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.