through Memphis but forgo all it’s historic tourist attractions to go meet up with Steph’s mysterious drum seller. Have trouble finding the address on the GPS but then realise it’s so far out of town it’s in a different state. We set a course for Mississippi. The suburbs get more sparse until there’s no buildings at all and we’re driving through fields and have to overtake a tractor. We freak each other out by discussing the possibility of this being a trap with us being abducted, never seen again.
The large house looms over a long driveway and backs onto a forest. It feels creepy and we tell Steph she has to take care of this alone but she begs us for moral (and physical) support.
The door opens and it turns out the voice on the phone belonged to a teenaged girl after all. Her mother closes the door behind us with a definite thud and there we are all five of us standing awkwardly in the hallway between walls adorned with framed family photos and portraits. I want to look at them closely to build some kind of character analysis but that would be rude. I think you probably have to know people for at least day before you can start going over their stuff.
Steph brakes the ice, “Sorry we’re early. We thought you’d still be at school.”
The girl just grinned and swayed and looked down at the carpet.
“We decided she could have a day off,” her mum replied shyly.
“You mean she missed a day of school just for us?!” I chimed in, and she looked at me with forefinger covering her lips and went “Sshhhh!” with such gusto I thought maybe they lived within earshot of one of her teachers.
The girl lead us to her bedroom. Clad in black tracksuit pants and sleeveless shirt with hand panted anarchy sign she looked incongruous with the surroundings. I felt she must be rebelling against the suburban isolation.
And there were the drums, a small beginners kit wrapped in shiny blue hologram finish. If you stared into them long enough you’d see your future. Or a dolphin.
“Why are you selling these?” I asked her.
“I want to buy an electric guitar,” she was softly spoken too.
“What music do you like?”
“Nirvana and the Beatles.”
“What a cocktail!”
Steph sat on the stool and laid down a test groove for us all to nod along to in this teenage bedroom while Kurt Cobain looked on as well, in poster form. They sounded raw and powerful for such a cheap set and Steph was smiling which was a good sign. Sold.
We packed them down and fitted them inside each other from biggest to smallest like a Babushka Doll and loaded them into the car and somehow we all three squeezed in along with them. Steph gave the girl some suggestions of other bands to check out and we left.
Tonight we play in a place in Nashville where smoking is still allowed indoors so it feels like we’ve entered some mid-90s theme bar. We won’t get a chance to use the new drumkit tonight as Steph will borrow from the support band who sound like the Divinyls. Having never even been to this city before I’m skeptical of any fanbase that may exist here.
Once again Steph and I backup Shelley for most of her set and exit the stage for her to play her last song solo. It’s a new one she’s been doing a bit lately called ‘Caravan.’ Steph leans over to me and whispers, “This is a great song,” and I agree wholeheartedly and she continues, “That line, ‘this year is so small, it was nothing at all’ just kills me. It’s so sad I wanna cry.”
By the time I play the room is half full of chattering punters but I can tell there’s at least a couple of ladies who are listening closely. I play for them. Afterwards the promoter tells me he had to let most people in for free lest they don’t come in at all, so therefore there is no money. Deer Tick are doing a ‘secret’ show down the road that is so secret that most of the city was at that one. He kindly pulls a twenty out of his own wallet and says, “So sorry man. Take this for gas money.”
As there is a radio interview early tomorrow we must drive into the night, a few hours closer to our next destination. Steph teaches us her favourite Handsome Family song and allocates a harmony each for Shelly and I. It lulls us until we find a hotel fitting to our budget.
Toilet graffiti of the day: I wish I was where I was when I wished I was here
Wednesday 23rd: KNOXVILLE
What?! There’s an hour time difference between Nashville and Knoxville? We’ll barely make our radio show commitment at midday. Shelley floors it, maneuvering around wobbling trucks and capricious lane-changing sedans with just one hand on the wheel and the other around an XL styro of coffee like it’s a glass of champagne. We rush in just as it’s about to go to air and find another band has subbed for us. They’re a clean cut bunch of chaps from New England and their cellist looks like Jonathan Richman circa 1976.
I also didn’t realise this performance was to be filmed; I was dressed for radio. The fact that these fresh-faced guys looked like they’d stepped straight off the pages of GQ made me even more self-conscious wearing the shorts and t-shirt I’d woken up in. I spoke to the camera girl and requested she kindly shoot me from the waist up.
Shelley and I sang a couple of songs each and I told the studio audience that as an ambassador for Australia please forgive my appearance and that, “we don’t all have such a relaxed dress code.”
So now we had the rest of the day to kill. Shelley met up with her friend Liz who we’d be staying with for the next few days and Steph trundled off to look at guitars and find a local poster printing press she’d heard about.
I sat in a cafe writing and suddenly the rain came down and shook free the cherry blossoms of the tree opposite and they fell like little hail stones and then it DID hail and us three strangers inside started chattering as you do when the weather does something strange; united by nature. We spoke of the unusual cataclysmic events happening everywhere and how its probably signalling the onrush of the end of life as we know it.
Once the rain eased so did the conversation and I marveled at how quickly our eyes settle back to whatever was occupying us before. How can we save the planet when no one will change their own patterns?
We have to consume less as individuals! I look around the cafe and everyone has paper napkins and they drink out of disposable cups. Eateries should be forced to ban such packaging and napkins be made cloth (but then you need water to wash them I guess but surely that’s got to be better?). And it should be compulsory for people to carry backpacks with basic picnic utensils and a handkerchief. OK?
Is all this waste a symptom of our evolved grooming and germ phobia? Anything used or unclean must be disposed of instantly. So now our Immune Systems are reclining and off guard in this time of elongated peace.
Which brings me to Steph. She told me this morning she hasn’t changed her jeans/shirt combo (I hadn’t even noticed) since she landed. We’ve been sharing confined car space and lucky for us she certainly doesn’t smell bad. Just think of the water and energy she hasn’t wasted.
She also told me she often leaves an apple on the dashboard of her car and will return to it later in the day unperturbed by it’s decaying brownness. She sees her germ tolerance as a gift.
In the evening Liz takes us to a local house show just outside the city, there’s people perched here and there, and it’s all relatively quiet until one of the performers comes running in yelling, having somehow just got Tabasco sauce in his eye.
After a while the band just suddenly start up without any fanfare and they play loud experimental distorted aural landscapes and it’s too much for me right now so I slip quietly out into the hall and find a magazine to read: The great scenic routes of America. The girls last only a few minutes longer than I do and are ready to split. I must admit the Pig Trail Byway sounds like a nice drive.
We head to Liz’s parents house 20 minutes out of town where we’ll be staying for the next few days.
I opt to sleep in the cavernous basement filled with boxes of books and comics and vintage video game systems and an old computer that keeps thinking/grumbling through the night like an empty stomach.
Thursday 24th: KNOXVILLE (day 2)
Awoke from a dream of my manager Matt buying the rights to Hey Hey it’s Saturday and installing Steph and I as the new hosts. Our first guest interview is Hugh Hefner and we are both nervous as we’ve done no research. I reassure Steph, “it’s cool, I used to have a copy of the Playboy Short Story Omnibus,” and then lead with the question, “So Hugh, your magazine is responsible for publishing early pieces by Jack Kerouac and Gabriel Garcia Marquez…” but he is completely disinterested and only wants to chat with Steph about a band she’s in called the Boom Gates, of which he’s a big fan. She plays him a demo while I sit there mute, looking stupid…
Another morning radio live-to-air where the interviewer is so well researched I’m taken aback. He’s prepared questions of things I’ve long forgotten, and It’s all going well until he asks, “So what was it like growing up in Glimpie?” which gives me a fit of the giggles and makes him embarrassed. I assure him I’m not offended in the slightest but he looks as if this one slip-up has brought shame on him and his family. We sing some tunes all hunched over the single studio microphone.
The afternoon left to our own devices. I go find a comic shop to look for The Walking Dead #14 and eavesdrop on a conversation that could only happen in such a place. Two guys and a girl are playing Dungeons and Dragons.
player 1: …and she died at the end of episode 3.
player 2: Yeah, that’s right. She was killed by some kind of power force..
player 3: But she could have lived had she wanted to. It was a kind of suicide I guess. She wanted to die. She’d been denied love. She was ready.
player 2: Still technically it was the power force.
player 3: Well I guess you could say she died from a combination of the power force and a broken heart.
Our show this evening is in a noisy bar with free pizza to tempt passing trade. It’s on the Market Square amid modernised old-time shop fronts and Cormac McCarthy quotes bronzed into the footpath outside. I’m ready to reclaim the city on this, my triumphant return to the stage after last years powerhouse support of Billy Bragg in the grand theater just up the street. I’d sold a bunch of albums and now can’t wait to entertain the people of Knoxville again.
We start all together, three-part harmonies. Even though there’s lots of folks grouped round the bar, the girls and I soon realise none of them know who we are and could care less. I can’t pick a single person listening and most sit with their backs to us; where is everyone? I decide to just improvise lyrics so I can at least try and amuse the girls. I sing the words ‘bum’ and ‘penis’ at least three times in each song and although Shelley is laughing it seems to go unheeded by everyone else in the room, polite scattered applause in the breaks. Luckily the set times are running late so we only have to play 5 songs before the next band arrives.
After we clear our gear off the stage and are treated to apologetic (I think) tequila shots from the bar owner and regaled with stories of his time in prison I feel the need to get outside and walk…or something. It’s not that I feel depressed by the experience, more the pinch of anxiety; when you feel you’d like to make the world spin a bit faster just to make something, anything happen. There’s a knot inside my stomach that needs untying.
I grab my banjo and head outside. It’s strange but I feel the need to keep singing. I walk down to old town and sit on a bench and just start playing, my hands freezing but it feels good, belting into the empty street. After a few minutes an old guy in a grey suit and fedora hat is lugging his keyboard out of a club to a car and spies my banjo.
“My grandfather used to play one of those. I always wanted to learn myself,” he says in a non-committal manner, focusing on opening the car door, probably in case I might be seeking spare change.
“How was tonight?” I ask him, wanting him to hang around and chat. He must have stories and knowledge that would blow my mind! I bet he played with some of the greats, wrote songs, toured the country…. but now his job is done he looks antsy, rubbing his hands together.
“Oh, you know, tips were lousy,” he was shuffling from foot to foot, “What about you? You playin out here for tips?”
“Nah, just playin.”
“Are you crazy? If ya just playin, do it inside! It’s cold out here,” and then he was gone.
I thought yeah he’s right and packed it in and went for a walk round the corner. Found a late-opener cafe that served only breakfast cereal, shelves and shelves of colourful boxes, plus whatever milk or milk substitute you could imagine. I asked the barkeep to hit me with a bowl of their finest granola with a dash of hemp milk, found a table to crunch my blues away.
Walking back to track down the girls I pass a bar with a crowd of kids loitering outside. I stop to ask what was happening and one of them says a live band is about to start and I should come in. As I peruse the merch desk admiring the great hand-drawn t-shirt designs the guy selling em notices my banjo and we strike up conversation. He’s in one of the groups playing tonight, Naked Gods. They and their friends Invisible Hand are traveling together on a long tour and this is their last stop before a homecoming show tomorrow night in Boone, NC. I say I’ll stick around. I invest in a beer.
I’m glad I did. Invisible Hand takes the stage first and I am instantly hooked. There’s a modest crowd but all present are into it too, they move away from the bar and gather up real close. It’s pop music, with pure and interesting vocal melodies and sharp exact guitar riffs. But there’s a rawness as well, an edge that is attention grabbing. Maybe it’s the loud crappy PA or the dark dingy club? The smallness of the room certainly compressed the energy. The lead singer is young, handsome and enigmatic, and plays guitar well too.
I finish my drink and stand near the front by the stage and dance, it’s joyous, and suddenly Steph is there too, having somehow found me, and she’s into it as well, “These guys are great!”
Was sad I only got to see one song of Naked Gods as they sounded great too but our ride is leaving. I wave goodbye to my new friend up on stage playing the bass.
Back at our lodgings Liz’s brother, who owns all the stuff downstairs, points me in the direction of some good illustrated night reading material. He’s shocked when I tell him I’ve never read any of Will Eisner’s work. (“he’s the grandfather of the graphic novel!”)
So that’s it for one day. Thankfully. I end it in the pages of Will Eisner, and his Brooklyn tenement Jewish fairytale world.
Friday 25th: MADISONVILLE
I borrow Liz’s bike from the house and ride it, following a detailed mud-map she drew me, along a meandering path at the bottom of the yard that runs beside a stream and leads into town and it’s supplies of coffee. I settle in to write when two old guys come in and sit nearby.
I always get distracted by old guys. I picture them as belonging to one big gang, the keepers of the eternal font of ancient arcane knowledge and rollicking good yarn just waiting for me to come along, sit and listen and soak up the lessons of hard-lived experience. Lucky for me old guys are always on the lookout for an audience and, not usually being very fussy, an audience of one will do fine.
And these two look classic: knitted vests, corduroy slacks, loafers and one of them has a gold-enameled dragon head on the end of his walking stick. I bet if I just gave them a chance they’ll tell me wild tales about the pioneering history of the area! of all the changes they’ve seen in their lifetimes! and maybe great bluegrass shows they attended in their youths! This is the sacred stomping grounds of the Carter Family after all.
In hindsight I should’ve planned this better. I walk over and offer the ice-breaker, “Excuse me, do you know how to get to the main city center?” Geeze, it sounds like a pick-up line.
One of them seems to not understand a word and looks slightly scared as if I’m a mugger, while the other answered me with suspicion and bemusement, “Well, you’re in it. Just step outside and you can see the buildings. You must’ve seen them on the way in!?” There’s nowhere to go from that. I thank them and apologise for the interruption.
Ride the bike back through this old fashioned downtown and stand for a while in front of an old decommissioned record store. It looks like it had been selling records to the good people of Tennessee since the days of 78 RPM. It’s sad to see this dusty shell awaiting it’s future retail fate; bare of stock but still with some posters on the walls and life size cardboard cut-outs of Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, silent witnesses of a world on the move.
In the afternoon the girls drop me at the community pool (Liz got me a member guest pass) while they head off to a nearby mall to buy groceries. I pay the expensive entry fee and am informed just as I’m about to dive in that it’ll be closing in 15mins. I curse and dress and get my money back. I’m determined to unlock the muscles tense from sitting in the car for days. I jog fully clothed with my backpack along the edge of the freeway in the general direction of where I think the girls are shopping, breathing in the effects of the afternoon peak hour traffic. I cut across some road works and head toward building spires of the town I recognise from today and then somehow end up in a field, fretting in circles until Shelley calls and comes to find me.
Liz spends the night at her boyfriend’s so the three of us hang around her house for the evening. Steph makes her famous signature dish ‘No-Rules Roast’ which I picture will be something that is served with a side of honey carrots and gravy, but is instead a pile of random ingredients on a tray, roasted. Broccoli, onion and beans mostly. It certainly is deliciously tasting culinary anarchy, and little do we know but civil unrest will reign in our stomachs for a day or so after.
The rest of the night: trading songs on guitar, half-arsed yoga, collective delirium. Good company.
In my basement sleeping quarters the computer is really creeping me out with it’s intermittent grumbling so I try to shut it down before I go to sleep. Sometime in the night I’m awoken by the same sound and a glowing screen as it’s somehow turned itself on again. Now I can’t sleep at the thought of haunted technology.
Saturday 26th: the road to ATHENS
Drive the single lane back roads to Asheville through the Smokey Mountains. The bare, grey, wispy trees make the hills look like the backs of mangy dogs.
Stop at a cluster of dilapidated barns full to the brim with junk and antiques. Steph considers buying an old washboard to add to her percussion collection. The old farmer who owned the place comes over to us holding a plate of black-eyed peas his wife had made him for lunch. He gives me a flier for his upcoming tractor showcase and when Shelley yawns behind me he says, a little creepily, “you better look out or I might pop a finger in there.”
Persuade the girls to stop again so I can buy fireworks at a roadside shop (called ‘Custer’s Last Firecracker Stand’) from a large emphysemic purple-suited lady with a deep southern accent. I go straight for the bottle rockets and ask her opinions on what might nicely accompany them. She enthusiastically wheezes her way around the shelves grabbing certain brightly packaged items for me as she goes. “This one’s real purdy, it spins up into the air exactly like a UFO.” (Has she seen one?)
At the register she shoves my arsenal into a plastic bag. I ask her has she always liked pyrotechnics? She launches into her personal history with them:
“We’ve always loved the fireworks, my husband and the kids are crazy bout em. Back when I was growin, an old guy made em in his garage and we’d go down there and get us some. They was illegal back then, but the police turned a blind eye and let him get on with it. And they were dangerous! He packed these little tubes with explosives about the size of my thumb and the same round. They were waterproofed and sum’d take em out on the lake, light em and they’d sink and go way down to the bottom, and when they’d go off, all the fish would float to the surface and they’d scoop em up into the boat, a full day’s catch. Yes sir, and some kids would blow their hand plumb off…”
This soon morphs into her enjoyment of Oprah’s televised visit to Australia and she is still taking about that as we back out the door politely.
In the car, as Shelley speeds off up the road she says, “Wow, that was some weird redneck racist stuff going on back in that place. I had to get out of there.”
“Really?” I was surprised.
“Yeah, didn’t you see any of that white supremacist literature they had in the back?”
“No!? I had my eyes on the explosives.”
And then Steph, “Yeah, it was creepy. And did you see that fire cracker in the shape of Bin Laden’s head?”
“I must be blind.”
“…Yeah, it had him dressed in traditional clothes but his face was like a green witch, and the packaging said ‘blow Bin Laden’s head off!’”
It was about then we notice houses we’re passing, up off the road in the hills with Confederate flags flying, maybe as reminders of shadier times in Americas history.
We plan to busk for petrol money in Asheville but the rain has other ideas. It gets heavier the further on we drive and then adds lightning to the mix. We take refuge in a suburban bowling alley when it gets too dangerous to drive.
Just before rolling into Athens, our destination, I turn onto a side road, pull over and kill the engine. I get out and the girls are anxious: “Darren, what are we doing here?” but I just can’t wait.
Although it has eased slightly, the rain continues to fall, and the crackers are getting wet in my hands. I jab the stick of the bottle rocket in the soggy soil and fumble with the lighter. Steph gets out of the car just as the wick ignites in a burst of sparks, but the ground is too soft to hold it, and it sags and whizzes horizontally just past her, barely missing her head, and lands a way off in some grass and explodes in a green glow before dying and leaving us in the dark in the rain.
Sunday 27th: ATHENS
We were lucky to make it last night, hitting a mudslide and skidding off the road a bit, and then smelling smoke coming from somewhere in the car. Now this morning I open the blinds to check the world is still intact. The storm has at least left it’s mark on the street; branches and leaves scattered everywhere, drifts of sludge stick out diagonally from the gutter, the lawn is a quagmire. I’ve woken in the house of Keenan, good friend and promoter for tonight’s show. She and her boyfriend are up and explaining to the girls how to psychologically deal with each of their pet cats.
Mitzi is offended by human touch but will jump up on the bed and sit close, willing you to attempt a pat. By some twist of breeding she has been granted an extra two claws on each paw, and is happy to use them all and will leave a scar of up to 14 parallel lines. The Wolverine of Cats.
Lindy Lou is not much bigger than a kitten, has the lustrous tail of a squirrel and is so heavy footed you can hear her padding through the house two rooms away.
I spend the day wandering around the seemingly deserted downtown. I sit in a cafe reading Bob Ellis’s Suddenly Last Winter for hours. It’s his latest book, written in diary form, and about the Rudd betrayal and the Labor Party’s subsequent mismanagement. His sentences are eye-candy, he makes our politicians seem like loveable fictional characters (and as he said to me, “they are loveable characters… mostly.”) and it fills me with a sweet homesickness.
Being sunday night in Georgia, our show falls under the state rule of no alcohol allowed be served on this holy day of rest. Keenan has forewarned us this will hurt our show. Turns out a small but appreciative crowd comes along, some faces I remember from other times I’ve played in the area. Most have traveled far to see us.
One guy requests ‘Security Leak’ a song from the album Hello Stranger and one I’ve played live maybe twice since it’s inception. I feel I should at least try it so I go outside to pace the streets and try and recall the lyrics. It’s like peeling an under-ripe orange; some of it comes, the rest is stubborn. I go back inside and just ask the guy if he knows it and he reels off each line no problem.
For the show I sing that and whatever else anyone wants to here. I tell them It’s Darren On Demand.
Therefore there’s lots of old and obscure songs people are after and Steph has heard none of them before and I give her vague instructions like, “this one’s 4/4 and does a Motown thing near the end,” and she looks worried but handles it skillfully.
This is how I love to play, completely off the cuff and unrehearsed and sometimes the magic happens. The drums sound raw, powerful and perfect, the cymbal is like hitting a baking tray.
After the show I sit with the original song requester and his wife and new born baby girl (her first gig!). They ask me about the song ‘Folk Insomnia.’ It seems they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are curious about the lyric, ‘don’t ever underestimate the fitness of the determined Jehovah’s Witness.’
“What did you mean by that?” they ask and look hopeful for my answer.
“I didn’t want to offend anyone. It’s just a good rhyme,” I explain.
“But is it because there’s long distances between houses in Australia?”
“Um, yes. That’s part of it”
I tell them many other fans of mine who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have come out of the woodwork and asked me similar questions since I’ve started performing this song. Christened Catholic, I tell them of weekends as a child back in Gympie when I’d invite the old ladies selling Watchtower into out house for tea and ask them serious questions about our religious differences, and the bible in general. I took the book of Revelation way too literally. They never came back.
The couple take photos of us with their adorable baby, who seems completely happy to be passed around to us strangers. They’re a sweet family and I hope they do come back.
The room empties and the three of us pack our gear. Keenan and John say they’ll see us at home. We feel strangely delirious. There’s loud music coming from downstairs. We dance around the now empty room, do fireman’s holds, piggy-back up and down the stage. We should hate each other by now. There comes a point when you’ve spent a lot of time with the same people that it can go either way. The bar staff cleaning up look at us like we’re freaks and after a while ask us politely to leave.
usa tour diary: march 2011
The following is an up to the moment account of my current tour of the USA. I’ll attempt to add to this most days. The photos I take are on real film so I’ll add those when I develop them somewhere along the line. I’ll borrow some others from my touring partners’ more modern devices.
Wednesday 16th: SYDNEY to HOUSTON
Pays to be late to the airport, there’s no line. Alas: it does mean that I’m the only one who has to share a row of seats of the half empty plane so spend the 9hrs upright while all around recline. The lady next to me is from NZ and on her way to San Francisco to learn how to bake bread with ancient grains. She manages to partially lie down in hers and the vacant seat between us and in her deep slumber stretches out and puts her feet on my lap. I don’t have the heart to wake her, she seems like she’s dreaming with her eye patches and mouth wide open.
First time flying with United; no movies so I read Bob Ellis’ new book and write for the whole trip. I find out I’ve been rerouted to Houston and must find my own way to Austin. Magically it turns out my friend Dave Dondero is playing a show there (at the same club I played last year) that same night with Damien Jurado so I go down to meet him.
There he is onstage, bow-leggedly tapping his foot, finger-picking his way through some new songs, thumbing his signature busy bass line. There’s one about how his guitar has ruined his life and how he wants to wring it’s skinny neck. He’s been up all the night before drinking so is struggling to make his body work the way he wants it and the high pitched pulse off the lights is throwing him off, but he’s as compelling as always and it’s good to see him.
I go for a walk to a nearby service station to find food and it’s closed. The streets are eerily dark and deserted. A homeless guy across the street spots me and calls out “Hey man!” and starts running towards me. He probably only wants money for food but having only just arrived I only have 20 dollar bills and don’t think asking him for change would be wise. Plus there’s not another soul around and I’m scared. I decide to run.
I nearly make the club when he catches up with me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Hey man, I need some money.” For some reason my only act of self defense is to answer him with some of the basic Swedish I know, “Jag skulle vilja ha en öl tack (Can I have a beer please?).” He looks confused and says sorry and moves along.
A few songs in to DJ’s set Dave says we’re leaving. The club have stiffed him and he’s been paid $39.
He’s traveling with instrumental wiz Franz Nicolay and we stay in the house of one of his friends, a couple who run a printing business deep in the burbs. I’m on an unevenly cushioned couch in the shed but a bed of nails would be fine at this stage, and I slip into a deep delicious sleep hearing a rooster crow from some Garden of Gethsemane nearby.
Thursday 17th: AUSTIN
We get breakfast at the Shell petrol station (the fresh food people) and head north. We pass a canary-yellow Chevrolet Malibu and Dave says that was the very same make of car he first owned at 15, though his a rusted out version. He and his buddy Michael Raines (who is the namesake of Dave’s great song) got it off a drug dealer in New Jersey.
“So is that the car from the line ‘cool car crashes in the summertime’?” I ask him.
“The very one. We were out driving around, Michael was at the wheel. We hit a manhole cover and rolled it three times.”
“Geeze, you were lucky then.”
“Michael lost his big toe in that crash. I dislocated my shoulder and had glass in my head. We just left it sitting there and ran off… the car had no plates and we didn’t have a license. Michael gets home and reports the car as stolen. The cops come round to his house and see his banged up foot – he’s still got blood all over him – and they say ‘wait a minute, you crashed that car’ and so he took the whole rap.”
“Yeah,” Dave continues sternly, “and his Step-dad came home and beat the living shit out of him for it. He had two black eyes.”
“Have you seen him lately?” I wanna know.
“No way man, not since back then. By the time he was 16 he’d moved out of home and was making money dealing coke, the only 16 year old I knew to have his own apartment. He got done for real this time and went to jail. I once went back to his Mom’s house and she took one look at me and said Michael doesn’t live here anymore and slammed the door in my face. And that was that.”
“Probably best to remain a childhood memory. I was gonna request Michael Raines last night. Damn.”
“You should have. I would’ve played it.”
As we sped towards Austin and the sonically gargantuan Sxsw festival my stomach tightened like it does some New Years Eves at the prospect of ‘enforced fun'(TM). Dave and Franz drop me at the hotel where I meet up with Shelley Short who I’ll be traveling with for the next four weeks. Her agent Mary has kindly offered us space in the apartment she’s booked for herself. Steph Hughes our drummer arrives soon after having endured a hellish two day transit from Australia that included a bad nights sleep on the bare carpet at Chicago airport. She’s chipper considering and is excited to be here, her first visit to the USA.
We collect our instruments, grit our teeth and head into the bleeding cacophony that is downtown Austin this one week of the year. Steph and I back up Shelley on her set in a charming little theater, me on banjo and backing vocals. We haven’t rehearsed but it falls together nicely.
I rush a few doors up to prepare for my official festival appearance as part of the Yep Roc showcase. the handsome young Norwegian Sondre Lerche is playing a rousing set with members of Midlake backing him. He’s a guitar wizard, one who’s not afraid of the diminished chord, and will be a hard act to follow.
For us the sound is terrible, there’s ringing feedback for the whole set, and we’re battling with the noise spill of a funk band somewhere else in the building.
During Butterfly Bones an audience member climbs the stairs to the stage confidently and strides up to the mic. The sound guy thinks he’s part of our band so turns his mic up. For a minute I think this guy a fan and that he’s about to gracefully launch into the second verse. Instead he starts a high pitched wailing noise like a, well, whale. Part of me is happy that my music can inspire people to creatively express themselves, however that may be, but another part of me wants this idiot gone and can’t believe it takes security more than a minute to realise this isn’t part of the show. He gets ejected.
Afterwards Steph and I make good use of the cheap tequila (1800 is about $15 at home, $6 here) which gives us fire in the belly literally and metaphorically and we yak excitedly to each other and anyone else who’ll listen.
We end up lying in a park under the glow of the night-lit Texas Capital Building and its pink-granited grandeur. Search the sky for what stars are available and discuss our lives and then climb some nearby statues and take photos.
The tequila in our brains tells us it would be a good idea to sleep the warm night in the park, forsaking the comfortable bed awaiting us a few blocks away. We thankfully come to our senses and stumble back to fall asleep in front of a TV beaming out the homoerotic shower scene of the film Backdraft and its smooth fresh-skinned Billy Baldwin.
Friday 18th: AUSTIN
Phone rings me awake and it’s Mike from Yep Roc summoning me to an early interview that I’d drunkenly agreed to last night so I schlep with instruments through early eager punters and last nights detritus to the foyer of the Hilton Hotel. Led upstairs to a sumptuous lounge, a lapel mic threaded through my shirt I answer questions to a video camera raccoon eyed, dry mouthed and gravelly voiced, while the diminutive softly spoken British folk singer Alessi’s Ark waits nearby for her turn.
Rush to a cab to make my first show, a morning set on a small stage outside a Whole Foods market. The cabbie has his belongings and rubbish strewn across the front passenger seat and I tell him how most Australians prefer to ride up there lest someone think them pretentiously pretending they’re being chauffeured.
He said, “Some Texans prefer the front seat but that’s about all here in America. I hate people sitting up here, they break things and touch my shit.” He thought about it for a second and added that for a pretty girl he’d clear the seat and then informed me about how he’s a world class musician and passed me back photos of various guitars and pet dogs he owns.
I buy a breakfast of Kombucha and a banana from the Whole Foods and set up to play. There’s people spread around on tables and on the ground eating or catching morning sun rays. I remember this from last year: the evil scavenging birds swooping down frightening children and stealing scraps. They’ve evolved to prefer expensive health foods and will therefore become aggressive if they can’t get it. It is good food here though, and you tend to find a better quality bin-diver outside of these places. I saw a very well dressed guy with a feather in the band of his trilby hat trawl through one to find some chip crumbs in the bottom of a packet and a half eaten tofu salad.
Shelley is already there, fresh and well slept. She tells me the strafing birds are called ‘Grackles.’ Steph wanders in like a zombie, staring blankly into the middle distance and pacing back and forth. It’s a strange set but it’s comforting to see some familiar faces out there. I spy the family who told me last year they use my songFalling Aeroplanes to induce sleep in their youngest boy.
Later I go up to a place called Treehouse, a stage on the roof of a bar, where Dave Dondero is playing an early afternoon set and has asked me to accompany him on banjo. It’s completely exposed and at the mercy of the relentless blaring sun and Dave is pissed off. “This is a joke, man. I watched Mark Eitzel here yesterday struggle in this heat,” and then he thought about it and said, “there’s a little bit of shade right in the corner, let’s play under there.” So we moved all the sound equipment back against the wall and hunkered in a corner. The poor crimson sunburned sound guy didn’t try and argue. A young girl sat on the front of the stage and drew a sketch of us while we played as if we were in court.
Dave finished the set with a new crowd favourite Nobody Likes Your Doggie Like You Do with an intro, “This is not an anti dog song. It’s pro canine.”
After dark I meet up with Steph and we decide to go to a bar to attempt a hair of the dog to see if it will assuage our hangovers and make right again our foggy brains and shaky limbs. We sit on rocking chairs outside and sup the best tequila we can find and it seems to almost work.
I’ve done two Australian tours with Steph now but in the larger group it can hard to get to know someone in any significant way. I’ve learned more about her in these past two days. What a good human she is; a pure soul. A loquacious mischievous imp with broad Australian Steve Irwin vowels who coolly accepts what the world offers but still is not afraid to say when it’s not right. Her catchphrase at the moment is ’nuff said.’
The tequila hasn’t really helped so we don’t risk another. Instead we go back to the Treehouse and see my alt-country/bluegrass musician friends Sean Walsh and Johnny Lam in their more southern rock style outfit National Reserve. They blast out their set under the stars of Austin all playing their hearts out, falling all over each other smiling wildly and chewing gum. Better still there’s guitarmonies! These guys live for their music and seem to be always speeding for hours through the night from their homes in Brooklyn to just barely make the show, play it and then pack up and drive home again.
Steph begs off back to the apartment to bed and I’m hanging by a thread too, exhausted. I decide instead to go meet the Yep Roc gang at the Presbyterian Church to watch one of their new signings. Although he was Mojo magazine’s album of the year last year I’d never heard of John Grant. I lolled with heavy eyelids in the pew, doodling with a tiny pencil on a collection envelope and waited.
A middle-aged lightly bearded man took the altar/stage and the church erupted into applause. He sincerely thanked people for coming and his backing band started up (Midlake once again). This was the revelation I’d been looking for amongst the sea of sound of these past days. His voice was like soul balm and did more good towards soothing my nerves than any tequila could. Varnish-smooth baritonal elongated notes he sung with a gentle vibrato straight out of a 70’s AM radio station. For a moment I even forgot where I sat, was brought back to reality when he played a song called Jesus Christ Hates Faggots and I wondered what was going through his head as he sang under the giant wooden cross. He answered this with some banter as it finished, “It feels strange singing that song given this setting,” and the crowd acknowledged with muted laughter.
As I walked home along a street throbbing with bar room blues bands I put my fingers in my ears so the sound pollution wouldn’t contaminate my recent memory. Let the sounds of John Grant linger in my brain for just a little while.
Saturday 19th: AUSTIN (still)
Shelley has a day show in a boutique clothing store over in the east of the city so I walk there from town, under the Freeway and past tacquerias and biker bars. It feels like a poorer neighbourhood and brightly painted amateur advertisements fresco the brick walls. It’s a pleasing aesthetic and is like walking through a living Naïve Art gallery. A lot of the shops here are inside peoples houses and I pass one that has different pinatas hanging on the porch on display including one fashioned as Justin Beiber.
I find the house and the girls out the back sitting against a shed in the sun. There’s a band playing and others setting up inside the shop itself, people mingling in little groups here and there. I notice the guitarist has pretty much the exact outfit as me (brown shoes, black jeans, blue patterned shirt) so I self-consciously go buy another shirt off the rack from inside to mix it up a bit.
We prepare for Shelley’s set in the parlour room inside and play to a respectful crowd sitting on the floor, while the organisers hand out free organic pizza and iced tea. The bare wood floored acoustics are perfect for Shelley’s voice and the audience are impressed.
French pop duo Herman Dune are playing a few blocks down in the backyard of an Art book store so I make a second attempt to go watch them. Yesterday I’d attempted to see their show in a designer furniture shop but halfway through the second song the soundguy rudely walked onstage and shouted in drummer Néman’s ear that they had five minutes left to play. He acknowledged him with a nod but then the tactless invader strode up the front to lead-singer David-Ivar and did the same. Néman stopped drumming instantly and said, “What the fuck? That’s it, we don’t play any more songs now,” and the crowd protested and all eyes were on the seemingly dim witted engineer. As he walked past me I asked, “Why did you do that?” and he just flipped me the bird and kept walking.
Nonetheless it’s great to finally meet Herman Dune, after owning and enjoying their albums and having mutual friends. This time I get to see a full set lying on the grass by the stage. Afterwards David-Ivar said, “Hey, I recognise you from the photo on your record cover,” and explained they’d recorded in Portland just as I’d finished I Will Love You At All there and had been given a copy. They invite me to go night swimming after their set at Barton Springs. It’s a tough decision but I forgo to see Bright Eyes instead.
Dave Dondero calls to say he missed his set last night after getting drunk and throwing a beer at a Hip Hop band and consequently getting roughed up by the bouncers and thrown into an alley. “Was a bad scene. I had to call the place I was supposed to be playing and say ‘I’m really not in any shape to perform tonight.’”
“Are you okay now?” I worry about him.
“I’ve just got to get out of this town man,” he sounds strung out.
“Well I hope to get to see you before you go”
I head across the bridge to the massive stage by the river and Bright Eyes start playing as the sun is going down and halfway through their set some stranger comes over to me, tugs my sleeve and points to the horizon and exclaims, “Dude, look at the moon!” and holy moly, there is it huge and yellow, I’ve never seen it that big before. “Super Moon!” he clarifies before running off to alert others obliviously watching the band (find out later it’s the closest the moon has been to the earth in nearly two decades).
There’s cameras on huge swinging cranes filming the band and Conor Oberst’s face looms large on big screens either side of the stage. I notice there’s a woman standing just in front of them on a platform energetically using sign language to convey the lyrics for the deaf in the audience. I wonder if she learned all the songs before the show or is winging it as Conor sings them? It’s good to hear songs off their new album and I’m pleased when they play one of their old classics Bowl of Oranges.
I meet up with Shelley and Steph again in the alley behind last night’s venue and we rest for a while on a large rectangle of discarded carpet in the gutter whilst nearby 15 cops wrestle one drunk guy to the ground and cuff him. Shelley’s usual exterior of cool composure is forgotten as she gushes about standing in queue with Michael Cera a few minutes ago.
“Oh my god, I just froze, and the line was really long and slow so then I couldn’t help myself and turned around and said ‘I really love Arrested Development’ and he was like ‘Oh thank you very much,”’ her face is brighter than the super moon. “So we ordered the same coffee and they came at the same time and he said ‘is this mine?’ and ran his hand over the lid,” she really is glowing, “So guys, he touched my coffee!”
Next to see our Portland friends in the band Weinland as they’ve asked Shelley to sing backing vocals on a track. Some tequila: Sheph and I dance and try and distract her and make her laugh. More tequila: we chatter away and do it with enthusiasm, to ourselves and when Weinland get off stage to them too. Brian Wright who played drums on my last album is playing for them now and it’s good to see him. He looks sharp, like he’s just stepped off the set of Mad Men (I imagine…never seen it!), and has a haircut you could set your watch to. Have known him a couple of years now and on my first day in Portland staying at his house he insisted we both sit down and listen to Steely Dan’s Aja on vinyl from go to whoa and specified in detail the technical idiosyncratic differences between each of the six session drummers used on the album.
The song Home At Last comes on and he asks me, “This is Bernard Purdie playing on this one.”
“Never heard of him.”
“Oh man, you’ve never heard of the ‘Purdie Shuffle’?” he asks, “he uses it on Toto’s Africa as well.”
It’s all over suddenly and we get picked up by our local friends Carrie and Andy and taxied back to their apartment to sleep on their comfy couches for our last night in town.
Sunday 20th: AUSTIN
I met Carrie about a year ago when she interviewed me for a radio station in Austin and took me aback with some of the most intimately researched questions I’d ever been faced with. I felt a little embarrassed that she’d put more thought into my lyrics and songs than I did writing them. Since then we’ve become friends and she’s been ever helpful; promoting, feeding and housing us, bringing her friends to see us play, printing out maps of pinball machines in the area. This morning we wake up in her lounge room and she brews us coffee and has croissants and travel packs prepared for us of rice chips and oranges.
She drives us to the car hire company to pick up what we be our chariot for the next 4 weeks: a stunted little white Ford Fiesta. We scratch our heads and wonder how we’re gonna fit everything in it, especially as Steph is still daily scouring Craigslist for a drum kit to buy so she has something to hit for the upcoming shows.
A quick couple of laps in the chilly waters of Barton Springs before we drive out into America, having had our fill of Austin for now.
The girls grant me a half hour at a pinball arcade (called Pinballz Arcade) Carrie has told me about on the outskirts. When I walk through the door my mind is blown. There’s over 80 tables from the 70s through to now; my head is spinning with all the possibilities that lie before me. I play my first ever game of Shrek and then go back in time to try some of the older classics Lost World and Meteor.
We get back in the car but the traffic is glacial, like everyone is fleeing some disaster behind us. Somehow it approaches midnight and it feels pointless and we don’t end up getting far at all and surrender to an exit that spits us out to a one star hotel in a place called Waco. I remembered watching the news broadcasts of the siege there in the early 90s and what sticks in my mind most is a few seconds of footage they used to play out to the commercial of a shirtless David Koresh strumming his guitar and singing a folk song he wrote, ‘..there’s a mad man living in Waco…’
I quiz the girl checking us in about it while another mysterious woman in hair curlers stares at us and leans on an old broken piano in the corner, “Do you get sick of travelers asking you about it?”
She seemed vaguely amused and replied, “Not really, you’re the first. It wasn’t in Waco as such, happened in a little place north west of here. I don’t remember it really, I was just a kid.”
Our room smelled exactly how it looked and Radha Mitchell was on TV facing off against Vin Diesel and a legion of flying killers on a sunless planet. I decide to go for a walk around the neighbourhood but it feels sketchy and strange. There’s a horror movie playing on a portable television in the back of a laundromat and I watch it through the window and try and work out what it could be. Cars slow down to check me out and there’s hooded figures skulking around in the dark. I hurry back to the room and much needed sleep, past the motel playground of two swings with their seats slashed and chains knotted around each other in a vandalised tryst.
Billy Bragg tour diary: 2010 usa
Wednesday 8th: Minneapolis
Once again made the mistake of sleeping too long on landing in a new time zone. 10hrs straight through and now I know I won’t sleep tonight. Nonetheless I’m in a new city. The hostel is right across the road from the art gallery, and I’m told there’s good museums around. But I decide to reject culture and opt instead to find the house where the Replacements’ Let It Be album cover was photographed.
I happen upon a guitar store and assume that would be a good place to start my investigation. A customer overhears me ask the store clerk and bounds over proclaiming to be the biggest Replacements fan in the world. Much to his girlfriend’s disgust he’d made them both move from sunny San Diego to these winter snow-locked plains to be near his heroes. Surprisingly though he doesn’t know where the house is exactly.
I continue onwards and am chomping on an apple daydreaming as a van pulls in at the curb beside me, the driver leans over and opens the passenger door. It’s the same animated Replacements zealot from the music store.
“Hey, you wanna get in? I called a friend and he’s given me the address of the house” he said, and I must have looked reluctant because he added, “With no weird stuff, I promise.”
I could hear a Paul Westerberg solo album playing on his stereo and thought ‘could there really be danger here?’ I decided to trust him and climbed in.
“You looked like a nice guy. And I like to be kind to musicians,” he chattered on, “So consider me your driver for the day… in exchange for a door spot to your show tonight!”
“Sounds like a good deal” I agreed.
I couldn’t pick his age as he dressed youthfully (black loafers, designer lumberjack shirt, wallet chain) and had dyed his hair blue-black. Maybe 45? We found the very house of rock legend and took our own photos. He told me a Replacements tour would not be complete without a visit to the C.C. Club. It’s where they always hung out and drank.
All on both sides of the bar knew him.
“This guy’s my guest from Australia” he announced and suddenly everyone was my friend, “Two of your finest Tequilas please.”
We sat there and listened to the bartender’s stories of local musicians he’d served (Soul Asylum, Husker Du, Jayhawks). He poured another couple of drinks for us. Surprisingly the tequila seemed to be canceling out the jetlag, my mind seemed clearer.
I still felt I had to be careful. “I think that’ll do me,” I pleaded, “this is the first show of my tour tonight, I have to be sharp.”
“All the more reason to have another couple of drinks with me” was his argument, “Load us up, barkeep!”
“Aren’t you driving?” I asked as I felt the day getting away from me.
And drive he did, on a tour that included the art gallery (after all), the various haunts of the former artist Prince (First Avenue) and more bars, rolling off stories all the live long day. He pointed out the clear tubular skyway (made famous by the song) that connects the central shopping district so in winter you can walk the whole city without going outside.
Finally he dropped me at the Cedar Arts Center to meet up with Billy and Co, drunk. Billy was onstage running a few new songs to hear how they sounded. After soundcheck Billy came into the bandroom while I was gulping water to sober up.
“How’s Australia?” he asked
“We still don’t have a Prime minister,” I lead with, which really piqued his interest so he sat down.
“What was wrong with Kevin Rudd?” he asked earnestly.
“He tried to do everything by himself. And didn’t sleep. People say he made bad decisions because of that,” which lead us into a deeper political discussion, the first of many over the coming weeks.
Late for dinner, he jumped up and told me not to eat his ‘sweeties’ and left. Later on the gig was great; huge quiet listening crowd, good heckles, met lots of great people. My Replacements friend was there and had recorded the show. Was wonderful to hear Billy again too. I sat behind the sound desk and at times shut my eyes to just hear the songs unconnected to time and place and let waves of nostalgia wash over me.
I went home with friends of friends and lay awake all night, as predicted, waiting for the dawn so I could get up and go to the next town.
Thursday 9th: Milwaukee
Before leaving for this trip I realised it would be hard to travel between shows. The bus/train timetables didn’t match up to get me to the next city on time. To rent a car one-way would blow the budget. Billy and his crew had a tiny car they only just squeezed into but conceded to at least carry my merch. I imagined I might have to resort to hitch hiking.
Luckily I’d met a girl at the merch desk last night who was starting her three month ‘soul journey’ today and just happened to be driving to Milwaukee and kindly offered me a lift. She picked me up early bearing snacks and coffee and we chatted away for the first hundred miles but then I felt sleep overpowering me and spent the next few hours with my face stuck to the window snoring.
The venue tonight is in a huge beer hall. I arrive in time for soundcheck as Billy is finishing his and rushing out again. He calls out to say he’s saved me a Thai meal backstage and he’ll see me later. The foldback guy eyeballs my old beat-up archtop guitar and scoffs, trying to tell me how it’s impossible to get a good sound. He can’t stop it from feeding back and I bite my tongue from telling him I’ve played 100 plus successful shows with it without a hitch.
At the end of the night my friend Brian (Violent Femmes’ soundguy I’d met when touring with them in Australia) has offered to take me out on the town so I implore Billy’s road manager Vaughn to not forget my merch I’ve left sitting by their stuff.
Brian and I end up at his local and we get involved in a game of ‘Bar Dice’ where a group of people including the bartender throw their way out of not paying for the round. Some poor sod springs for the group. I was about to ask what the bartender got out of all this when I realised he was as wasted as everyone else. I managed to not pay for a drink all night.
Back at Brian’s loft apartment we met his flatmate, a pro fashion photographer, and his model girlfriend both lounging around in robes and sipping drinks. They pointed me towards the couch at bedtime. Once again I was wide awake and felt so crazy I skolled from my duty free whiskey until I finally fell asleep.
Friday 10th River Forest
We’ve been granted by the University a sumptuous hotel in Oak Park, an outer suburb of Chicago, that looks more like a prim Stepford village. My jetlag begs me to collapse on the bed but there’s much to explore. Whole blocks are lined with houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright who (as I today learned) also mentored a young Walter Burley Griffin, who would emigrate to Australia to design its capital so that visitors could get lost there in its crop-circle streetscape forever more.
I was intercepted on my walk carrying guitar and banjo to the venue by a couple telling me they were big fans and would catch my show later. What? Surely these people don’t know me? The situation got more puzzling when they walked off and called “See you there Billy!”
When inside the venue -a cavernous auditorium at the Uni- I encountered the real Billy in the hallway and he came up and gave me a hug, “Darren, I don’t know how it happened, I’m sorry… we left your merch in Milwaukee”. I couldn’t get this out of my head as backstage staff lead me to my dressing room with “Mr Hanlon” this and “Mr Hanlon” that. Lost income. My mood brightened slightly when I realised my rider contained TWO packets of my favourite snacks: Sante Fe BBQ Lundberg Rice Chips! When I opened the huge eski on the floor a single tetra pack of soy milk lay regally on a bed of ice.
Just before I went on stage an angel appeared in the doorway in the shape of Sandee Babb, the wife of my former US label boss who’d released my album Hello Stranger years ago. She held a box of said CDs and handed them to me, “I found these lying around, we thought you might want them?” Swings and roundabouts.
I take the extra pack of chips out on stage and hand them to the audience to pass around, and tell them that this is probably the best treatment as a support act I’ve ever encountered. I could hear crunching and appreciative oohs and mmms throughout the next few songs. I told them they’d probably have to break them up to make it around the whole room.
After the show one of the curators came up and said “You know there’s a strict no-food policy in the auditorium”. I was mortified and pleaded forgiveness. “It’s okay though,” he said, “when you talked about the good treatment we’d given you the Dean of the University was in the audience and was chuffed. He came and commended each of us personally.”
Saturday 11th: Ann Arbor
I get a lift to Ann Arbor with two über-Bragg fans, Sue and Barb. They journey to as many of his shows they can get to when he visits the US. When they realise they might miss his soundcheck they decide to forego all road rules and speed limits for the cause. I cling on.
They set the GPS voice to Australian and the woman sounds drunk and has much trouble with the word ‘recalculating.’
We pass my first ‘Tastee Freeze’ fast food outlet and now know what John Cougar Mellencamp was going on about…”Suckin’ on chilli dog, outside the Tastee Freeze..”
Tuesday 14th: Indianapolis
I’ve started getting cocky on stage now and am just asking outright if anyone is driving to, or in the direction of the next show. It hasn’t failed me yet. In fact people have even started asking me each night if I have somewhere to sleep as well.
After the Ann Arbor show a lovely couple out celebrating their anniversary invited me to stay with them, which I did…. for our two days off as well. They also did my laundry, brought me along to their neighbourhood block party and took me out to a top shelf bourbon tasting bar.
On the day of the Indianapolis show my host just happened to have a business meeting in the very city so I get lift straight there. I’m one lucky bastard.
Thursday 16th: Knoxville
Breakfast buffet in the hotel. For the carnivores, a bain-marie full of powdered scrambled eggs laced with chunks of bacon. For the vegetarians the same but with less bacon. I opt for pot coffee and nibble on dry cereal. Off to the Greyhound station for the only public transport leg of the tour, and I realise I’ve left my laptop back at breakfast. Although it’s not Greyhound policy to hold bags the clerk says he’ll do it while I run back because he likes my “English accent.” It’s still sitting there along with my diary and toothbrush.
I’m in Knoxville a few hours early so I wander the streets and get talking to some professional train-hoppers. One of them lifts his shirt to show me his bandaged knife wound inflicted by “some crazy mutha down by the tracks last week.” They ask where I’m heading next and if I’d like to tag along with them. I decline pleading too much luggage.
The theatre we’re playing is the most regal thus far. The sound guys inform me it’s the very room where Protools record a lot of their reverb samples (I don’t want to sound dumb and so don’t ask how you ‘record reverb’ without it’s accompanying sound?). They say if you project your voice unamplified everyone in the room can hear it plainly so I try my last song, the Magnetic Fields’ The Book of Love, off mic at the front of the stage and it’s true; a pin drop silent audience and the notes reach all corners of the theatre.
Tonight a lot of Billy’s stage patter revolves around a local publication called Just Busted magazine. Every page is filled with mug shots of the newly arrested and a description of their attendant crime. The curious thing is that the only other item in the paper is an ad for this very show! Just Busted recommends Billy Bragg and Darren Hanlon. I don’t like to use the term ‘target audience’ in this situation but who will this be reaching out to? The criminals themselves won’t be able to attend so I’m guessing it’s for the average paranoid security conscious citizen.
Have noted how long Billy hangs around to sign autographs and chat to his fans. Tonight the line is exhaustive and it takes longer than the show itself to get through. People regale him with tales of his past shows they’ve attended or how certain songs of his have changed their lives. I stick around too and annoy Grant Showbiz, Billy’s long serving sound man and traveling companion who in the 80s toured exclusively with the Smiths and even recorded some of their songs. He’s eternally hyper and entertainingly gregarious and calls me little Kookaburra.
Friday 17th: Asheville
In the car with my buddies April and Millie, both fans and good friends of Billy. April is a standup comedienne from Los Angeles who I often stay with when visiting there. Last time I asked her if she had porridge for us in the morning and she shot back, “I don’t run an orphanage! Do I look like Charles Dickens?” Gold.
We’re traveling in convoy and Billy wants to stop at a classic Tennessee flea market. A pavilion full of trestle tables decked with weird junk and curios. There are stalls that only sell walking-stick banjos and others that offer medical swabs exclusively. Lots of guns and ammo. Billy and Grant come out with armfuls of old soul and country records. I buy a patriotic redneck ‘don’t mess with my Rebel heart’ t-shirt for my 2 year old goddaughter.
Tonight Billy is returning to a venue that was packed when he played there last year but due to bad programing and a massive free festival that’s going on in town the gig is way under attended. The people who are there prove drunk and rowdy. Billy backstage seems tired and dispirited and I feel for him. However when he comes out on stage he gives his usual 110%, the full show regardless. I feel humbled by his ethic and almost emotional when he throws in a tender version of Little Time Bomb, one of my favourites that he hasn’t played thus far.
Saturday 18th: Chapel Hill
After sound check Billy and I sit and chat about last night. I tell him I really learned something from watching him play with gusto when some musicians would take their disappointment out on the audience. He looks at me seriously and in his avuncular way emphasizes the importance of always giving your all.
He suggests we sing a song together in my set so we sit in the bandroom and to warm up Billy strums a simple folk tune and I comp along on the banjo. He starts improvising the lyrics for a verse and then throws it over to me. Talk about being on the spot. It turns into a convoluted talking blues song about Christine O’Donnell, the campaigning candidate (and Tea Party member) for Delaware who, amongst other batty beliefs, thinks masturbation should be outlawed.
All motorists must beware
Upon entering Delaware
It don’t matter how you feel
You must keep both hands on the wheel
He asks what song of his I might like to do and I suggest She’s Got a New Spell which we rehearse and it sounds good with harmonies.
So at the end of my set he bounds onto the stage and the crowd goes mental.
Sunday 19th: Washington
Sadly this tour is over all too soon. I take the Amtrak and sit next to a Political Aide from New Jersey with a case of halitosis bad enough to repel me into the dining car to write. Get into Washington half an hour late and reluctantly take a cab driven by a Nigerian guitarist eager to demonstrate his ability and technique by playing select cuts off the 3 or 4 of his band’s albums he carries with him. I must admit they sound damn good.
Billy sings with me again in my set.
I have to get to Cleveland sometime over the next few days and contemplate catching the red-eye greyhound at 2am which takes about 10hrs. On the off chance I ask the audience one last time if anyone is driving north and one lone hand goes up in the back of the room.
I meet it’s owner later at the merch desk and he offers me the shotgun seat in the truck he’s driving (amazingly!) all the way to Cleveland through the night after the show. And besides, having a passenger will help in keeping his eyes open.
Billy finished this tour’s last set with a rousing version of A New England and after a quick cup of tea he’s out amongst his crowd and a line quickly forms and snakes around the club, people eager to connect with him. I interrupt to say goodbye. We hug and he says he wishes we could sing together again sometime, “now we know we can.” I’m sad there’s not the customary end of tour celebrations but I know he’s flying out first thing anyway, and I’m starting my next run of shows in a couple of days. I give him my thankyou gift of a hand kitted guitar cable, collect my gear and rush out to meet my ride waiting in the alley.
We take the Northern exit and lean into 7 hours of driving through the night. Although having only met this very evening we talk easily and have much in common. Somewhere along the journey I start fading and my eyelids get heavy and he says, “Don’t worry man, take a nap, I’ll be fine,” and that’s all I need, and the night from there melds with dreaming and the songs he plays on the stereo informs the dreams as my head bobs along on the jacket rolled up against the window. At times I wake in a jerk and see headlights rushing towards us and in that instant think it’s all over, and then when it’s not and I’m alive I start to think that it could easily have been, and about all the times it could have been with all this constant moving I do. But I drop off again.
Somewhere further along he shakes me awake to tell me we are going through a one mile long tunnel under a mountain. It’s Science Fiction bright in there. Johnny Cash live at Folsom Prison is coming through the speakers.
When I next wake it’s early dawn, there’s flat grey light in the sky, we’re parked near a service station and I’m alone. I wind the window down a little and the crisp air stings my eyes. He eventually comes back and says, “We’re only 5 miles from my house but I couldn’t go on. I started hallucinating so I had to stop and walk around a bit.” We drive on and then up to a grand old crumbling mansion in the middle of a forest right by the freeway. He looks after it for some old lady for cheap rent and lives in it by himself. “Why don’t you go and sleep on the couch for a few hours,” he offers, “when we both wake up I’ll drive you downtown.”
For most Christmas holidays of my childhood our family went away for two weeks to Hervey Bay, a soporific coastal stretch of fibro and orange brick, and camped in our Kombie van. Same caravan park, same block of cement, under the same Frangipani tree. The beach itself, shielded by Fraser Island, produced scant waves and there were sharp rocks a few meters offshore. Still, if we weren’t at the video game arcade or the tennis court converted skating rink we were in the water, ever cautious. As the years hurtled me towards puberty and I became more self conscious I gave up swimming and hung back to mooch around the older kids.
At night they’d have bonfires and talk of worlds my regional Queensland brain couldn’t fathom. They must have been sixteen or seventeen and I sat on the sand trying to look as un-thirteen as I could.
They talked about bands with names that sounded like rare diseases or movies I probably wasn’t allowed to watch… I Spit on your Gravy!
One bully said to me “You probably love Madonna” and I shot back “No way!” not believing he’d just magically seen right through me. I might even be prepared to tear up the three or so scrapbooks I’d dedicated to her magazine articles to prove my allegiance.
The girls were even more mysterious. One day a “Hey you” came from a tent as I passed. I peered in. She was brunette and terrifying. “You like music right? Listen to this…” She pushed PLAY on bulky black tape recorder and a song whirred to life. Although muffled I could make out some British accented guy going on about him being a milkman who delivered pints of kindness.
“He sings kinda funny but I really like him..” she said. I searched my brain but could find nothing in my limited musical lexicon to hold this up against. No drums, no 80’s synths. She F-FWed to anther track she liked about a man in an iron mask. I instantly imagined the bushranger Ned Kelly and thought it wise not to mention this. I had nothing else to offer and felt a sharp panic rising.
“I gotta go and meet the boys to play Galaga” I said as I backed out of the tent, “I got the high score.” But really I was late to play my mother at the pool table in the kiosk.
As much as it daily drew me I never went anywhere near that tent again that summer and she and the others weren’t there the next. A new cast of teenagers lined up to take their place.
Then I found myself three or so years older.
I’ve discovered punk music ten years after it happened through a teacher that lived on my street. I’d bug him most afternoons to play me something new. The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Jam, even REM, all heard for the first time in his lounge room.
During one of these intrusions he put on the first platter of a double LP and left me there with the cardboard sleeve. A picture of building blocks with letters and drawings on them. As the first track rang out a wave of strange nostalgia moved through me, though at I didn’t know its source. Kinda like when you pass someone on the street who’s wearing perfume that reminds you of a long lost Great Aunt.
“What’s Billy Bragg’s story?” I asked the teacher.
“He only wrote the best punk anthem of the 80’s!” his voice came from the kitchen.
To punctuate his point he walked back in, lifted the needle from a slower love song, flipped the side and plonked it back down on….crackle…crackle…pop…crik… I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long…
The words unraveled and I took them in and by the end of the song my mind had become a haunted house: some windows blew shut while others opened. I was back at the beach in that tent with the strange girl and it began to fit together. And this time I was ready.
I walked home turning it over in my mind. I didn’t know it yet but a path was opening up before me, right there in my 10th year of High School . I ordered that same album in Hoopers Music Center in Gympie and the staff had to trawl their catalogs to prove its existence. I mined the record stores in Brisbane to find his other albums. At night in my room I memorised the lyrics and learned the chords on guitar and offered to play them at school assembly. I attempted to talk with an exaggerated British accent.
It was the way he sang with his own thick accent that made Billy Bragg sound like a regular bloke, an approachable everyman. But he wasn’t afraid to sing about love, even adolescent love, and hurt and sex and the human condition, openly. He affirmed my own burgeoning juvenescence while pervading popular song just graced lightly over it. It was delivered up in earnest, was accessible, and sounded like poetry; words laid bare. I looked up the meaning of ‘unrequited’ in the dictionary just like Billy does in the Saturday Boy.
He sang of other things, a lot about politics. I thought ‘politics’ was something that happened to people elsewhere. To read about it in a newspaper was like eating dry toast. I got the dictionary out again to find out what kind of creature a ‘Tory’ was.
It’s hard even now to critically break down the songs and sounds of Back to Basics with technical terms or musical theory. They were inter-meshed with the fabric of my last years of high school; the undulating vocal melodies were the skyline of my little town, the lyrics the graffiti on it’s walls, the chunky driving reverberating Burns guitar is now the adolescent yearning I felt for some girl or other.
It’s nice to remember this as I’m about to start a run of shows in America with Billy Bragg, and I marvel at the twists and turns that life takes you on.
I get dropped at the club and as I approach can hear those unmistakable vocals and electric guitar echoing up the alleyway as he’s doing sound check, and it’s exciting. I struggle to the artists entrance with my backpack, merch and two instruments. I walk into the empty room and he’s onstage and proclaims over the mic, “Darren! welcome. You look like you’ve been hitch hiking.”
We’d traveled many hours west and played a show in town that night and afterwards we’d all congregated in one of our cabins for a nightcap. The caravan park was mostly asleep, crickets and a distant muffled radio. Checking in earlier we’d noticed that right across the road, on a few fenced-in acres, lay an abandoned Drive-In movie theatre.
“I think we need to go and check this out” I implored the others, “it’s important.”
A small group of us assembled, rugged up and alcohol warmed, and set out. We needed to find a way in. An impenetrable fortress of yucca plants, with their skin-piercing thorns and tall Dr Suess-tree flowers, lined the fence and proved a perfect barrier to intruders. They only broke rank at the padlocked entrance gate. Ignoring the long-faded ‘Dogs Patrol this Area’ sign we found a few strands of barbed wire already cut above the mesh wall and hoisted each other over.
Inside the air felt different even though it was only wire separating us from the rest of the world. The giant peeling screen, lord of the lot, looked down at us disapprovingly. Aided by moonlight you could just make out the slight undulations of the aisles where cars would line up, angled toward the movie. Speaker poles sprouted evenly spaced as far as you could see, like they’d been planted and grew that way.
The characterless orange-brick projection booth sat away in the middle of all this, like a malevolent 70s toilet block.
Someone said “We probably should just go back” and the rest of us answered by walking toward it.
Of course it was unlocked.
Cobwebs and Dust. Our eyes adjusted by degrees. Someone used the glow of their mobile phone so we could inspect closer. Old movie posters lay decaying on the floor in tatters, a cupboard door ajar sprouted unspooled film ends like lolling tongues, piles of broken plastic speakers, wires and fuses. Over against the front wall two rugged hulking shapes stood side by side like stabled horses. We lifted the covers to discover the original projectors looking almost as new.
To the side another older industrial looking mechanism we worked out to be a slide machine used to project ads between the movies. Piles of the tiny glass slides lay here and there, some on the ground had been cracked underfoot. Most of them had painted miniature scenes for coming movies and local businesses…‘For all your beauty needs, come on down to Complexion Perfexion.’
I went and stood on my own in the cafeteria under a wall of movie star decoupage. This whole place felt haunted. But not by human spirits. The air was heavy with the ghosts of nostalgia. There was an empty space left by the blasts of weekend activity this patch of ground had once known. And since the last car taillight faded out the EXIT gate and the last corn was popped, sometime in the 1980’s: this silence.
That night back in the caravan I lay awake thinking of the Real Estate placards tied to the perimeter fence and knowing how these things go had nightmares of the place being sold and bulldozed flat to make way for an industrial estate or even worse, a housing estate. Yuck!
In the morning a couple of us got straight up and risked the fence climb in daylight so I could go salvage what I could for posterity. I took a ripped film poster (Man From Snowy River), a glass slide (The Howling 2), a flier advertising this weeks coming feature (The Poseidon Adventure), and a short 16m smoking commercial. We had to be quick as by this time the band were waiting for us at the gate in the van ready to leave.
What we didn’t know was that a fan from out of town who’d been at our show last night (and was incidentally miffed I hadn’t played the song Brooklyn Bridge, which he’d been calling out for) had coincidentally turned up at that same time to nostalgically look at the old Drive-In, where he was once taken as a child. He recognised the band and struck up conversation.
He was well dressed and my manager Matt quickly convinced him to act as security and trick us into thinking we were busted.
As we neared the boundary I spotted this stranger straight away, leaning on the chain wire gate, staring at us.
‘So what’s going on here?’ he said when we were within earshot. I was startled by the officiousness of his tone. I knew then we were in trouble.
All I could come up with was “Um… nothing.”
“You do realise you’re trespassing don’t you?” he was perfect for the role, “Do you know how much the fine is for this? $3000 a piece.”
I could feel my mouth going dry and a fist tightening in my stomach. My partner in crime spoke up, “We were only taking photos!” but I felt the weight of the evidence in my hand which would disprove this statement, growing heavier.
‘So how are gonna play this? What do you think we should do?’ he continued.
I still couldn’t find the words. He eyeballed me and pointed his finger and said ‘Maybe if you sang a little bit of Brooklyn Bridge?’
The others erupted into laughter, shook hands and back-slapped the guy , thanking him for a job well done.
After the tour I took my keepsakes home not even really sure what I’d do with them. They ended up in a bag under the bed. ‘What does it matter?’ I reasoned ‘At least I saved them from the relentless wrecking ball of progress.’ But as the weeks stretched I felt their presence grow underneath me like Aesop’s pea.
I remembered an article I’d read that told of the park ranger at Uluru receiving weekly packages of rocks and soil overzealous tourists had collected as mementos of their holidays. Sometimes completely unmarked envelopes of pebbles would show up on his desk like a Christmas card from the earth itself. Other times these samples where accompanied by guilty letters confessing lives had taken turns for the worst resulting in divorces, sickness, unemployment and the death of loved ones, since the stones had been pilfered. Please return where found.
Whether or not it was superstitions at play I began to understand. I knew I’d taken something I shouldn’t have. I’d desecrated a sacred site; upset the natural order of things. And that place certainly felt holy to me. Who was I to decide the fate of these unwanted inanimate objects, defenseless as they are? I have to tell you, it just felt wrong.
But fate did eventually come into play with the Drive-in. I realise now it was calling to me but I wasn’t listening properly. In the short amount of time since the night of that break-in a series of events occurred, some triggered by the others, that led me to a way of preserving this place without taking anything away.
Last weekend we returned, this time to an unlocked gate, to make a music video. We were told no one had been allowed in since about 1984. I was happy to be back. The first thing I did when I got there was carry a bag across the field to put every last piece I’d taken back to where it was found and where it was meant to stay.
PART 2 COMING SOON
Nan, Boxing Day 2010
On the day after Christmas my friend Big Jeff dropped in unannounced to the farm to say hello while we were down visiting my Nan. We were sitting out on the veranda watching the rain on the paddocks and Jeff stood in the doorway with a beer in his hand telling us a story about his all-time favourite singer Kasey Chambers.
Curiously, none of us saw it actually happen but somehow he slipped and rolled backwards down the 12 steps to the bottom, landing in the front yard on the footpath. All we knew was that he’d just disappeared!
Miraculously he survived without a scratch, albeit slightly shaken, and hadn’t even spilled much of his beer. We were all in shock though, and astounded he was immediately able to continue his story from where it was left.
Nan heard the racket and got out of bed to come around and see what the commotion was. Here’s a woman desperately clinging on to her last tenuous rites of living unaided at home, alone. But for now the ravages of old age will not keep her from patrolling her domain to see it secure and undamaged.
“What the bloody hell was that?” she asked us.
“Jeff fell down the stairs Nan.”
I feared this might upset her but my inability to come up with anything else left me with only the truth. The others may have even expected some form of grandmotherly sympathy.
“Well I hope he cleaned them on the way down,” she turned around and went back to bed.
Here’s an unedited piece I wrote for J Mag a few months back:
Hypothetically speaking, if someone offered to grant me one super power I would know what to say and would answer straight away, unequivocally. Forget flying, invisibility, super strength, x-ray vision. What I’m interested in is the power to fall asleep at will, anywhere, anytime.
It is this skill, above any other, which would serve me best in this erratic profession I find myself in called ‘touring musician.’ Who needs the Blues Scale?
Even off the road I’m neurotic about my sleeping conditions. I need an open window, even in winter. I cannot have any digital clock visible, for if I were to accidentally open my eye and see the time that would ruin everything. A ticking clock, forget it! Towels are thrown over any glowing LED lights on offending electrical appliances.
Mostly on overseas tours the economic situation means a hotel is out of the question. To save money you come to rely on the kindness of strangers. Occasionally there’s a friend to bail you out with some floor space if you’re lucky but more often then not you’ll find yourself gingerly soliciting the audience over the mic for a roof under which to slumber. In doing this you’re throwing yourself into a nightmare of unknown sleeping variables.
Here are some things I’ve been told whilst pointed toward my sleeping quarters:
“Oh, sleep on the left. I think the cat has pissed on the other side.”
“This is my flatmates bed. You can sleep there but he might come home later after the nightclub closes.”
“Please forgive the blood stains. They were there when we found it.”
“Sorry about the carpet smell. The dog hasn’t been allowed out for months, what with all this rain.”
As I lay me down to rest on never vacuumed carpet with a beach towel pillow and someones overcoat for a blanket the words “Character Building” haunt me awake. Damn character.
As the days drag on, show after show, physical and mental fatigue sets in and you’d give up your strumming arm for your own bed. Others have adapted better. While hurling down the highway in the tour van I glare in envy at my keyboard player Cory curled up on the backseat between a drum case and a guitar amp. He is dreaming. Like a wombat he’s always able to make himself a comfortable nest no matter how small the space available or the bodily contortions needed to get into it. I’m bolt upright and try to shut my eyes but my brain starts filling with probabilities of road accidents.
Sometimes the bed is warm and comfortable but it’s a snoring band mate that’s your undoing. Another touring companion taught me to always carry earplugs and a spare t-shirt to wrap around your head like a mummy to shut the world out. But this can also cause you to miss the breakfast alarm, or sometimes even a flight.
But then the tour is over and I’m sitting in a bar with friends boasting about my sleeping war stories.
“So I went back to her place and collapsed on a spare bed. I dreamt all night about lying on the ground in a beautiful forest. When I woke up I realised I’d passed out on her Mums dried flower arrangements.” They all stare back at me wide-eyed. I feel like a somno-hero.
I’m not surprised after all the shows played and countries traversed it’s all these post-gig sleeping arrangements that have stuck my mind. Under a kitchen table. Next to the photocopier in a Tokyo highrise office block. On the stage itself. In the bushes on a Los Angeles traffic island. Behind the couch in a squat house.
I open my eyes behind that very couch and it feels like a miracle. “I slept!… who needs you Hilton, with your lavish foyer and mini bar bills!”
I wake up and flick off the cigarette butt stuck to my forehead, stretch the kinks out of my back and go out to help pack the van.
It always takes me ages to catch on to things. It was about 4 years after the (British) Office premiered on TV that I finally got around to watching it. I’d been urged on by friends and read reviews but maybe it was this mass hype that kept me from it. When I lived in Oxford a flatmate had the box set. First an episode, then two the next day and then all the rest in one sitting, and now I’m obsessed and have a re-occurring dream that Ricky Gervais and I are good friends and sit around watching the Science Channel.
So it was with the author Richard Brautigan. A few people, of who’s taste I respect, had mentioned his name. My piano player buddy Cory Gray had left one of his paperbacks in our lounge room to lighten his load before flying back home to Portland. My long time fellow conspirator Mark Monnone (Lucksmiths bass player) had raved about him too.
But these things must happen in their own time.
House sitting a strangers palatial apartment in June last year, I’d do a cursory stroll around their considerable library each morning before heading out into the city. Not really wanting to commit to anything in particular. Just soaking up the comforting warm rays of 200 years of popular fact and fiction.
His name caught my eye from a thin spine between the heftier Bradbury and Brecht so I thumbed it out and turned it over in my hand. And So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away…sounds like a good song title. Reasonably undemanding clocking in at around 100 pages. I took it with me and finished it that day and rushed back to trawl the shelves that night and found two more alphabetically misplaced and read those too (not realising at the time I’d started at his last and was working backwards chronologically).
It really was like listening to music. His childlike lyrical observations made the pages glow. Everything made sense. His sentences were so easy on the eye I’d read and re-read them. His metaphors shouldn’t work but somehow they do. You don’t so much as read them but feel them.
Like with a lot of stuff that appeals to me the whimsy is offset by a deep pathos and melancholy.
I FEEL HORRIBLE. SHE DOESN’T
I feel horrible. She doesn’t
love me and I wander around
like a sowing machine
that’s just finished sewing
a turd to a garbage can lid.
In the months since then I’ve gotten through 4 more of his books but I’ve made myself slow down as I know I’ll soon run out at this rate. You see he died in a lonely room years ago by the bullet of a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum borrowed from the owner of a Japanese restaurant, fired by his own hand.
And so in 2009 I finally found my favorite author.
I thought I should expand on my last message. You see I was on my way out to a country town I’d never been to before to hopefully finish a song I was wrestling with. I called ahead and rented a caravan in a park two miles from town.
I walk in each day along the highway on the steady downward gradient past the motel strip. Out of all the neon signs my favourite is the bright red Mathew Flinders Motor Inn complete with a cartoon illustration of the ship Investigator he circumnavigated Australia in. The town holds a lot of promise from this angle, all the buildings bunched up like that, snug in the lap of the surrounding range.
There are so many flies you can catch one in a swat without even trying. The giant half-court sized Australian flag next to the Chinese Restaurant gives the main street a sense of majesty, that is when it can find ample breeze to lift it. The mini clock tower at the furthest end of the Main street is another stately feature until you get close and find it’s hands have long been amputated, just a blank timeless face.
I’m starting to recognize other faces around town though, like characters in a play. The librarian runs the projector at the film night in the Centerlink Hall. The jolly cafe owner and his pregnant wife prefer a burger from the fish shop down the road than their own fare. I keep seeing the same cab driver doing laps of the town block, the car doors displaying the company logo Satellite Taxis. The plural isn’t fooling anyone.
I eat lunch in the old-fashioned tearooms. It’s all lace doilies, dark oak wood and white bread. I like listening to the people talk, the way their conversations are as stark and honest as the architecture. Whilst having a coffee, I overhear a table of ladies engage with the expectant co-owner as she tends their table.
”How’s the baby coming along?”
”We were just all saying you look a little pale. Is everything okay?”
”The doctor says everything is normal. I’m feeling good.”
”Are you sure? You could be anaemic?”
Last night it was minus 1 in the caravan. I put on as many clothes as I could and huddled under the thin blanket shivering like a car that won’t start, but slept nonetheless.
In the morning the teenaged son brings me another two blankets and asks if he can come in. He’s home on holidays and I’m guessing prolifically bored by the way he’s been riding his BMX round and round my van for the past few days. He’s spotted me playing guitar and wants to talk about it.
”I’m trying to start a band,” he tells me, “My best friend is the drummer. You might have seen him, he slept over last night.”
“No, I missed him,” I confess, which led to a tiny bit of uncomfortable silence. But then I add, “Do you have your own songs?”
”Yeah, that’s what I wanted to ask you,” he stared earnestly, ”How do you make up words? I tried a few times but not much luck.”
I thought about it, about my days staring at the wall, others frustratingly procrastinating, with no learned tools or methods available to employ. It’s all still a mystery.
”When you know please come and tell me,” I was telling the truth, “Lyrics are the hardest thing.”
There is wood-grained laminex covering most surfaces so I like to imagine I’m living in a room carved inside a tree. I’ll stay here now and hope the song I’ve been waiting for will find me. And if not I’ll try and look for it in my own way, the only way I know. How will I do this? By daydreaming.
And that is also the reason I’ve never been good at cricket. It is not a game for daydreamers.
See you back in Sydney next week.
Killer Diller (5 mins on October 2nd)
There is silver flashing inside and outside of the bus. Behind and diagonally to my right a young Aboriginal girl sits by the window next to her mother. Her fluorescent pink jacket stretches across her round stomach. She’s got an Instamatic film camera and is studying the passing scenery with a careful discerning eye, like she’s reading serious literature. She considers an approaching dry mangy hill littered with dead white trees. She gets an angle through the eyepiece and snaps, the flash illuminating us fellow passengers for a second. I feel I should tell her that the light reflecting back off the bus window will probably ruin her photos. But after twenty minutes of constant shooting I realize she can’t possibly have any film in the camera. My heart warms at this.
Outside, far off to our left a storm is creeping across the plain. The grey mass is strobing every few moments. It’s the middle of the day.
I hear the effervescent crack of a drink can being opened. Directly across from me a woman drinks a coke in a stubby-cooler that says ’Go Aussie Go!’ She has platinum blonde hair, a bedazzled denim jacket and rings like miniature mansions built on her knuckles. She’s reading a novel about a courtroom drama. I cast her as an aging Country and Western Star.
In my headphones John Lennon implores me to check out a woman called Polythene Pam, who is attractive despite her masculine looks.
The storm is nearly on us. Lightning during the day is even more spectacular. It’s like God has cracked the shell of the world with a giant teaspoon.
The heart as an anchor
The worst thing is the tedium.
Where are the screams and metal twisting and building collapses that go with other catastrophes?
At least it would kill time to watch something burn down.
It feels like some kind of major disaster but there is no sound, just a massive yawning silence.
Silence as big as a whale.
The biggest whale you could imagine, bloated on krill.
It’s just one thought but how can the largest mammal get that way being such a picky eater?
But soon the others come back.
So heavy to make the head loll,
That burst through the door of the control room and say, We’ll take it from here fellas.
And not just the head.
Your whole body is weighed down into the bed long after the alarm.
Well it’s not the blankets keeping you there you idiot, they weigh less than a watermelon.
Roll one into a ball and see.
Into the shape of a watermelon.
Seat it next to a real one, pick one up and then the other.
Shape and size has nothing to do with heaviness, it’s the many particles that make it.
And there’s always too many of them to remember names and birth dates.
There’s no way to weigh this though, only in the days and weeks and months that it’s taking.
I think of all the other wonderful ways we should waste a life.
Fly Fishing at dawn.
Learning to order food in Creole.
I’ve never done any of these but I miss them, somehow.
I’m the impostor.
But it’s been a while since I’ve felt like this. I can sense the hairs spring up on the back of my neck like an army that had been buried in the sand, waiting. It’s only the first song too, ‘Chasing the Sheep is best Left to Shepherds’ and its baroque gallop urges me to beat my fists in the air and headbang. It digs me in the ribs and says COME ON! Around me everyone looks on stoically, not a head movement in sight. We’re a study group. I’m an island in a sea of mannequins. Am I missing the point?
I’d found Nyman inadvertently through Peter Greenway films while a pretentious high school student. Although not really understanding the greater themes, mortality by way of morality and the Renaissance aesthetic, it was probably just the cloak-and-dagger violence and nudity. We used to swap VHS tapes on Fridays.
”Ok I’ve got ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’ and ‘Blood Feast’. Whadda ya got?”
“The Draughtsman’s Contract”
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s a period piece. Funny costumes.”
“Maybe I’ll just…”
“There’s boobs and people die”
“I guess I’ll take it”
I didn’t realise at the time but the soundtracks of these films had seeped into me, and years later I recognised a tune somewhere and joined the dots and bought as much of it as I could find. I mostly listened to it on tiny earphones traveling here and there. It had a way of making the places I was going seem more important. My fellow passengers became low paid extras. Now Michael Nyman is in Australia and performing with his 11-piece band and I’m going.
On the way to Brisbane I’d stopped in at the farm to cook my Nan dinner and do some chores around her house. In my rush earlier I’d forgotten to bring anything for later that might constitute ‘theater attire.’ I had only the old jeans, flannelet shirt and work boots I was already wearing, a fashion standard that could only match a good lawn mowing at best.
”You’re not wearing those to the concert?” she asked looking at the state of the jeans, different areas of my leg showing through the rips. The seat had nearly fallen out of them completely.
”I have to, there’s no choice now.”
”That’s bloody terrible. I’ll worry about that all night now,” she lay back on the lounge as if she couldn’t bear look any longer. I pondered what a great simple life it must be when some stranger’s fashion opinions of a Grandchild could keep you awake. Old people worry about a few weeds in the garden, meanwhile our whole planet warms up ready to pop.
I helped fill in a few blank boxes on her crossword. She couldn’t leave it alone.
“I hope you don’t have an accident on the way.”
“Don’t worry about me, I drive slow,” I reassured her.
“…Imagine what they’d think of you if you had to go to hospital dressed like that.”
Remember, our planet could explode at any second.
Thankfully by the time dinner was cooked she’d forgotten all about it and was now concerned at how successfully I’d boiled the broccoli. It needed to contain none of its original goodness and dissolve as soon as it hit the tongue.
“What do you think about that Michael Jackson dying?” she asked me for the forth time this week. I wondered if I even had an opinion.
“It was sad,” I answered again, supposing it probably is, “He had a strange life.” I realised this would be in the top percentage of most cliched answers given by anyone asked the same question.
The weekly celebrity gossip magazines, her glossy windows to the outside world, would have informed Nan of this. She knew all about this person Michael Jackson but I’m sure if I asked what her favourite track off ‘Thriller’ was she’d just look at me and say ”Hey?” I thought of her alone in the house on 450 acres in southeast QLD following the loves and diets of these fictitious characters from another universe. I know for sure she’s never seen a Jenifer Aniston movie.
I arrive at the QPAC theater without having had to be wheeled into Accident and Emergency under-dressed. I forget about my rags, and everything else as I rejoice in my padded seat. They play all my favourites.
This is the first such concert I’ve ever been to. Not a lyric in sight. I know it’s technically incorrect to call it ‘Classical’ as that only happened for a short while after 1750 or so. Wherever this music comes from I’m new to it’s machinery but it’s still all a string of melodies and rhythms that’s threaded in one ear and comes out the other rubbing over the brain as it goes and you either like it or hate it, understanding or not.
Some songs make me think of scribbling feverishly with a feathered quill, stopping every few bars to re-ink. Others attack me in a swarm of angry insects.
After an hour or so I do end up sliding back in my chair, blending with my seated allies. I’m letting go of the outward body movement and the energy rush has found its way inside. My eyes and ears are doing their job but can’t take all the credit. It’s beyond that now. My soul is swishing about like a friendly ghost. I can understand something completely but don’t ask me to explain it.
When the last note rings off most of the audience give a standing ovation. Although unmoving through the performance this is how we will best express our enjoyment and appreciation. We’ll clap three feet higher than in the chair.
Interview with Stephin Merritt
This is an interview conducted on the last night of 3 shows in London, July 2008. We sat high up in the Gallery of the Cadogan Hall while the stage was being prepared for soundcheck. As the tour was to promote the latest Magentic Fields album ‘Distortion’ we spoke mainly about that…
Darren Hanlon: We’re talking to Stephin Merritt at the end of the Distortion European Tour. How are you feeling about going home?
Stephin Merritt: I am relieved, I hate touring, I hate playing live, I hate live music. This is all a terrible mistake.
DH: Right. So you’re in a nightmare.
SM: I’m going to wake up from this nightmare tomorrow in London, far from my own bed. The next day I will wake up from this nightmare again in New York. And the following day I will wake up from this nightmare again in Los Angeles.
DH: And then it’ll all be some distant memory. I just thought I’d ask you some questions. The instrumental song ‘Threeway.’ Some night I’ve been jamming along offstage (SM looks alarmed)…so no one can hear me of course. The riff sounds complex but is so easy to play. It’s almost like a finger exercise for a guitar player as well, like ‘Wipeout.’
SM: It’s like a finger exercise specifically for a bass player because you can play the whole thing on the bass.
DH: Of course, you only need 4 strings.
SM: Or a ukulele
DH: So I think you were saying with this song you had 2 separate pieces of music that you didn’t write together that you’d perform at soundchecks.
SM: Right. I had 2 different instrumental pieces of music that used cycles of 3. So I stuck them together and shouted ‘threeway’ once a minute and made it 3 minutes long.
DH: And decided it would all be about group sex. So there’s a lot of thinking behind that song.
SM: Yes (chuckles)
DH: The next question is for the song ‘California Girls.’ I’d actually written in a note book after touring the US once that over there the word ‘squirrel’ would be a good rhyme for ‘girl’ the way you guys say it (squirls). And you used this in that song. Are you worried if Australians, or even Brits, cover that song it’ll sound weird?
SH: Oh, please say both words.
DH: Squirrels, girls
SM: Squeerels?…Squeerels, gurls. Yes, those words sound nothing alike in your accent. They almost rhyme in my accent.(he practises these words for a while)I make it a little like it might almost be two syllables but it’s only one syllable. (he practises some more)
It’s a near-rhyme. It’ll pass.
DH: see that wouldn’t work either; pass, mass
SM: Mass, parse? Right (laughs)
DH: which makes me think there should be rhyming dictionaries for different dialects.
SM: well there are. They’ve just carefully concealed their origins. But if you look at what rhymes in various rhyming dictionaries you can tell where they’re from. I have the best rhyming Dictionary the ‘Clement Wood’ but it’s definitely not my accent
SM: British. I’m always fining things that don’t seem to rhyme.
DH: So if you were in a British pub overhearing conversation you might get some different ideas for lyrics just by listening to accents?
SM: Yes but I’d have to make sure they were sung by people with those accents. In fact when Amelia Fletcher sang ‘Looking for love in the hall of Mirrors’ on the first 6ths album I had been picturing ‘mirrors’ to be sung to rhyme with ‘appears’, a one syllable word as some people pronounce it. And I thought she’d be one of those people. But not at all, she actually has quite a posh accent and great annunciation.
DH: I actually thought that might be intentional. The rhythm of that line is really nice because you expect it to be one syllable.
SM: Right. When I sing it there’s also two syllables and I always feel kind of awkward. Where am I going to end this syllable?
DH: Ok moving on. ‘Zombie Boy.’ Probably the only Pedonecrophiliac anthem.
SM: No, I’m sure there must be a death metal band out there…
DH: …who’ve touched on the subject…
SM: I know Alice Cooper has touched on Necrophilia. But not Pedonecraphilia. But not to be outdone. He’ll probably hear mine and come up with something more shocking.
DH: Add a beastiality component in there as well. I’m guessing you’ve watched a lot of zombie movies in your time.
SM: maybe 20.
DH: That song particularly reminds me of this zombie film I saw years ago. It was actually set in Haiti and the zombies were tribal cannibals. They obviously hadn’t shot enough footage for a full length feature so they’ve edited in stock nature footage. You could tell it was completely different film stock.
SM: Hmm, that sounds Italian
DH: Yeah, I think it was overdubbed. Is there one particular zombie film this song is based on?
SM: No…I feel like Italian movies of the 70s of that genre went out of their way to do something that had not been done in a movie before. So tasteless that it had not been done in a movie before, or couldn’t have been done, and could never be done in an American movie. Like in Cannibal Holocaust you see actual animals being tortured
DH: That could be it! Zombie Holocaust?
SM: It could be so difficult. Italian movies would have their titles changed by distributors. They release them a few times with different titles.
DH: That could be it though. It was so bad.
SM: Cannibal Holocaust is shocking enough but no one thinks to call it bad. You can’t tell where the documentary aspect of it ends and the fiction aspects begins. It’s all about film exploitation.
DH: So then you’re a massive movie fan but the small screen has almost no effect on you. I asked you about the ‘Office’ one of the biggest British comedies ever and…
SM: I’ve never seen it. I don’t have a television. That said I have seen on other peoples television some recent shows. The Dog Whisperer for example.
DH: A pet help show?
SM: A particularly good pet help show. Though being an American television show it doesn’t actually mention the existence of urine or deffication. So that number one canine difficulty is ignored.
DH: A canine difficulty that exists in most European cities we’ve been travelling to.
SM: Uh huh.
DH: Ok ‘The Nuns Litany.’ There’s a line in there where she waits for her mother to die before she experiences any new vices. Is there anything that you would edit or think twice about putting in a song knowing you own mother might hear it?
SM: I suppose if I was going to write an expose about Tibetan Buddhism I would want to do it particularly accurately for fear that my mother would jump down my throat for inaccuracies. But other than that I don’t think I could possibly shock my mother. My mother can shock me and I can’t shock her. My mother was not shocked by ‘Zombie Boy.’
DH: I have a vision of you sitting down playing her your new album. Did she react to ‘Distortion’ at all? Has she heard it?
SM: She heard and early version that had more harshness while it was still being mixed and she considered it completely unlistenable. She was surprised when it came out that it was a lot more listenable than when she heard it.. (thinking)I guess there is a way to shock my mother: unrelenting screeching feedback.
DH: (laughs) In a room where she can’t escape. You seem impervious to praise or criticism. I know you refuse to read any reviews on your live shows or albums. Was there a specific point in your career where something triggered this decision?
SM: I’m sorry I don’t remember.
DH: I remember the one for me was when they said I was a midget circus freak who didn’t stop talking.
SM: With any encounters with the British press I’m painfully reminded that they are completely free to make up quotes. They will quote me as saying anything they want.
DH: It’s sometimes weird when they quote you as saying a slang word you’d never use.
SM: Or never heard of. I’ve actually had that happen to me in America too but only with unprofessional journalists.
DH: So with you ear problems, the discomfort you seem to have with noise. I took a photo of you guys from side of stage and you heard the shutter and looked around even though you had your earplug in. It made me think that the shutter sound might be in a similar register to applause. And it cut through. Is the audience clapping extremely painful?
SM: I probably only had one ear plug in. I’m not totally deaf in the right ear I’m just really imbalanced between the two ears.
DH: But you were in the middle of a song! I thought ‘my god he can hear that’
DH: Is this degenerative? Could this mean the end of touring for you guys?
SM: They are getting worse. This has meant the end of touring so much because we have to impose these ridiculous constraints.
DH: Have you ever asked the audience not to clap?
SM: Yes, it didn’t work.
DH: Maybe you should distribute mittens before a show.
SM: We’ve discussed that. Or noise makers that are actually very soft. Dried leaves.
DH: When we first met years ago and we went guitar shopping in Sydney you gave me some advice on songwriting. When I mentioned I wasn’t as prolific as I’d like you suggested treat it like a crossword where keep working by filling in the blanks.
SM: Yes, if I know there’s going to be a certain number of lines I place that number of dots going down the left hand margin so I can see where the lines are going to be.
DH: Do you have any other methods you use? I guess when you have such a high output you need to have some kind of framework…
SM: Oh I don’t think I have a high output at all.
DH: Really? That day you wrote a song on the guitar in the shop!
SM: Did I? I don’t remember
DH: That’s why you bought it. I had the exact same guitar I was trying to sell
SM: A Country Gentleman?
DH: Yeah, I had one and you said (in deep Merritt baritone) ‘why would I deprive you of a guitar?.’ But it’s ok I sold it a week later. But yeah, you wrote a song on the guitar in the shop and I said the guitar is overpriced and you said ‘well what is a song worth?’
SM: well I guess that depends if the song gets published or not.
DH: do you still use that guitar?
SM: Yeah I think I used it as the rhythm guitar on Distortion
DH: Well I think I know the answer to this question and a lot of people ask me this question when they hear I’m coming on tour with you guys. Do you think you’ll ever come back to Australia?
SM: I can’t see any reason not to come back to Australia if I can’t be cryogenically frozen.
DH: So when there’s a few more huge leaps in the science world first they’ll fix your ear problem and then freeze you Han Solo style…
SM: Hopefully less painful then Han Solo… and there I’ll be. I’d also like to go to New Zealand. I’ve never been to New Zealand.
DH: Me neither. And I have less of an excuse. (at the time of interview this was still true)
SM: well it’s still an excuse. There’s an ocean between. They want me for soundcheck now.
Most of the songs on this ‘Pointing Rayguns At Pagans’ album were written to the instructions of, “we need another song next week. Don’t worry about it too much, it’s just a B-side.”
Now if I don’t have some album off-cast lying around I have to reply, “Ok, so now I’ll go off and try and write a shit song.”
That’s the thing you see, B-sides are often branded as second rate, sonic misfits. I feel bad for them. For me though I’m not usually one for having fully completed spares lying around staring up puppy-eyed begging to be given a home. The few ideas I have I generally bash around until I get something I’m happy with to use. So therefore most of the songs on Pointing Ray Guns at Pagans were written quickly.
I think that’s why I’m strangely fond of them. I never had to play them over and over until any affection I might have felt for them had worn off. And probably the judicious part of my brain that would normally send a bad rhyme or clunky phrase straight to hell was turned off. These are at least honest and instinctual.
Yes, listening back to them now I’d have changed so many things. It’s lucky I didn’t get the time.
During the few years after finishing Uni and living In Lismore I had no money. Once when I asked someone on a date I fretted that an expensive dinner or even a movie ticket was stretching it. I made her some soup and commented that this favorable weather we’re having was too good to waste. I suggested she might want to just walk around the town. We strolled past the crowded pubs as they were about to close, throught the alleys behind the shops and then climbed up onto the train bridge that spanned the Richmond river, careful not to meet the 11:50 XPT from Murwulimbah. All night we both had a strange feeling of being watched. I thought I kept seeing someone duck around corners as I’d turn to survey. Later in the early hours of the morning when we retraced our steps back to the house we kept finding little messages painted in broad strokes in blue paint. There were even arrows pointing to places we’d been. I realised the colour looked familiar. When I got home I checked the laundry and the tin of regular blue house paint we’d kept there was gone.
AND THE DAYS WERE JUST PACKED
Recorded in Athens GA, with some of the Elephant 6 locals, on a lot of interesting old equipment. But it’s the Atari 2600 in the lounge room I remember most. I hope you don’t feel ripped off that these songs available on the Hiccups EP for so long are included here. That EP is close to selling out and won’t be repressed. I wanted to keep them alive. A lot of the wonderful keyboard melodies are the work of Bree Van Reyk.
Was never happy with the original version. In fact if I ever knew the man himself would hear it I’d have put a lot more work into it. I’m so relieved he does seem really flattered though. This new version is heaps better sounding with more of a synth-pop bed recorded on a snow heavy day in an old pencil factory in Brooklyn.
Claudia Gonson from the Magnetic Fields came in to sing backups. I’d always cringed a bit at the line ‘I want adventure in my pocket’ as it doesn’t rhyme with ‘Wallach’ and seems really cheesy. When I told Claudia this she suggested calling Stephin Merritt, lyric doctor.
He spouted out a string of rhymes, “colic, frolic, vitriolic, metabolic, bucolic, Jackson Pollock, hmm….what about ‘He could slay them all with his left bollock?.'”
“not sure that’d work” I replied.
“what’s the original line?” he asked
When I told him the phone went quiet.
“Sometimes extended passages of instrumental music can be very pleasing” was his polite way of saying he thought it sucked too.
I tried for hours to think of something but kept coming back to the old line. In the end I left it be and something in me felt guilty I’d ever thought of changing it. You’ve gotta learn to love your awkward children too.
MY LIFE A BLUR
My greatest anxiety put to music. My parents fell in love at 18 and remain so. My name was written on my dads 21st birthday card. It worries me sometimes that I’m still unconnected and floating like a balloon with no string attached. Nothing in cement.
Recorded in Portland, at Type Foundry. We were sitting around waiting on a session drummer when the engineer Adam Selzer said well I might as well give it a go and proceeded to deliver one of my favorite drum takes I’ve been a party to.
Old 50s song I found and added a verse to. It’s the story of my life. If I’m in a new town and feel threatened or uneasy all I need to do is find a machine. Even knowing where one is that I can get to is comfort enough.
THE PERFECT DAY
Recorded on 4-track with the same backing vocalist from the original 80s version (by Fischer Z), Jennie Cruse. Whenever I play in her hometown of Brighton, UK we sing it live together. Last time she even dragged alone John Watts who wrote the song. He sat at the bar in a sharp black suit and bowler hat and I was so nervous I had to sing the song looking at the floor feeling underdressed.
YES, THERE IS A SLIGHT CHANCE HE MIGHT ACTUALLY FAIL
Another great drum track played by the engineer. Tomas Hakava was so obsessed with the Beatles that not only did he have in the studio an exact Ringo Starr Black Oyster Pearl Ludwig drum kit but also the Lark cigarette packet the Beatle kept on the snare to deaden the sound. Any other packet of cigarettes doesn’t sound right he told me.
Too long, too much reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Christmas Murder Ballad. Not a popular genre.
My first official recording. I couldn’t find a band. Seriously, I asked every musician I met. The girl singing on this is Rebecca Yudale, a stranger who came to look for a room in this crappy house* where I lived in for a while in Newtown. She mentioned she’d sung a bit in the past and then politely declined the room. A week or so later she was sitting in the cheap Leichhardt recording studio singing with me. We even did a couple of shows together but I’ve since lost contact with her.
TWO DAYS IN A FOREIGN CITY
There’s only been one restaurant where the food and service was so bad I felt it would be a crime to exchange money for it. We were eating Mexican in central London. I guess we could’ve done the grownup thing and confronted the waiter. Instead she went to the bathroom and then shuffled out the door while the coat check had their back turned. I pretended I was on the phone and needed to be outside to hear properly. Once free we ran like hell. The note we left on the table said ‘Sorry, We just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay for this.’
VIDEO PARTY SLEEPOVER
Rebel Anthem for those who can’t get off the couch.
NOTES ON LEAVING
Another 4-track backed by members of M Wards band in return for accommodation in my house for a few days. There’s a line that implies that you can’t whistle and smile at the same time, a statement Mike Coykendall made while we were walking around Petersham. I’d like to clarify that you can in fact give the impression of a smile if your one of those who whistle through their teeth. It also makes you look like a maniac.
*seriously, this place was dump. And it’s still standing! I actually lived in a room outside past the laundry and it seemed to be the most structurally sound part of the house. Mind you, there was a considerable gap under my door so once when I came home from tour I found a stray cat had made a nest out of my blankets and was living on my bed. It tried to kill me.
Another day we walked in and noticed the four legs of the bed upstairs had fallen through the downstairs ceiling and were poking into our kitchen. A few weeks later we came home and our front door was gone. Some thieves (with the help of termites) had busted in and stolen a lot of electrical equipment, none of which worked. We were happy as it saved us dumping it ourselves.
Cory Gray AKA Carcrashlander
I first met Cory while recording some songs in Portland a while back. The session required piano and trumpets and the engineer said he knew someone who could do both proficiently. We heard a rumble in the parking lot and from an upstairs window witnessed Cory arrive in his A Team van (in which he’d toured the whole US multiple times, as his transport and accommodation) He walked in, put a couple of beers in the fridge and greeted us cheerfully. Looking more lumberjack than maestro he placed his little moleskin notebook/sketchpad on the music flap and tested the keys. “nicely out of tune”….The songs came easy to him and his playing sounded gentle and old world; to put it in a MySpace pigeon-hole ”sentimental/showtunes”.
I’d written a few of the songs for ‘Fingertips and Mountaintops’ leaning in that direction so it seemed fated that I’d met him and that he was available to fly over to Australia and play on the recordings. He understood my ambiguous motivations for the feelings needed for the song Manilla NSW.
Me: You’re an uptight primary school teacher
Me: Yeah, you always dreamed a life on stage, touring as concert pianist. Your father, coming from a working class background, felt a capricious existence in the arts held no long term security and forced you to into something more stable. Now, years later, you”re too old to learn new tricks. Instead you feel imprisoned in a music room teaching arpeggios to them who might as well be monkeys. Although at times when rote playing the most pedestrian pieces you’re transported to your parallel thwarted fantasy life and unbridled emotion creeps into the music.
Cory: Got it
The first day Cory arrived in Australia I picked him up at the Sydney International and told him we were going to collect a piano I’d found on ebay. He had to come with me to the upper classes of the North Shore and help me lift it out of this mansion where it had lived neglected until now, with it”s owner, an American lawyers wife who told us her husband would sue if we left any marks on walls or scratched her polished cedar floor boards or marble walkway. I worried that Cory imagined he’d stepped jetlagged into a removalist nightmare as he sat in the back of the van trying hard to steady a heavy unrestrained object that could possibly squash him if I took a corner to sharp.
It made it in one piece back to our place and for the next few days Cory and the new piano became inseparable. If I left him alone in the house for a day I”d come home and he’d written and recorded (on my 4-track) entire songs. He’s a fast worker. Once in the kitchen I overheard him play a melody that to me sounded at the same time uplifting and melancholy, like any good 80’s power ballad. I asked him what it was and he said he just made it up. He said “you can have it if you want”. Wow, inspired player and song philanthropist, what a guy! This melody grew into my first real collaboration and became the song ‘Old Dream’.
Some favourite places…
6. Vege bar, Melbourne:
Most of my friends down there don’t go there anymore as it’s been around
forever and they’re sick of it, plus there’s so many culinary delights in
Melbourne to choose from. I still go there partly out of nostalgia and
partly cause i do like the food! it’s part of tradition when I visit
Melbourne. Crouchy lets me borrow a music mag from Polyester and i sit
there for hours and always order the tofu burger on a wholemeal bun with a
protein pumper soy drink with bee pollen. I bet you’re all so blown
away by this information.
I also like the way the sun streams in of an afternoon
5. Swedish farmhouse, Southern Sweden;
For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the place but it belongs to
the father of a friend of mine. It’s completely remote and self sufficient.
I’ve stayed out there now a few times in winter and summer. In summer we
spent a day chopping wood with which we had to fill a shed for the coming
winter. On breaks we rode our bikes to the forest to pick wild berries and
return to work with stained fingers. I spent the best New Years Eve of my life
here. We were snowed in and melted little blocks of metal in a frying pan.
We then threw it into a bucket of cold water and the shape that it formed when it solidified
would tell our future for the coming year. Later on I brought the tone of the night down a little by running nude in the snow.
4. various old pubs, Oxford UK;
I lived in Oxford with my girlfriend for 7 months a while back. As she and my flat mates worked all day I spent a lot of hours in different pubs reading writing and overhearing the debates of opinionated students. I wrote a song called ”Fire-Engine” about all that. my favorite pub was the Angel and Greyhound which had a bar billiards table (an antiquated pub game which would be complicated to explain…google it!) where my friends and I had many championship tournaments. Next would be the pub next door the Half Moon, which never seemed to be open but would have random traditional folk music nights where you felt like you were in a tavern from Lord of the Rings. It seemed like the kind of place where the old man with the pipe at
the end of the bar would warn you about werewolves. The White Horse had a
ceiling so low even I had to bend down to get in. they have the strongest
cider there and in the 16th century they found in the attic what they
believed to be a witches broomstick.
3. River Gums caravan park, Manilla NSW;
This is a beautiful place
I’ve found on my quest for ”the ultimate
secluded picturesque comfortable retreat for songwriters”. A friend and I
just visited recently and the park hosts David and Lee took us out to the
monday night RSL line-dancing class. The club is run and consists of 70+
year old widows who still want to dance even though they have no partners.
As sad as this sounds it was the most fun night i’d had in ages. I found
out that i was the only male who’d ever joined the class. One lady called Mavis,
the oldest of the group at 87, said that I was light on my feet and would make a
good ballroom dancer.
2. Random Cocktail bar, Chinatown, San Francisco;
This features in my song Wrong Turn. I stumbled upon this place on my
first trip overseas when i was 22. It’s tiny and only seems to be peopled by grumpy old Chinese men playing Bingo-Pinball machines. I’d never even heard of such machines. Unlike
conventional Pinball machines they have holes in the playing field and you
can win money or credits. I played them for a while and even won a few quarters. When I got home I fantasized about it for ages thinking
maybe I’d just dreamed it up. When I went back years later i spent a whole
day trying to find it. The only clue I had to go on was that it had a sign
written on the awning that read ‘where good friends and girls meet’ which is funny because I’ve never seen a girl in there and couldn’t imagine any wanting to be in there especially if they wanted to meet someone.
1. My Family Farm, Wolvi Qld;
I’ve been hanging out here since i was born…and before! Maybe I was even
conceived here but i really don’t wanna go there. It’s 450 acres bordering
the rainforest and was settled and cleared by my ancestors. It’s probably
the most special place to me. It’s where I learned to ride horses and motor
bikes, and the palatial cubby house (complete with watchtower) my cousin and
I built still stands, although the termites have moved in.
My Nan still lives there and when visiting her I think I may end up there
A simple song about missing your loved one. I guess the other thing is that the title has two meanings… Hold on as in keep it together, or hold on and wait for me.
THE PEOPLE WHO WAVE AT TRAINS
I really wanted to have the voice of an old woman on this song. The kind of voice I remember from primary school church service when the nuns would sing with fragile vibrato from vocal chords warn from the strain of a lifetime of hymns. I went in search but had no luck until I remembered that Lenka (from Decoder Ring) has one of those voices from another era even though she”s still in her 20s. The vocals on this were one of the last things recorded for the album back in Sydney and I had such a bittersweet feeling of sadness and relief to be almost finished… but pure joy to be surrounded by good friends all singing together. Myself, Bree, Lenka, Lee Hillam (Sea Life Park) and David Trump. Lee had Bebe, her new baby along who sat quietly perched on her back through the whole thing until Lenkas solo came up where he decided to have a go himself. If you listen closely with headphones you can just make out Bebes first vocal take.
HAPPINESS IS A CHEMICAL
The only song on the album recorded from the Portland sessions. It was a real buzz to play with Jesse Sandoval (the Shins) who said it was a good experiment for him to record a song in an hour or so as his band usually spend a lot more time fine tuning theirs. He said it was also a revelation to try the best organic chips that my catering budget allowed as he’d never had them before (Lundberg Santa Fe BBQ). And for me, just being in Portland to hang out and record with Adam Selzer had the Dopamine and Serotonin levels at a peak. Love those chemicals!
No explanation needed really. A wrap party for a film, a lot of free drinks, a blurry and lonely songwriter, a beautiful famous actress. Whichever combination produced the lightning bolt that hit me, this song wrote itself. (But she was actually wearing jeans. I just needed to say ‘that dress’ to loosely rhyme with ‘actress’)
Australian country towns are dying, not even considering the climate change issues. For the past 50 years or so local industry has been pushed out to the cities and their once strong economies are in decline. Most towns had their own cordial and soft drink factories, dairies, a working train stations, drive-in theatres, banks just to name a few things. There weren’t as many reasons for the kids to leave home to find work. But hey, this isn’t just a political song. It”s a postcard tribute to a place I spent barely 4 days in, lying in a caravan waking up to corellas carousing by the river and walking round the streets all day with a constant smile on my face. Smiling to be out of a city and to drink beer with weird locals. Smiling for a breath of fresh air.
The recording of this song was the hardest. We tried it first and last. We were even packing up the gear when Anthony our engineer suggested we run in and have another go (the version that made it to the final). I sang it through an old 1950’s RCA mic that was lying round the theatre. As I sang I could feel the dust enter my lungs as i took each breath. I think Cory’s piano playing achieved the right balance between vaudeville and school assembly national anthem.
ROMANCE IS DEAFENING
A tale of loss and regret set in the wild west. Everything and everyone is a reminder of his lost love and he feels like turning them all into Swiss cheese. But luckily at the last minute a voice from the clouds (narrated by James Earl Jones), If you can’t find your gun, just break off a branch and pretend that it’s one….
THE OSTRACISM OF VINNY LALOR
Vinny Lalor lived in the township of Pomona in the 1940s, and attended a school dance in the very hall we recorded this album in. Shy and unassuming but always deep thinking she sat on a chair against the wall watching the townsfolk swirl around the dance floor or huddle on the edges in their little coteries. She didn’t understand them nor them her. She might as well have come from Pluto (even though she read that the planets surface gets down to -235C so therefore would be unable to spawn any life form). After the dance a local half-witted pimpled lad walked her home and awkwardly delivered her first kiss. At school on Monday out of embarrassment he refused to even speak to her and the other class mates ridiculed her. As harmless as it may sound the situation spiraled out of control and inexorably led to tragedy. I can’t think about this album with out thinking about Vinny Lalor.
I’ve always been a huge Dear Nora fan after playing a gig with them in Portland back in 2000. To me Katys voice is timeless, wistful, haunting and somehow nostalgically American (when she sings it evokes the soundtrack to ‘Hair’). When she agreed to sing for this album I set out to create a song that was simple yet melodically interesting to get her range. It was so much fun to write for another voice and from the point of view of a female. When the recording came back I listened to it over and over amazed that it even existed.
Now the subject of the song itself is still a mystery as I didn’t plan it. It came out of the 7 months I spent in Oxford last year. Oxford in the autumn is so unbelievably beautiful down by the river that you constantly feel you”re underdressed for the occasion. The afternoon light hangs low for hours and filters through the mist and everything feels trapped in a painting; strolling lovers, ducks avoiding the college rowing elevens, punting tourists and the 800 year old university spires poking above the tree line. After dark you can go to an old ale house to hang back in the corner and listen to the students philosophizing and flirting with each other. You can see a girl being subjected to both, cornered by a dashing young wordsworth in a vest. She doesn’t know whether to punch him or kiss him.
FINGERTIPS AND MOUNTAINTOPS
Someone said that songwriters have one song and keep writing it over and over. I’m not sure if that’s true (and lucky for people who hate squash…the game and the song) but this is an example of a common theme of mine. I seem to get inspiration by visualizing myself as a crusader for friends in trouble. I see myself as a cross between the Dalai Lama and the Phantom. It always nice idea to write for a audience of just one. Hopefully it’ll cheer them up and still be a good song others will like.
Since I became a full time musician it’s been somewhat of a necessity to not have a house for certain periods of time. So therefore to survive you must rely on the kindness of friends. this song was written during a time I was house sitting in Melbourne and was having nightmares about leaving it and heading back out into the unknown. As I can see it this song came about for three reasons;
1. As a thank you to those friends who over the years had graciously allowed me to outstay my welcome
2. An addiction to reading Ben Lees blog where I stumbled upon a section where he”d decided to become a citizen of the world and not have a house
3. I thought it would be funny to have a surf-guitar song about couch surfing.
DON’T BOGART MY HEART
I first heard the term to ‘Bogart’ something while watching 90’s teen smash Reality Bites and then on a song from the Easy Rider soundtrack “Don’t Bogart that Joint”. Here’s a definition from answerbag.com:
Ah, how soon we forget the intricacies of 60s drug culture. The selfish connotation comes from hogging a marijuana cigarette. Someone who kept the joint in their mouth, hanging from their lip like Bogey, would be bogarting the joint. Instead of bogarting, one should pass it on to another. The term can be used for hoarding items other than pot.
When I realised Bogart rhymed with Heart I couldn’t help myself.
Love that whispers not screams
Love that doesn’t need to tell the world
Love that doesn’t even need the word ‘Love’
Love that watches the other while they sleep
Love that lives in short stories not novels
Love that still wonders even though they saw the other that morning and will see them again in the afternoon
Grant McLennon Tribute
This weekend I’ve been invited to play at the Grant McLennon tribute night as part of the Valley Fiesta in Brisbane. I’m honored to have been asked in the first place, being a huge fan and still in a state of disbelief when I listen to his songs and think that he’s in the sky now. His songs gave me a sense of place growing up in rural Queensland, being sung by another Queenslander. Although it’s set in another town Cattle and Cane will always remind me of childhood, wide verandas and humidity. A re-listen to Streets of Your Town and it’s a school kids visit to Brisbane, the big smoke. I see old men in shorts and long socks drinking longnecks on the front steps.
So yeah, I didn’t know Grant McLennon but I count my blessings that I got to meet him a few weeks before his death. I just wanted to tell you about it. In hindsight it seems like fate.
I’d just landed in Sydney.
By the time the cab had sped off I realised he’d dropped me 4 city blocks from my destination and charged me extra for his troubles. I cursed him and tried to balance all my worldly belongings on parts of my body to make the trek across town. It had been a fairly average week and I’d got back to Sydney early to move into a new house only to find that the real estate had put us back by 3 days so I was homeless. Had offers of a few couches but needed privacy to get some work done so I booked into a cheap hotel near Hyde Park.
I sweated my way up Goulburn St carrying 2 backpacks, a guitar, amp, and 3 bags of vinyl records. Every few 100ms I’d have to drop everything and just kick a bin or something. When I got level with the Civic Hotel I was ready to collapse and decided to go in and ask if I could leave half of my load there and come back later to retrieve it. They kindly agreed and when I came back I noticed someone waving at me from the bar. It was an old friend from Brisbane, Adele who had been playing bass for the Go-Betweens for the last few years. She asked if I wanted to join her and her company for a drink. I sure needed one and was happy to find that her friend was Grant McLennan. My day was brightened considerably although I was embarrassed to know they”d both watched me from their table struggle along with my gear like an ‘angry turtle’.
The Go-Betweens were in town for an awards ceremony and they were in good spirits. After a while Adele left to get ready and I convinced Grant to hang round for a few more beers. It’s always a bit of a worry meeting your heroes but I was pleasantly surprised by our conversation that afternoon.
Of course our common ground was music and I was surprised to learn he was a voracious music listener. He seemed honestly excited by a lot of new things that were happening. He mentioned Holly Throsby, New Buffalo, the Shins, Calexico and I must have blushed when he told me he had my records too.
Here was a guy who’d spent his whole life in the music industry and seemed to be completely free of bitterness. I didn’t think it possible.
We talked about songwriting and he said he was just going through a purple patch. He had enough songs for nearly 2 new records and he felt he was in a good place creatively. I on the other hand was stuck on a song and was staring down the deadline of recording dates for a new album so we compared our different processes for getting things done.
When it swung back to the awards he was attending later I expressed my confusion over the genre labelling we have in this country (and maybe everywhere else). I told him I thought it great the Go-Betweens finally got an Aria last year but why did it have to be in the ‘Adult Contemporary’ section (along with his friends Architecture in Helsinki) when the ‘Independent Artists’ category sounds more easy listening MOR than anything to my ears.
Grant agreed but replied graciously with “I don’t think I’m adult contemporary, but I do think I’m a contemporary adult, Darren”
Soon enough after we’d exhausted the topics of Queensland and our favourite actresses he had to go get ready too. We hugged and he said, now go write a good song Darren
And hopefully I did
interview from American Squash Magazine
Darren Hanlon, an Australian singer-songwriter, came to our attention early this spring. His work wasn’t something that we heard on our radio (yet!) but rather got wind of through a friend who saw this Aussie perform live. At that gig he played a nice little ditty about our favorite sport. The song, (There’s Not Enough Songs About) Squash is, you guessed it, about the sport with the four walls and a ball. And here, we spend a few minutes getting to know the man behind the guitar and racquet.
1. Let’s get to this right away: do you actually play squash?
Darren Hanlon: Yes, I try to play at least twice a week with my old flatmate.
2. For how long have you played, how did you get introduced to the game, and how good are you?
DH: Well, I discovered the game through my ex-girlfriend who is a nurse. When we moved to Sydney I lived with her for a month in the nurses quarters in Camperdown, Sydney. They had an old squash court there for the nurses to use. We played a few times and I loved it. Being a big fan of pinball machines it seemed to me the closest thing to human pinball there is.
After we broke up I moved to a sharehouse where there lived a sporty guy who played, so we kept going over to the old court and pretended to be nurses so we could play. It had now become a bit derelict, a ghost court, with bits of the wall falling away. It seemed to be always unlocked so you could go there anytime and turn the lights on and play.
I’ve now been playing for five years and gotten marginally better to become an average player. I’m still playing with that old flatmate (Curtis) and I have had to develop strategies to beat him as he’s a superior player to me. I have more stamina. I let him win a few rounds then I drive it home when he’s exhausted. Just lately I executed my first hit off the back wall to win a point!
3. Why did you write the song about squash?
DH: Once or twice I’d take my guitar down to the court to play while I was waiting for my turn. The acoustics in there are great to play in, almost like a church. Once I was just mucking around and sang that line there’s not enough songs about squash and then later thought I could actually get a whole song of it. I forgot about it until a friend’s band (the Secrets) asked me to write a song for them so I resurrected the idea, finished the song and gave it to them. After that I decided to sneak it into my set for a couple of shows, and people started requesting it all the time so I decided to record it on the last album, Little Chills.
4. Some could construe the song (There’s Not Enough Songs About) Squash as sarcastic, or as an ode. Tell us, which is it?
DH: It’s definitely an ode.
5. Are you a big fan of the game of squash to watch, or are you just a player? I.e., do you follow all the pro tour matches? Do you have a favorite professional player?
DH: I must admit that I know nothing of the professional game. My love is purely recreational. But I’d really like to learn. Maybe I should be reading your magazine!
6. How did you become a professional musician?
DH: Every step of the way it seems that things have happened by accident. After high school I’d planned to go to college to study maths. Next thing I knew I’d been accepted into Music University to study jazz, something of which I’d not planned on. I went there for three years and met a lot of the people I still work with now. I joined a band called the Simpletons who I loved at the time, and the only reason that happened was because they were borrowing my guitar leads and happened to need someone to fill in. I ended up touring and recording with them for seven years and we did some great things while still maintaining our independence in the music industry. When we split up I drifted round for a year or so. I refer to this time as my wilderness years. I thought I’d record some of the songs I was writing just for fun. I went to America to travel, and my friends started emailing me saying they were hearing my songs on the radio. I was saying are you sure? One song in particular, Falling Aeroplanes, was the one that seemed to cut through. Suddenly I had a pseudo-career. We recently released our new album Little Chills and are currently touring to promote that one.
7. Does your music pay the bills (i.e., is it your fulltime job) or do you do something else on the side? If the latter, what is your day job?
DH: It is a full time job but sometimes when I’m not touring there’s an antique shop one block from my house that lets me do the odd shift. It’s very grounding to work 9 to 5 after months of chaos. And it has heaps of old books and records to keep me entertained all day.
8. You’ve toured the US fairly recently with the Magnetic Fields. Do you have plans to come back to the States anytime soon?
DH: I’m planning to do a short tour there in august 2006.
9. When you write your songs, do you think about the lyrics first and then form music around them, or do you come up with riffs and music first and then pen some fitting words?
DH: I carry a notebook around to write lyric ideas, and when it gets full I have to force myself to finish it. Most times I have to go away to a country town to distance myself from all the distractions in my life: pinball, crosswords, friends, the telephone, the Internet, movies and even squash. I need to be thinking about the songs every waking minute to get the feelings to finish them. Sometimes it can be quite painful. I’m not the most fun person to be around when that process is happening. I become a vague freak.
Last November I traveled to Estonia as part of a Baltic tour, which included Finland and Sweden. I didn’t know what to expect but had a faint yearning to visit after seeing them win Eurovision in 2002 (every Estonian I met and mentioned this to screwed up their nose, not wanting to be known for such a spectacle. I assured them that we see the irony in the whole thing too) I was also looking forward to it as I’d be traveling with old friends Mark Manone and Stanley Paulzen. Mark who is usually the bass player in the Lucksmiths has been writing quite a few new songs lately and performing them under the working title of ‘Manone Alone’. Stanley performing as one man band Fred Astereo. Together with Nichlas our friend and Finnish tour manager, and Ben my flatmate and appointed merchandise salesman we had our own street gang.
Our contact Tauno met us at the ferry terminal and instructed us to follow him for 15mins. His accent sounded like he had said ‘please follow me for 15 miles’ but we soon cleared up the misunderstanding and over the next few days realised that to get anywhere in Estonia we had to follow Tauno for 15 mins. We walked across a frosty field past the city wall and up into the old town, tiled with shop fronts selling tourist trinkets and cheap soviet souvenirs.
At exactly 15mins Tauno stopped at a large wooden door. He swiped his card in a futuristic device and the door opened to narrow wooden staircase that lead up into a private cozy restaurant where we weren’t permitted to take photos, as instructed by a curt waitress who frowned as she took our lunch orders. This was the first of many confrontations while ordering food and we soon came to the conclusion that everyone in the hospitality and service industry in Estonia hated us.
You start to build and identikit image of people you’ve never met and been in email contact with. Tauno looked nothing like I expected. Lawyer by day, Smartly dressed and taciturn but humorously dry, he seemed to study us quietly through his glasses probably thinking we were nothing like he expected either. I hoped he liked us, especially as we were being particularly noisy and offensive, exited to be all together again in a strange country. Every now and then it looked as though Tauno would shudder silently and lower his head. At first I thought this was out of disgust until I realised he was actually laughing.
After an amazing meal of Baltic salmon we followed Tauno for 15mins to pick up the guitars we would borrow and then another 15 to his apartment. There we met another man who kept smiling at us.
My name is Armin, He said, I am your driver
He kept smiling the whole 2-hour drive to the University town of Tartu, and our first gig.
The major highway was only two lanes wide. It was eerie and every now and then you’d see a tiny floating reflector disc and as you passed it you’d realize it was attached, hanging by string, to some lone person waiting for a bus or a lift or something else. Miles from a town, alone in the middle of icy nowhere.
I asked our Armin about it and he told me that it was so cars could see them in the dark.
You know, Estonia is one place that has the most car accidents in all Europe
They call this the killing road
Our eyes looked straight ahead and were unblinking in the glow of the oncoming traffic.
Some time into the journey we realized that the smell of the chemical in the windscreen washer fluid in Armans car was like olfactory candy and even when there wasn’t sleet we made him turn on the wipers to get a hit. I was definitely an addict by the end of that trip.
We asked if we could have a break at one of the wooden truck stops that interrupted the long stretches of nothing. Mark and I ran into the gift shop to get warm and a bell summoned a stone-faced lady with heavy bagged eyes. We tried to explain that we didn’t want to buy anything. She stared at us expressionless without saying anything. We felt uncomfortable and left with another bell twinkle. She hated us more than anyone she’d met.
The venue in Tartu was a loft cafe/bar/nightclub in an old building in the centre of town. It was a student hangout and everyone looked sharp and pretty. The first act was a local Estonian folk singer called Kago who sang every few songs acapella, accenting the notes with his fingers like they were long pieces of cheese from a pizza.
Later, when the place had completely filled to overflowing I started to worry that my little acoustic guitar and banjo wouldn’t cut through enough to reach the whole crowd. When Mark Manone started playing his set with Stanley on drums and the dance floor came alive I almost had an anxiety attack. Then Stanley as Fred Astereo kicked ass. My set will die a rapid death. These people don’t want to hear sensitive ballads. It’s Friday night for crying out loud. These kids wanna rock! I begged Stanley to play drums for me too, which would mean he plays in all 3 acts, approximately 3.5 hours straight. He agreed though and we rocked as much as possible given our resources. Mark ended up joining in too on second guitar. By the time we’d finished the set the crowd weren’t ready to leave so my days in one of Gympies lesser know cover bands (Electric Energy) came flooding back to me and before any of us knew it we were playing Buddy Hollys ‘Oh Boy’, the Smiths ‘Ask’ and various other classic gems. It all came to a crashing end when some guy from the audience hurtled across the stage violently knocking my microphone and launching it like a space shuttle. It actually disappeared and we couldn’t find it to play anymore if we’d wanted, seriously.
Sometime during our set the first snows had gently arrived outside and we ran out to greet it like kids. Stanley had never seen snow so he went the craziest. We smashed each other with snowballs for about an hour until Mark Hit Stanley at point balnk range and he nearly started crying.
Our hosts, who we’d just been introduced to, finally dragged us away to the waiting taxi van to take us to their parents apartment where we’d spend the night. Our snowball-lust unsated, the fight continued until our disgust at Stanley for throwing one right into the taxi as someone was paying the driver (This guilt was heightened when our taxi came for us the next day, 9hrs later, with the same driver. He hated us all).
The drive back to Tallinn was this time tinged with fear as a blizzard had hit. We had to drive slow and passed solemn traffic accidents. The lonely floating reflectors now struggling to be seen through sheets of white.
The Tallinn gig was also much the same as the night before. The crowd enthusiastic and jumping madly to the music. Manone played an awesome set and is really starting to become more confident at singing. Fred Astereo was as always entertaining. Although our hosts advised that if he were to ever come back he should bring a band. “You cannot just press play”, they told him. But from where i’m standing it looks like the Estonians want to adopt him. He would be perfect for Eurovision next year.
People had heard we’d done those cover songs last night so we did it again and even managed to bluff our way through ACDC standard ‘Shook Me All Night Long’. I guess it was our duty as Australians.
It was sad to leave. Stanley and Armin had become like a comedy duo, of which most of the material centered around the fact that the Estonian word for ‘fork’ sounded like ‘cockface’.
When Armin laughed it was out loud and he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe he was laughing at Stanley. Seeing Armin and Tauno laugh together was like some weird dance; all shaking shoulders and heads.
I really hope that Tauno, Armin and all the great people we met know how we appreciated visiting their country and grateful for the hospitality we were shown. Everyone we met through the shows were so warm and friendly and made us feel so welcome. We can”t wait for our return to see our Estonian friends again.
At the ferry terminal Stanley asked at the ticket counter if we could have a room with a spa.
The girl looked back at all of us with venom and pointed us toward the departure ramp without speaking.
I’ve talked a bit about this trip I took to Manilla, a small regional town not far from Tamworth. Those 4 glorious days spent in a Fiberglas bubble caravan from the 50s, and an alarm clock of flocks of squawking corellas at daybreak.
I went there for the solitude but so much happened that I didn’t plan on, as it always does. But that’s for another time
I planned to leave for home on Anzac day and had got up for the dawn service on the main street with the nice lady who owned the caravan park and her dad, who’s stomach kept growling through the ceremony so loud that people were giggling. This year would be the first that the hymns would not be played by a local lady on the church organ and instead on a 60 min cassette which wasn’t properly rewound. A former mayor of the town who I’d met a few days earlier invited me to the RSL where everyone was going for sausages but I decided that even if I wasn’t a vegetarian, 5am was too early for any kind of fried meat so I declined and went back to the caravan and packed and waited to hear the birds one last time.
I reclined across 2 seats on the way back to Sydney as the train slowed through dusty towns holding their own Anzac parades off in the distance. A young guy got on and indicated that I was in his spot at Werris Creek where we had a layover for half an hour so I ran over to the nearest pub to try and get in on a two-up game, lost $10 then ran back. Well into the journey boredom overcame my resentment at having lost precious space and we got talking. It turns out this guy had just left NIDA as a qualified actor. We talked about films for ages and then I said that I have some ideas for movies and I’d love to make them one day. He said he did too and then it turns out that we were thinking of making the same movie! A bushranger movie. It probably doesn’t seem too coincidental but we were thinking of the same bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt. What are the chances? We both agreed that he is coolest bushranger, even though Mad Dog Morgan was okay too; he used to shoot people and then feel bad and apologize and offer to take them to hospital.
I told him I’d been formulating a plan since I was a child and my grandfather told me stories about him and that somehow our family is related to a member of Thunderbolts gang. My new friend said his Dad had told him stories too. We vowed one day to meet up and finish writing it together.
What had been spurring me on lately with the idea was how much I felt ripped off after seeing the film Ned Kelly, Australia’s most famous bushranger. I was so excited when it was released I even dressed up; I had a cardboard replica colt revolver and made a paper shopping bag helmet that I wore to the cinema for the premier. This wouldn’t have been so embarrassing if the film had been good. But of course it was terrible and historically inaccurate and I looked like a fool when the credits rolled and the lights came on.
So last week I went to see the Nick Cave written bushranger film ‘the Proposition’ and couldn’t believe how good it was. So many great actors. A few stylistic nods to Sergio Leone. The music too was spot on. It was so good I don’t think I could write anything as good as that and now don’t even feel the need to try.
So now I guess I have to focus on my film about contestants in the Big Brother house who are the only people to survive a nuclear war. I’m giving away ideas.
I Wish Tour
I knew I probably should have pre-organised a meeting spot for Nick Luca on being swamped in the overcrowded departure lounge at Kingsford Smith. I’d failed to learn from my mistake last tour where we missed each other at the terminal and on his first visit to Australia he had to find his own way to my house at dawn and wake my flatmates with our alarm volume doorbell that holds an ipod worth of nursery rhyme tunes. But the seas parted and there he was, wheeling a tiny suitcase (he taught me the ancient art of rolling clothes to fit into a smaller space) and huge keyboard, and it was like he hadn’t left. I’m glad that he’d enjoyed the last tour enough to want to leave his native Tucson to come back to Australia. And after only two rehearsals in drummer Bree Van Reyks industrial practice room we found ourselves back in a hire van with only a wonky tape deck to keep us company for the next 5 weeks.
We were heading to Canberra and I was anxious at starting it all in such an intimate room as Tilleys, where it”s easy to see any of the early cracks that get covered over as the tour progresses. As usual in the beginnings I paced the carpark outside asking the stars if it’s really true, am I a singer and am I about to stand in front of an audience and sing? But when on stage and during the first song a pair of y-fronts landed at my feet all stage fright disappeared. Who could be nervous after that? I think the fact they”d been thrown by a man with a beard helped too.
As usual we’d chosen to take a gamble and play some out of the way towns we’d never visited scattered between the cities. Sometimes this can backfire severely.
-like the time I booked myself into a bar in Mackay, north QLD. It turned out that I was supporting a karaoke machine and it was rugby union night, when both teams come in for a post match session. ‘Falling Aeroplanes’ had just started getting a spin on JJJ and a mother had brought her children to see me. The rest of the crowd were walking no-necked nuggets whose tolerance for original sensitive pop music was zero. When the fullback came up mid song and breathed into my face, “if you don’t stop playing now the guys are gonna kill you”. I was open to his advice. I could have easily played covers to keep them happy but I kept thinking about the family who’d come to come to see me, I couldn’t let them down. Only one thing could save me. I nervously announced that for the rest of the set I’d be performing selections from the Cold Chisel back catalogue and a cheer went up. From then on they didn’t seem to notice that I was still playing all my own songs and the family went home happy. Phew, close call.
So luckily this time heading into the unknown paid off.
The community hall in Wauchope was like performing in a big cosy lounge room. The Exchange hotel Townsville was raucous mayhem with a blown fuse grand finale. And the walkabout hotel in Nhulunbuy on the Gove peninsula was the icing on the cake.
This one we’d booked knowing it was one of two hotels in town but without knowing the main attraction was it’s topless bar, and in a town full of bauxite miners this could prove disastrous. Luckily we were playing in the beer garden as the sun went down and the people up there were so nice to us, if only a little confused at why we were there in the first place. That was the last date of the tour and Nick Luca had left Bree and I in Darwin the day before to go back home and tour the States with Lucinda Williams, so it was just the two of us. It was a nice and surreal way to finish 5 weeks of chaos though: swimming in the clear surf while an appointed local monitored the beach for crocodiles, drinking vodka at a local touch football match, visiting the outlying Aboriginal communities, and just generally hanging out with Sharna and her posse of Christina, Nutrition Man and Ocean Boy.
Other highlights of the tour include:
– Climbing Hanging Rock with our Swedish support act Jens Lekmans bass player and hurry-up-erer, Terese, then making her sit through the movie about a famous picnic there when we got back to Sydney.
– Op shopping rivalry with Bree, who would even try to sneak out of the hotel rooms without waking us to grab the bargains first. My score of the tour would have to be a slightly faded navy ‘blue-light disco’ pullover made by the good people at GOTCHA, purchased in St Vincents, Tenterfield.
– Even though it wasn’t at the time, the whole touring party single filing across the railway bridge in Albury, bleary eyed as the sun came up to find the house of a fan we”d met the night before who swore black and blue he”d be awake to make us banana smoothies for our drive to Melbourne. A part of me always knew he wouldn’t.
– Even though it wasn’t at the time for some members of our touring party, the day we spent driving through rainforest in north Queensland searching for a cassowary, the large prehistoric chicken that our American travel buddies refused to believe existed. Nick Luca, who’s humour blueprint states that “if it didn’t work the first time, it should work in the next 57”, had decided the night before that everything we said from then on had to be in Dr Suess rhyme and spoken with playschool inflection eg, “A second wind? I’m on my third, we’ll never find this stupid bird.”
Nat our super hero tour manager finally snapped, “I really don’t want to have to spoil it, Let’s cut this crap. I need a toilet.” Writing all this it sounds like we’re the bloody famous five or something.
So that’s it, end of tour, end of story. Thanks to anyone who came to see the show. It wouldn’t have been the same without Jens Lekman and Terese, Nick Dalton, Holly Throsby, Sodastream, Grandview, the Zebras, the Eyes who all entertained with us. Also Crouchy, Danielle and Corbo who coordinated and merched it up. Natalie who filmed and tour managed and lastly Sandy Guillen who also came over from Tucson to help out and keep us all company.
Hello Stranger Album Recording Notes
It began when my flatmate at the time was playing a CD he’d bought that day in our lounge room while I was steaming a yam. The sound and atmosphere of the recording caught my ear so I remarked something like, “that sounds knarley dude, what is it?” He explained the band was called ‘Sun’ and the guy singing (Chris Townend) recorded it himself and ran his own studio right here in Sydney called ‘Bigjesusburger’.
So I called him the next day and within a month I was recording there myself. Chris is a very enthusiastic chap with lots of interesting ideas and theories on sound recording and lots of other topics relating to general life. The studio itself took up a whole floor of a building in Surry Hills. Chris actually lives there and shares it with his son Gabe and his pet dog Bear. Gabe is 11 and kind of looks like Harry Potter sans glasses and thinks kids should be allowed to stay up to whatever time their age is, and is therefore upset his bedtime is 9pm. He also told me the other day that grilled tomato on toast will be the food served in heaven and Asian food generally will be the only thing available in hell. Bear, on the other hand loves the leftovers from Prasits Thai takeaway on Bourke St and never failed to clean up our plates. Apart from Pad Pumpkin Bear loves to bark out the window at the mounted police passing by. Even approximating a clip-clopping horse hoof noise with your mouth makes him go crazy.
So being one of the homeless artists on Candle Records it was lucky for me that Chris let me join his family and sleep in a large warehouse type room in the south wing of the building.
It was so big and echoey in fact that if you sneezed in your sleep you’d wake yourself up 1 minute later. I”m still not sure which room Chris slept in but every morning he’d appear in the doorway and say, “Come on mate, lets go get some Muesli.”
So enough about food. The studio itself was fantastic with heaps of cool and weird instruments especially the amazing pump organ. The desk is a valve one from the 70s called a ‘quad 8’ and was apparently used for recording heaps of soundtracks of Australian films such as ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’. Many great musicians played on the record. For a start there was 3 different drummers; Bree Van Reyk from ‘The Rebel Astronauts’ played a couple (and also Vibraphone), Oren Ambarchi, ‘Sun’ drummer and experimental musician, did some one take wonders on a few and of course El Mopas Richard ‘Bon’ King makes a special appearance. El Mopa also donated Geoff Towner for most of the bass playing while Sun lent out Claire Cooper and her angelic classical harp skills and Nick Summers on pedal steel. Samatha Fonti who you may know as ‘Vicious Hairy Marys’ violinist played strings on 2 tracks while young child prodigy Jeremy Challender played piano on one. Special mention must be given to J. Walker who braved the Wollongong night train to play piano on the Kickstand song, as it seems his name has been somehow edited from the final draft of the albums art work. Sorry mate.
The Candle budget did not include a return ticket for Frida Eklund, one of two vocalists in Swedish sleepy-pop band ‘Alma’, so during my Scandinavian tour last December she recorded the vocals for ‘Cast Of Thousands’ in her friends closet in Stockholm while a little tipsy on whiskey. She drinks it so that one day she may have a voice like Janis Joplin. Sea Life Parks Lee Hillam sang the other backing vocal bits.
So all in all I had heaps of fun recording this album, especially putting down some songs that have been around for some time now. More soon….
Darrens Hiccups Recording Notes
On a recent tour of the US, drummer Bree Van Reyk and myself took a detour from our path on the greyhound bus to visit the fairytale town of pop music, Athens, Georgia. We completed three songs in three days in a fibro house by the railway tracks just on the outskirts of town by engineer Chris Bishop. Mr. Bishop couldn’t work out how to fix a hot water system but could sure get some lovely sounds. All the cold showers and microwaved cups of tea strangely added to the overall effect and organic feel of the finished product.
The upbeat circus-pop of ‘And the days were just packed’ recalls adolescent years spent trapped in small towns.
The vaudevillian ballad ‘Eli Wallach’ centres around my obsession with an 87-year-old actor of yesteryear and his most famous role as ‘the Ugly’ in the spaghetti western classic ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. It features the piano playing of local Athenian and former keyboard player of those elephant 6 heroes ‘the Olivia Tremor Control’, Peter Erchick. After a year of stalking the man, I also managed to interview my hero while on the American tour and a transcript of which appears in the liner notes of the CD.
‘Lights’ finishes off the recording with the end of a relationship suffocated with a pillow of 1940’s Hammond organ, bells and drum machine. It may leave you melancholic but hopefully also optimistic that there’s better days ahead.
Little Chills Recording Notes. Tuscon, Arizona
So when I woke up it was 10 degrees hotter and we were surrounded by desert. The friends I’d stayed with in Los Angeles said their most vivid memory of Tucson, Arizona is driving towards it and seeing a bus pulled off to the side of the road on fire. This heat is hard on vehicles. I got to ponder this, and the reasons for me coming here to record an album, after the greyhound I was traveling on broke down under the midday sun just outside a town called ‘Quatersize’. Why am I here? Wouldn’t this have been easier in Sydney? Should I stand with all the other male passengers peering under the tail of the bus to offer my opinion of what went wrong?
I’d heard Calexico records and liked the sound. I’d heard Giant Sand records and loved the sound. Other things had appealed too; Norfolk and Western, Neko Case, Evan Dando.
I got into town 4 hours later than expected (1:30am) so I chose a hotel off a sign on the wall of the greyhound station. It sounded simple and unpretentious enough: Tucson Inn. It turned out to be in the middle of nowhere and the humongous old Vegas style neon sign worked well enough to say ‘T CS N IN’
When I got there a tall thin Chinese man wearing cowboy boots, Levis, Stetson and belt buckle to stop a cannon ball greeted me. He was boiling noodles on a camping cooker in the office and he left them to show me to my room. In the morning the mans wife told me that once upon a time it was the best hotel around before they changed the highway that ran past, and I was actually staying in the “John Waylon suite”.
After further probing I confirmed that indeed I was staying in John Wayne’s room of choice when making the westerns in Tucson in the 50s. The room hadn’t changed since then.
The moment I stepped into Wavelab and met Craig Schumacher, the engineer and owner any anxiety I may have had melted away. He was happy that we were the first Australians to work there and I told him right away that Fosters is ‘Australian for Hoax’. The place resembled a music shop rather than a recording studio. It had a good feeling. About 20 vintage guitars decorated the walls and keyboards and organs were stacked on each other 3 and 4 high. Amps, drums, drum machines, vibraphones, megaphones& If the studio didn’t have a particular instrument that you were looking for you could borrow one from the cavernous Chicago Store (as featured in Martin Scorseses ‘Alice doesn’t live here any more’) so daunting you would leave a trail of breed crumbs to find your way out again if it wasn’t for the large green parrot that lives in the rafters and whispers “hi there” from the darkness when you’re up there looking through boxes of old guitar valves.
A few days later Bree Van Reyk arrived on another Steel Horse (as named by Bon Jovi) fresh from her journey from Sydney and the next morning we began our work. So over the following weeks we ate Burritos and Tamales, developed flip-flop tans, held daily Ms Pac-man tournaments and tried to learn the scientific names of various cactus species. I’d moved over from the Dukes favorite nest to the historic ‘Hotel Congress’ where apparently outlaw Dillenger had been captured after a fire in 1934. Being a lazy bastard he asked the firemen that rescued him to go back and carry out the bags that contained all his weapons. They soon realised it was very heavy for hand luggage and…
We even found time to visit historic Tombstone where the only shooting that goes on these days is from the cameras of tourist armies that keep the village economy afloat. We skipped the watering holes of famous legends Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp and settled for a bar previously owned by a lesser-known and unfortunately nicknamed personality of the Wild West, ‘Big-nosed Kate’. While scouring the nostalgic-photoed walls for an incriminating profile shot of Kate we were accosted by a bored and drunk toothless local who made us dress up in period costume so we could take our own souvenir snaps. These included Bree wearing a feather boa lying on an upright piano, me standing with a shotgun, me in jail, me being hung with a noose, me dead in a coffin and because I answered “yes” when he asked if I liked a joke, me wearing a kitchen apron with a giant hand-sown penis attached to the front. With our film supplies exhausted we got the hell out of there and then went on to…
…Oh yeah, the recording. Well, it seemed to go completely smooth, no studio tantrums to speak of. It was great to work with Bree as always, as I can trust her with all things melodic as well as the drumming. Most of what you hear on the recording happened on, if not the first take, one soon after.
‘Wrong Turn’ and ‘Record Store’ bookend the album, both songs about special havens you find in a city that help define your place and identity. The recording of ‘Record Store’ most reflects the environment of Wavelab studios. A simple folk tale regaling a tiny hole-in-the-wall store where days can be wasted is whispered over a windswept desert plain.
The setting of ‘Unmade Bed’ is an overcrowded obnoxious party, trapped inside a conversation. ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ is a about the difficulties of a transcontinental relationship. There are so many songs written about New York, but this one is through the eyes of an Australian living there by circumstance.
It was great to play with the few guests we had. Nick Luca, who is known for his work with Calexico, Giant Sand and Nick Luca Trio played some piano and hung around and made us laugh with his Australian impressions that were all executed with a Simpsons-esque cockney accent. Doug McCombs from Tortoise and Brokeback commented he’d never played so many chord changes in the space of 3 minutes.
And even Craig made a mark with his signature bass-harmonica puffing. It was inspiring to work with him and his engineering skills are second only to his knowledge of secret fish taco cafes and political conspiracy. He was very happy with the George W. Bush doll we bought him for his birthday that when activated exclaimed, “We must ask ourselves, is our children being educated?” So when it was all over we were very sad to leave.
I’d also like to make special mention of Anthony The who engineered ‘A To Z’ and ‘I Wish That I Was Beautiful For You’ at Velvet Studios in Sydney before we left and managed to fit in the last minute sessions although the studio being booked almost solid by the ‘Popstars’.
The Inspiration For 'The Perfect Day'
I’d met Jenny Cruse through a mutual friend in Brighton in 2000. One night at a local watering hole dubiously titled ‘The Pull and Pump’ while drinking Dr Pepper cocktails, her boyfriend Simon persuaded her to ask me a question that had been playing on her mind. She timidly explained that she’d once been involved in a band in the 80s called Fischer-Z. She’d been told that their song ‘The Perfect Day’ had been a hit in Australia, and me being the only Australian she’d met was the only one to confirm the rumour.
“I know that one” I beamed and commenced to break into the first verse of the song by ‘Little Heros’ of the same name, “One perfect day, we’ll go out walking” She looked crestfallen, and demurred that it wasn’t the one. I turned red and plopped another shot of Amareto into my half beer and Coke.
Towards the end of the night we all convinced her to sing the actual song and I realised I did truly remember it. I even recalled the video clip, which had 2 girls running between houses with a suitcase (I later found out that one of them was Jenny herself).
The whole experience made me realise what a great song it was. I learnt the chorus and lyrics and the next shows I played in Brighton. Jenny got up to sing it with me and afterwards we ended up at their flat and Simon recorded it on a cassette 8-track. I’d long forgotten about the tape until I was moving house recently and playing it brought back that whole experience of my visits to Brighton and my friends there. I thought it might be worth sharing with others.