|MILESAGO - Features|
The Dingoes' Lament
John Bois was the bass player in Country Radio (1972-73) and The Dingoes. He joined The Dingoes in July 1973, a couple of months after they formed, and stayed with them until the group split up in the USA in 1979. He has lived and worked in the United States ever since.
Some years ago John decided to set down in writing his personal recollections of his time with The Dingoes, and the result was "The Dingoes' Lament". The title derives from the song of the same name, which was the closing track on The Dingoes' 1973 debut album. John has been sitting on the manuscript for some time but thanks to a kind suggestion from his old mate Greg Quill, John sent me a copy. Suffice to say I was knocked out when I read it.
I can't attest to the accuracy of John's memory, but I can tell you that The Dingoes' Lament is much more than your average rock memoir. It's a fascinating and superbly written first-hand account of life with one of Australia's most important and influential groups -- it's vivid, funny, sad, revealing, embarrassing, witty, articulate and bawdy, with some great characterisations -- especially that of guitarist Chris Stockley. In fact I reckon that it's up there with Billy Thorpe's first book as one of the best Australian rock memoirs ever written.
The Dingoes' Lament has yet to find a publisher, but John has very generously allowed us to feature an extract here on MILESAGO. We hope that by featuring it here on the site it will bring this excellent work to wider attention. We've chosen the first two chapters and I'm sure that, like me, you will finish this extract wanting to read more. If you like what you've read, email us and let us know.
And, of course, if you want to publish it, get in touch with us and we'll be happy to put you in contact with John.
Now read on ...
Barefoot, hungover, and vacant, I sat on Sandy Beach and looked out across the Indian Ocean toward Africa. Sea gulls patrolled the slate-grey troughs of the trade-wind swell just before it spent itself on the coast of Western Australia. A squall was whipping up whitecaps and driving a powerful onshore breeze right in my face. It was laced with sand.
I put my head between my knees and strained the sand with my fingers and toes. I had just had a breakfast of milk, tea, and tomato juice. I was administering to my hangover. You see, last night we agreed that this was to be our last tour, and that when we got back to Melbourne, The Dingoes, my band, would be no more. And so we spent the night drinking in a post mortem sort of a way.
Back in Melbourne I didn't drink so much. I had things to do there. But what was I going to do after Perth? The Dingoes had a good shot, but we had gone as far as we were going. I thought for an instant what it would take hours to tell: I was glad we were finished -- I was ready for something new.
Kerryn, our main songwriter, called me from our beach-front hotel. He was shouldering the glass door to hold it open against the wild westerly. He was beckoning me to come over.
Buffeted by the almost-cold wind, I picked up my shoes and scuffed across the street and into the protective stillness of the hotel lobby. Kerryn held a piece of note paper; Stockley, Brod, and J.L. looked on expectantly.
I walked over to them. "What's up?"
"How do you like this for a message?" Kerryn said as he handed me the note with the Sandy Beach Hotel letterhead. I read it aloud: "Ring Paul McCartney at the Rolling Stones' office."
"What do you say to that?"
"Poor sort of joke," I said.
"Yeah," said Brod. "That's what we thought. But the receptionist swore it was America calling."
I heard the muted percussion of the wind against the plate glass of the motel front.
"But we can't ring 'til six tonight," said Kerryn. "It seems it's still yesterday in America."
We looked stupidly at each other until Stockley shrugged and said: "Well, there's nothing else for it. Who wants a beer and who's a poofter?"
And we walked briskly to the bar of the Sandy Beach Hotel.
The bar, which had just opened, consisted of three areas: a small, dingy lounge, where a cranky old bartender was elbow deep in dishwater; a beer garden; and off to one side of the bar, a pool table on a parquet floor. The bartender was too intent on his work to notice us.
Stockley tried to get his attention: "Excuse me. Could we have five pots, please."
Without acknowledging him, the bartender wiped his sudsy hands on his apron and poured our beers.
As we sipped we quickly exhausted all the possibilities of the phone call. It was a hoax. It wasn't a hoax. It could be either Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones. Or, it could be Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones teamed up especially for a joint project...The Dingoes.
"They're all impissabolities," slurred Stockley staring into his glass and impersonating his favorite Melbourne drunk, Maury.
"Anyone for pool," I asked.
"Rack 'em up, John," said Stockley as he put money into the table.
The balls dropped with a resounding thud. I searched for the triangular pool rack.
"Where's the thing?"
"Here it is," offered Brod as he came over to watch.
As soon as I finished racking up the balls, Stockley propelled the white ball into the pack with shattering force. Only two balls broke free.
"Christ, what's a bloke gotta do?"
"It's all finesse in this game, mate," I said. "That's why you're pist'ry!"
I dropped a low ball and left myself without a shot.
Stockley stood with a beer in his left hand and the pool cue in the crook of his left elbow. His shirt was open, as usual, to reveal his scars; he was stroking them. Only a year ago, he was the victim of a weekend shooting spree by two prison escapees. They fired two bullets into a crowd just for fun. One of them got Stockley in the back and the operation to remove it left three huge, vivid, purplish scars. He stroked them constantly. He was very proud of them.
"Would you mind not stroking your scars so loudly?" I said as I walked around the table trying in vain to find a shot. I fired into a pack and left him with good position.
Stockley smiled: "Thanks for the po, John."
I sat down as he made a great show of not being able to decide which easy shot to drop first.
Brod gave me a look of pity as Stockley sunk his first ball and winked at me. Kerryn and J.L. sat talking at the bar.
I thought about the message. It was probably a horrendous mistake, a fabulous garbling of syllables by the receptionist. Six months before I would not have been so skeptical. Then, at the Station Hotel, in Melbourne, we were a five-piece dynamo. The Station was normally peopled by derelicts, dole dependents, and besotted bon vivants who claimed it was a haven of mateship, a place where men could be men out of earshot of nagging women. But to the untrained eye it looked more like a place of banishment.
Nevertheless, on Saturday it was transformed into a sub-cultural temple. The gods of that subculture were...The Dingoes. The Station was licensed to seat eighty persons, but when we played there the only crowd restriction was the amount of discomfort people were willing to bear. And the only intolerable discomfort was inability to get to the bar. At two in the afternoon, three hundred people and five gods converged on the bar. At six, three hundred drunks and five drunk gods waded across the beer soaked carpet and out into a world strangely untouched by the four hours of sweat, inebriation, and rocking music.
We were not stars. We satirized stardom. The Station audience loved us because we refused to take anything, including ourselves, seriously. We disdained the slick professionalism of nightclub bands, and, as we argued and clowned around between songs, we happily exempted ourselves from superstar status as well.
But this overt antiprofessionalism, while it was one cause of our celebrity at the Station, drastically limited our appeal. When we played anywhere else people stared at us as if they were watching a foreign-language film without subtitles. And our manner and dress were so un-starlike that often, when we arrived at a new place, people asked us what time the band was coming--they thought we were the road crew!
On stage we had no light show, no props, no choreographed moves, no staging of any kind. We didn't vomit blood, or leer like trolls while rolling our tongues lasciviously at the audience. Our strengths were our personalities and our music. And at the Station the room was intimate enough for both to count. On a good day, we believed, our characters and our music formed an irresistibly winning combination.
The central element of this winning combination, our lead singer, sat next to me as Stockley dropped his second gift-ball. Brod's hand shook as he lifted his glass to his lips. He had a very complex and puzzling personality. As fantastic as he was onstage, offstage, and particularly behind the wheel of his vintage Land Rover, he was stodgy and anxious. Maybe, I thought, he was trying to keep his zany side at bay, as if it were a strange beast; a mercurial, abnormal thing which could only be released safely at show time when outrageousness is customary. He must keep it in check lest his veneer of sanity cracked. If I had his gift, I thought, I would revel in it twenty-four hours a day.
Stockley dropped his third cinch shot.
Brod had a complexion which was prone to asheness. He had gray/blue eyes and a large, expressive jaw which jutted out heroically. He had a dimple in his chin. Brod resembled the Germanic ideal, but he had an endearing scruffy quality--like an Aryan the cat dragged in.
The contents of his flat affirmed his zany side. His formal need to cling to sanity was apparently abandoned amid the eccentric clutter of his collection of bric-a-brac. A statuette of a cowboy on a rearing horse acted as a heroic paper weight. It stood on a large glass museum display case, which, supported by antique filing cabinets, was used as a desk. Inside the glass case hundreds of lead military miniatures were lined up in chronological order from Roman Centurions to Patton's Eighth Army. The desk was an island in a sea of dolls, exotic hub caps, rolled up maps, old cameras, wood and metal puzzles, and antique scientific instruments. He was a voracious reader: comics, individually wrapped in clear plastic, were stacked in hallowed corners; a huge bookshelf sagged under the weight of science fiction paperbacks which were crammed into it at the rate of one every two Earth days. And, with his collection of books on the history, customs, and conquest of the North and South American native peoples, he sought the fantastic in the real world too.
Brod's wife was a seamstress. Pieces of material, quilts, and cloth-filled cane hampers added a plushness, a buffer to Brod's clutter which was appreciated by the third denizen, Ronald, a lithe Persian cat. Ronald, if he wasn't asleep in some dark, cushioned nook, could be seen bouncing from object to object in search of one or another of the infinite possibilities of its Broderickian universe.
But, as used to the wacky world of Broderick as Ronald was, I think he would have gone stark raving mad if he just once saw his master in action at the Station. At the end of Sydney Ladies, a song Brod wrote about American GIs on R&R from Vietnam, he blew a ten minute harp solo into his refurbished taxi driver's microphone. As he walked out onto the audience's tables, people cleared their glasses to make way for his tattered tennis shoes. Girls mockingly clutched at his crumpled jeans. His hair stuck to the sweat on his cheek and forehead as his frenzy increased. At the climax of his solo the audience cheered as if someone had scored a go-ahead goal in the final second. Brod affected smug appreciation for the applause and saluted the crowd like Hitler at the Nuremburg rally. Then he introduced the next song: "Die femph zong nicht einer kraftwerk von Chris Stockley, Achtung! Mein Kamerades die tempo: ein, zwei, drei..."
Stockley played a lightning-fast introduction and Brod slid across the stage on his knees, prostrating himself before the guitar hero.
After this song, as I was tuning my bass, Brod whispered into the microphone in the voice of a golf announcer: "John is moving onto his D string...no. Wait a minute....I'm sorry. He's changed his mind. He's on the A string. He's pulling it up...up...up...until it's just right. Ooh, That was nicely done."
On and on it went from a seemingly bottomless well of comic patter. And Brod never repeated himself--that was anathema to him.
What theory of personality could accommodate the contradictions in this man, this man who sat next to me with his elbows on his knees, wringing his hands in anxiety over life in general, and the phone call in particular. He wasn't sweating over the pool game, though. He stood up: "I'm going for a walk along the beach. I'll see you back here about six."
"See ya, Brod."
And he disappeared, worrying out the door.
Stockley looked at his fifth give-away shot. It required him to put the cue behind his back with just one foot touching the floor. He grunted. "A little...tricky, this one, mate."
He pocketed the ball with a motion that said: Take that! But he left himself in poor position for the next shot.
He made a gallant shot off the cushion but just missed. Then, to reach the white ball, I had to use the extension stick to rest my cue on.
"Need the poofter stick, John?"
He stood leaning against the wall with his cue, his beer, and his scars.
"Would you mind buttoning up your shirt," I said. "It's like trying to play next to the bloody Aurora Borealis."
"No way, mate."
My ball went down but I had a long shot for the next one and I missed by a mile.
"Too bad, mate."
I left him in good position for his last two balls. He had not beaten me in quite a while so he took his time deciding which ball should go into which hole. He made his first shot and was nicely in line for the next, but, in trying to hit it too hard so the white ball would carry back up the table to the eight ball, his last ball bounced from side to side of the pocket and dribbled feebly out three inches.
"I was robbed."
"Bit too much English, mate."
By this time J.L. and Kerryn were watching.
"Another round of beers?" asked Kerryn.
"Thanks, mate," we said.
Stockley went to the bathroom and I punched in three balls while he was away. When he came back he looked at the table and said:
"Was anybody watching this bastard?"
Next, instead of trying to make a difficult shot, I put the white ball behind my ball snookering Stockley. He was genuinely miffed. Kerryn laughed at my evil strategy.
"I'm next," he said as he slapped some coins on the table.
Stockley couldn't recover and I sank my last ball and then sent down the eight ball with a feather-touch side shot. It was a fluke.
"See, mate? Finesse. You've gotta have class in this game."
"You're a rat-bag, John," he said. And he guzzled down his beer. "I'm going upstairs. I'll see you in the lobby at six."
"They're dropping like flies, Kerryn." He collected the balls and looked for the rack.
"Where's the thing?" he said. I passed him the rack.
"A thing by any other name is still a thing."
Kerryn's smile, like my sense of humor that day, was notable for its economy--only the corners of his mouth needed to turn up to indicate amusement. Kerryn positioned himself to break and pumped the cue vigorously. He thrashed the white ball and sent it ricocheting off the pack and bouncing off the table.
"Okay, you blokes," whined the bartender as the ball bounced across the linoleum and smashed into the bar. "What do you think this is, cricket?"
"Mind your own business," retorted Kerryn angrily. Then, instantly composed: "Sorry, mate. Can I try that again?"
"Have at it," I said.
I had never seen Kerryn hit anyone, but I thought he would be a good friend to have if things got rough. Perhaps his badly chipped front tooth gave that impression, or perhaps it was his cocky stance and attitude. His posture and clothing bore a striking resemblance to the male dancer in Renoir's "The Dance at Bougival." But Kerryn's hair would not have fit under that gentleman's hat. Kerryn, like the dancer, wore a beard, but his hair was long and frizzy and naturally assumed the shape of a toadstool. Apart from his hair, there was no extravagant sign of his driven creativity. For that you had to hear his songs.
Notwithstanding the brilliance of Brod's performance, our rocking music, Kerryn's songs, and our other innumerable qualities, no single reason for our success stood out. But Kerryn's songs provided the intellectual justification for that success. We were praised in the rock press for charting new territory for Australian bands--we actually sang about Australia. To understand why this was so important you must appreciate the special history of Australia's popular culture. The Australian/European culture was only about a hundred years old before it was inundated by radio, and later, TV. The fully developed American and English popular cultures tended to wash aside any nascent local varieties. As a generation we felt a keen sense of embarrassment at our lack of homegrown art forms--an embarrassment so keen we gave it a name: the cultural cringe. And we avoided all mention of Australia in our popular songs. But Kerryn found a voice. Though it was heavily derivative of American blues, country, and rock, it used Australian place names, situations, characters, and language. This, in a serious tone, was new. Certainly, plenty of songs had been written about the outback, for example, but they were novelty songs like the great "The Pub with No Beer," and the not so great "Red Back (spider) On The Toilet Seat." Now Kerryn had written a serious song about a man who went oil drilling in the western desert. It made the charts. In another song, about people stuck in limbo, called "Waitin' for the Tide to Turn," Kerryn put a woman's plight in an Australian setting:
I know a girl livin' way out west,
Havin' trouble just keepin' her head.
Home on the range in the kitchen--bitchin'
Cursin' the day she was wed.
'Cos her man don't seem to understand
That you can't get nothin' from a sunburnt land.
Day after day, you know it's gettin' her down.
She knows she won't even make it the long way around.
Kerryn's songs had wit and for our fans, who gave us fierce loyalty in return, they validated a tentative nationalistic pride. The Dingoes' songs could be seen as harbingers of a growing cultural confidence, among the first hesitant sedimentary islands to settle after the denuding cultural flood that emanated from wood, Bakelite, and plastic boxes sitting in the corner of every Australian living room.
Kerryn had absolutely no airs or pretensions of greatness. He was strictly one of us. Nor did we feel he was superior in any way. Although he had the most to gain from any success we might have had, we would allow no leader to rise above the rest. I felt that Stockley, Kerryn, and, to a lesser extent, Brod, each thought they should exert more control over the band's decisions. Whenever one of them complained about our lack of leadership it was tinged with regret that they had not taken charge themselves. Since I had come to the band last, and I was not the lead songwriter, the lead guitarist, or the lead singer, I was not a contestant--but my judgment was well respected and I could have handed power to either of them had I wished. But I felt none of them had natural leadership qualities around which we could gather in admiration and respect.
Perhaps this conviction was affected by my own repressed hunger for power and envy of those who held it. I had a miserable experience as a sixth grader.
In a meteoric rise to power I was voted captain of the Chatham School football team. But immediately after my ascension the team of eleven year-olds refused to submit to my over-ambitious regimen of push-ups, jumping jacks, and fifty-yard sprints. In any case, we were half the size of all our opponents and we went on to a completely scoreless season--this in a game where a low score is thirty points.
The next year I returned to brag to my teacher about my success in high school mathematics. He invited me into his class room and said: "John Bois is going to show us how a mathematical wizard solves a problem."
With that he wrote one of his most convoluted word problems on the board. I choked. He asked one of the sixth graders to solve the problem and she did it easily.
I must have looked crestfallen as I walked down the corridor. Another teacher stopped me and asked what had happened. After I told him, he explained that Mr. Evans didn't like me because he blamed me for our losing season last year. He said that he felt this was wrong because, while Mr. Evans didn't come to a single game, he had. And he thought I was a good captain.
This is a previously unexamined memory. And it's only now that I realize how absurd it was to blame one person, me, for the performance of our hopelessly mismatched team. Yet it was Mr. Evans' judgment which I accepted. And until now it stood there like a hazard sign whose simple message reached my subconscious: Remember the disaster that befell you the last time you went down this road--Turn Back!
Leadership was a recurring problem with The Dingoes. Stockley, Kerryn, and Brod each had a valid claim to it, but they couldn't step forward for certain knowledge that they would be knocked down again. And, since none could claim it, all denied it. This was often embarrassing. When an interviewer asked us who was the leader we all froze for a revealing second. Then we blurted out that we were democratic. The interviewer looked at us as if to say: 'I don't care who the big chief is--I just want to know who to ask the question. Geez, guys! Get your act together.'
And so, when six o'clock came around, when we met in the lobby of the Sandy Beach Hotel, I was wincing from apprehension of the delicate tussle about to take place--who should make the call to America?
"Well, then. Let's do it," said Kerryn as we stood around the lobby.
"Who should ring?" asked Stockley.
"I don't mind. Do you want to do it?" said Kerryn.
"No, mate," said Stockley. "You do it. You know Paul better than I do."
Kerryn snatched the phone message from his own hand as if to say: "Come on. Let's not play one of these ridiculous games."
"Come on," he said.
"He's a rat-bag," said Stockley.
The issue was in the open but it was never addressed. I sometimes wondered what would have happened if one of us had said, "Look. We know power in this band is shared. No one of us is going to run off with all of the goods. Let's just say that one of us, say me, is the leader. No leader gets everything his way. It's usually no more than a formality--just like we agree to drive on the left side of the road. There's nothing inferior about the right side. We just drive on the same side to avoid accidents. Having a leader would do the same thing--it would make the path to a common goal easier."
Then we could have gone outside and done push-ups, jumping-jacks, and fifty-yard sprints.
Even if we had such a leader there could be no inspirational element--we were far too equal for that. And where would such a leader take us--our common goal wasn't formulated beyond wanting to make lots of money doing what we wanted to do. Besides, at the Station, the obvious power vacuum within the group was endearing, perhaps even the cornerstone of our highly prized anti-professionalism.
The leadership question was a conflict that remained with us. Though we felt we needed leadership we rationalized our democratic dynamic with an attitude that said authority was for children and right wing governments--we were gentlemen and boon companions; we needed no conch shell.
We tramped upstairs to the room Kerryn and I shared. I reached the door first and knocked on it. They stood still for a Pavlovian second.
"Boisy!" said Brod as he shoved my shoulder.
I unlocked the door and we went in. Stockley came in last, having stopped at his room to get some beer. He opened one. Pretending to be drunk and talking to Paul McCartney on the phone, he said: "G' day, Paul. Chris here, mate. Yeah. Chris Stockley. How the fuck are ya. Iím good, thanks mate. Howís John, George, and Ringo. Fuckiní, eh!"
I walked over to turn off the air conditioner in the frigid room. I listened to the wind buffeting the salt begrimed window as Kerryn talked to America:
"Hello?...Hello...Yes. My name is Kerryn Tolhurst. I'm ringing on behalf of The Dingoes."
He spoke too loudly--he had never spoken to anyone that far away before.
"We got a message to ring someone called... Paul...McCartney."
"Yes...I see....Yes....No Paul McCart....Billy McCartney...No, that's all right. Our mistake. Is he there? Thank you."
We knew Billy McCartney. He was a road manager who had gone overseas to crack the big time. It was nice to hear from him, but not at the expense of my destiny.
"How dare he not be Paul McCartney," I said.
"He's a rat-bag," said Stockley.
Kerryn held up a silencing finger.
"Billy! How are you, mate?.....Good, thanks. Listen--we got this message to ring the Rolling Stones' office......Yeah...I see....."
My heart sank as Kerryn sat on the edge of his bed with a poker face, saying: "Yeah" and "I see," for the next ten minutes.
I looked at Stockley. He had on dark sun glasses which were supposed to turn transparent indoors. But they stayed dark and he looked like a heroin addict as he sullenly sipped his beer. He stood up, walked over to the window and gave me an exasperated look. I took great pride in the personalities of The Dingoes, and as I looked at Stockley, I felt sadness that the world would not, after all, it seemed, come to know him. I thought of him arriving at the Station with Jen, his girl friend, and his guitar case. He had a slight build and was five foot, three and a half. Jenny was five foot, nine and voluptuous. He was engulfed in her sexuality and was, in this respect, a very happy man. Stockley had a closely-manicured beard but his hair rambled down to the middle of his back. His shirt was open and he had on the leather jacket he was shot in. A hole the size of a spider bite was in its back. All this added to his legendary stature. When we played he had a little cluster of fret watchers--the Stockley faithful--gathered immediately in front of him. On his small frame his guitar looked immense, but he handled it with ostentatious ease. He was legendary for his lightning fingers, for being in some of Australia's biggest groups, and for being shot in the back.
Stockley came to Australia from England when he was ten and I think he got his ambivalent attitude toward class from his home town of Winchester. He had wedged the attitude of a working class hero and a dandy into one contradictory personality. This showed up in big ways: he had a dogmatic socialistic philosophy, yet he adored such perquisites of the capitalist running-dogs as he could lay his hands on. And it showed up in little ways: after playing a devastatingly down-home blues lick, he shook his wrist in a way that brought attention to his gold watch. Stockley had a fetishistic love of beer and its ancillary culture, yet he was a wine aficionado and a diligent Epicurean. All of this was paradoxical. But I had to admit that his desire to be of the people but enjoy the privileges of the upper classes was consistent with the idea of success in his chosen career: rock and roll.
I don't know how he came upon it, but he seemed to believe in a kind of paganistic animism. He was bedeviled by what he called 'electrickery'. An amplifier worked fine until he tried to use it. Then it would pop and crackle and refuse to work. Anything electrical conspired against him, and every time it happened he looked at me and said:
"See, mate. It's got it in for me. Thy electrickery."
Then he blew on his ring finger to ward off the evil spirits.
But, if the spirit of electrickery bedeviled him, the spirit of beer was his ally. On a Sunday, when his fridge was stocked up against the blue laws, he talked to his little friends. He shook the fridge gently until the bottles jingled against each other.
"My little jumblies," he said. "Yes, it won't be long now, my babies."
Then he shook the fridge to make them answer him.
"All right. But just one of you now." He took out a bottle and stroked it, smiling at the others like a proud father.
Stockley's house at that time was called Rat Manor. It was the home of one in a long line of Stockley's assumed comic personas, Maury. Stockley's inspiration for Maury was an old drunk who lived in an abandoned house opposite the Station with some other derelicts. We knew, via Stockley, only a few things about him: he believed that the only nutrition one needed was beer, he routinely urinated in the corner of his living room, and he either loved or hated people. Maury cast his judgment on others in this way: "He's number one in my book, Mr. Murray. Number one in my book!" To express disapproval it was: "He's a ratbag," or, the even more expressive: "He's a fuckin ratbag, Mr. Murray." As far as Stockley could tell, Mr. Murray was a figment of Maury's alcoholic dementia.
Stockley took these characteristics and invented his own Maury, a kind of derelict anti-sage. Whether at Rat Manor, the Station, or on the road, Maury became a constant companion. We begged Stockley to be Maury, or we planted lines for him to respond to.
So, as we listened to Kerryn grunting to America, I whispered to Stockley: "Geez, mate. You didn't have a meal before that beer, did you? You should take better care of yourself, mate."
Stockley replied in the high, whiny voice of Maury: "No worries, mate. There's a steak in every glass."
"I see.......Mmmm.....Yes," said Kerryn to America.
J.L., our drummer, impatiently picked up a rock magazine. The day before, he was reading the same magazine, when Stockley, in his Maury character, said: "Here, what are ya? Ya don't wanna read a bloody book, mate. You're gonna turn into a bloody poofter. Yer don't need books. All you need is beer, footy, and mates....And beer for ya mates, o' course. Did yer want people to think you're a ineffectual or somethin'. Don't be a smarty pants, mate."
J.L. didn't read. Not that J.L. was antibooks--rather, he was possessed by music. From when he woke up, until after he was asleep, J.L. played tapes of Al Green and reggae music. He grew up in a West Indian suburb in London. He said he learned to play drums by banging sticks on the sidewalk in time to the strange and wonderful rhythms of the Caribbean.
His natural shyness offstage left you unprepared for his on-stage presence. Onstage he shone. He was possessed by the groove and he exuded an open pride that was catching. He played with his nose tilted slightly above the horizontal, and his head rocked back and forward making his hair swish below his ear. The motion of his head and hair reminded me of an Irish setter trotting out its victory lap at a dog show. J.L.'s confidence was so infectious that, whenever I felt my attention drifting off the groove or felt a mild paranoia that it simply wasn't there (oh, will-o-the-wisp), I just had to watch him and it solidified once again. Together we made the moment live. When we were playing on a good night I wasn't thinking about yesterday or tomorrow--I was in the groove, in the moment. Winston Churchill said he felt that way as he rode into battle with the bullets whizzing by his ears. Playing with The Dingoes was not quite so heroic, but, at the Station, with a glass of beer on my amplifier, a girl or two in the audience who desired me, and a rock-solid bass and drums combination thumping out the beat, I was deep inside the moment.
At twenty three, those bacchanalian good times were reason enough for self-satisfaction. But even then, self-doubt, and doubts about the worth of The Dingoes, had begun to eat away at my contentedness. We had released an album, The Dingoes, and it had charted and peaked at number seventeen. We had given it everything we had, and now it was off the charts. So where did we stand in the overall scheme of things? At the Station we still felt like we were at the top--but what hierarchical structure were we at the top of? Could our success at the Station be trusted? No, I thought. We were merely the beneficiaries of the arrival of large numbers of people of our generation at an age when their innate need of culture made them latch on to anything that resembled it. As a mere cultural enzyme I couldn't claim too much credit for The Dingoes--yet, seen in this light, we had as much right as Mozart to success, if not longevity.
But the pressure of self doubt was nothing compared to the growing problems surrounding The Dingoes. Though our preeminence remained at the Station, we began to get bogged down in unfriendly bars, six-hundred mile road trips, and empty concert halls. And each time we came back to the Station a little of our shine had worn off. By degrees we came to see ourselves as victims of a small and saturated market. We had played the same songs to too many of the same audiences. We had to admit we were going nowhere. We had decided to split up after our Western Australian trip. And then came the call.
Kerryn hung up the phone.
"Well. That's that, then."
"What's what? I said.
"Nothing. Who wants to go down and get a beer?"
He was toying with a very big and delicious piece of information. Understanding the need for an organized presentation of big news, we followed him downstairs. We went out into the empty beer garden.
This garden was surrounded by white trellis-work. Grape vines had threaded their tendrils into every available space. The beer garden was roofed over with green corrugated plastic, and when the patchy cloudiness occasionally revealed the sun, everyone turned a deep shade of green.
I volunteered to get the beers.
"Itís my shout. But you're not to say a word about the call until I get back."
When I came back, Kerryn was saying: "And then I hung up."
I scowled and put the beers down on the white wrought-iron table.
"You're number one in my book, Mr. Murray," said Stockley, grateful as ever for a beer.
Kerryn began to spin out the phone conversation: "It seems that young Billy McCartney got a job working for Elvis Presley's road crew--that's what got him overseas, anyway. After that he got a job with this band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. They're apparently big in the South."
He took a long draught of his beer and cleaned the foam off his top lip leisurely with his bottom lip.
"He took our album with him and he used to play it over the P.A. before Lynyrd how's-your-father, played. Well, their manager, a guy called Peter Rudge, heard it and thought it wasn't bad. It seems he also manages..."
He took another sip, cleaned his top lip, and went on.
"The Rolling Stones."
"Yes. And apparently Peter Rudge played it for Mick. Mick thought it was all right too."
"No kidding," said Stockley. We were all flabbergasted. No one else had touched their beer.
"And so...so?" I said.
"Well Rudge wants to cut a deal with A&M Records in Los Angeles. Billy wants us to set up a lawyer. He says contracts are on their way over."
"Doesn't this Rudge guy even want to see us?" I asked.
"No. Our man in New York has sold us to him. Remember, about six months ago, when Billy used to hang at the Station--he was a real fan."
I could remember Billy leaning, beerless, against the back wall of the bar, with a grin a mile wide.
"My mate, Billy," said Brod.
Just as intimates yawn together, we all sipped our beers at the same time. The clouds moved away for a minute and completely exposed the trellis to the sun: the beer garden became infused with green. I looked at green Kerryn and said: "Come on. You were on the phone much longer than that. What else?"
"That's not enough?" he said.
"When do we leave?" asked J.L.
"As soon as the lawyers take care of the contracts, I suppose."
"Christ, this is unbelievable," said Stockley, and he blew on his ring finger five times. "I'm off to ring Jen."
One by one the green people left to telephone the good news back to Melbourne. Presently I was alone in the beer garden. The squall had disappeared as quickly as it had come, and now the unobstructed sun's rays flooded in with a still, green warmth. As I drained my glass, I was filled with an almost tangible sense of well-being. As soon as I put it on the table it was replaced, by Kerryn, with a full one.
"I think this is called for, don't you?" he said.
"Capital," I said. "This means we can retire now, doesn't it?"
"You mean we're not going to break up, mate?"
"I suppose not, mate."
In the green beer garden, after everyone had phoned our good news back to Melbourne, we agreed to keep the call secret. We realized people would find out, but we didn't want to make a big announcement until the contracts were signed.
As soon as we returned from Perth a friend of the band said he knew a lawyer who knew something about the music business. His name was Seymour. No. He didn't know international music law but our friend was sure he could handle it. He had only been practicing for two years, and we should have been skeptical, but we thought that all we needed was someone who could make sure the contracts were fair and legal.
Seymour's office was above a barber's shop in Carlton. His desk was in front of a window that looked over the street and rattled every time a tram went by. The light coming through was so bright you could barely make out Seymour's features, except in silhouette.
On his glass-topped desk sat a huge ashtray filled with pipe paraphernalia. He smoked a pipe constantly. Even lying dormant in the ash tray, his Doctor Petersen pipe gave off an acrid odor.
I surreptitiously tried to read his diploma as Seymour said: "It's really very simple. They will offer us a percentage. We'll send them back some higher figure. And we'll compromise somewhere in the middle. It's no different overseas."
As he spoke he stuffed his pipe. He was slightly rotund and wore a beard and a brown corduroy suit of studied casualness. He took some matches and lit his pipe. Between incendiary puffs he said: "They can afford to give you...a good deal....They want you bad enough to...bring you, lock stock and...barrel to America...they must have...a lot of money."
A great pall of smoke, courteously blown over our heads, hung a foot thick below the ceiling. His pipe was now fully lit. He placed it in the ashtray, where it smoldered. A thin, pretty, gray plume replenished the smoke up by the ceiling, which began to diffuse throughout his office.
He looked at us to make sure we understood the fundamental wisdom of his statement.
"When do you expect the contracts to arrive?" He turned to look each of us in the eye. For a second, no one answered. Then Kerryn said:
"Well, Billy said they were sending them over straight away. They're fairly standard, he said. And he thought Peter Rudge was going to cut us a decent deal."
Seymour let out a pompous laugh: "Haw! Don't let them tell you that. There are no such animals as standard contracts."
He fired up his pipe.
"From now...on...you can't trust...whatever they say....At least until we sign the contracts."
He placed his pipe down again, and, with an air of finality, said: "Look, perhaps it's better if you don't talk to them. Tell them to make all their communications through me. I think then we'll get the best bargaining position. Okay? Okay!"
Outside the barber's shop we held an ad hoc conference. Stockley said: "I dunno, do you think he's okay?"
"Who knows," I said. "But we've got to have somebody. And who else do we know? There just aren't any international music lawyers here. Australia isn't international."
"But do you reckon he was right about not talking to Billy?"
"No," Kerryn jumped in. "But we have to be careful. We can trust Billy, but their lawyers are going to be doing all the talking. It's best if they do it through Seymour. They could be nasty pieces of work."
"Agreed by the party of the first party," said Stockley.
"And agreed by the party of the second party," I said.
The contracts came three weeks later and Kerryn took them to Seymour. Seymour, he said, was going to take a couple of weeks to look them over. I imagined Kerryn sitting in Seymour's office, marveling at the clouds of smoke as Seymour muttered an all-knowing "Hmmm." But then I thought Seymour probably wouldn't even sit at his desk. He would rather usher Kerryn out quickly and do the all-knowing in private.
During this time rumors about our deal began to flourish. Paul McCartney was writing songs with Kerryn; The Rolling Stones were to tour the world with The Dingoes. We decided to do an interview to straighten things out. After the interview every second promoter billed his place as the site of "The Dingoes, Final Farewell Performance." It became a running joke. We tried to stop it, but, although we thought we were about to be lifted up into luxury, we were broke. We had to work.
You can believe yourself to be great when you are not--but once you believe you are mediocre it is hard to re-convince yourself of your greatness. Even though The Dingoes had been hailed as 'great' in the rock press, at the Station, and at the New York office of The Rolling Stones, we had a bad case of creative block. As much as we told each other maybe we were great, we could see in our averted looks and hesitant rehearsals that the magic of the creative dynamic was, for the moment at least, no longer with us. Nobody expressed it this way, but I'm sure we all thought the same thing: "When we do an album overseas they'll probably get us to do our old material and arrangements. Let's make it on our past laurels. If we are successful internationally we will have to admit we are great. We can take it from there."
This attitude, impossible though it was to avoid, was going to make for a lengthy and soul-destroying stay in limbo--that is unless we could make a quick exit.
A thick pall of smoke dissolved slowly into the air as Seymour tapped out the slag plug from the bottom of his Meerschaum's bowl. He took a velvet-green pipe-cleaner from a stand next to his ashtray and expelled a thick globule of black tar from the stem. Putting down the pipe, he picked up the folder with the contracts and gave them a cursory look.
"You can sign these if you want..." he said as he lobbed the folder onto the desk. They landed with a 'thwack' that blew ash onto my thighs. Then he pushed himself deeply into his plush office chair and fondly stroked his upper lip: "...but you're fools if you do. Seven and a half percent is robbery. I think we should ask for fifteen. I bet that's closer. And let's up the advance money while we're at it. It's The Rolling Stones and A&M records, for God's sake. They can afford ten times that," he said, pointing his nose at the contracts.
As we passed the contracts around, Seymour picked up his pipe and began to scrape it out. Black shards of carbon, bearing the residue of a week of Seymour's smoking pleasure, cascaded into the ashtray and onto the desk. Seymour used his match-box as a blade to gather the errant carbon into a pile near the edge of his desk. He pulled up his wastepaper basket and scraped the carbon into it. The contracts forgotten, we watched, spellbound by Seymour's excavations.
"Let me make a counter proposal. All they can do is say no."
Outside the barber shop J.L. was adamant: "I think we ought to sign and get out, now."
"But we can't. We have to let Seymour try and get the best deal he can."
"Does he know what he's doing?" asked Kerryn.
"A reasonable question. We haven't got much choice, mate--still," said Stockley.
"I wish we knew how good seven and half percent was," said Brod. "It doesn't seem like much."
"Seymour's position is that it's just an opening offer," I said. "Let's wait and see what reply he gets from them. Then we'll know where we stand."
J. L. rolled his eyes.
Seymour had insisted that all negotiations be done by mail. Verbal agreements, he said, were useless. And furthermore, you knew where you stood if everything was down on paper. Seymour took two weeks to frame his reply. The laggard international post took another two weeks to get it to the lawyers in America. They took another two weeks to get to our contracts and advise Peter Rudge how to respond. Six weeks after our meeting their response came and we were summoned to Seymour's office.
As we walked up the stairs, the aromatic stench of his Private Bin #72 tobacco flooded our senses and evoked Seymour in a way his actual presence never could. As he opened the door eddies of smoke whorled about our bodies. It was worse than usual today. The thick, overcast ceiling had been disturbed by the suction of the open door and was now seething with Gothic potential. Seymour had no pipe, but, like a smoking gun, telltale wisps of smoke vivified his beard. He asked us to sit, and walking behind his desk, pulled an airmail letter from a drawer. He was still standing, and, while he leaned on his desk with one hand, he slapped the letter against his trouser leg with an action that fanned up a few flakes of ash.
"They're just not playing the game--they've thrown this right back in our faces. We were looking for some good faith and they gave us nothing!" He shook with passion. "Nothing!"
He threw the letter down onto the desk and fell back into his chair. One by one we read the letter. Stockley passed it to me like it was a hot potato.
Seymour had said: "Seven and a half? They can do better than that. Let's ask for fifteen; maybe we'll get ten."
"We feel," the letter said, "our initial offer was more than fair. We made this offer in order that you would sign quickly. Please reconsider and get back to us as soon as possible."
"Maybe the offer is fair, Seymour," I said. "Do you know what is standard?"
Seymour had lit another pipe and smoke was streaming from his nostrils. Everyone looked at the smoke-enshrouded lawyer for a reply to this reasonable question. He tapped the mouthpiece of his pipe against his cheek: "Don't be tricked by their letter," he said. "I deal with contracts all the time. All this means is that we were a little high on our fifteen. You know they can't say: 'Well, we thought that fifteen was a little high. Why don't you ask us for ten and we might go for eight or even nine.' This is a standard tactic. We'll just hit them a little lower next time, that's all."
Seymour thumped his pipe down in his ashtray like a gavel as if to say: "Case closed." But Kerryn contemptuously said: "But you just said they weren't playing the game."
"Oh, they're playing a game all right! They call it hard ball. These are top flight people. Savvy--and ruthless."
"I'm worried," said Brod. "I'm worried we're gonna' blow 'em off."
"You have to trust me," said Seymour. "This is the way it's played. You can't let them roll over you now--if you do they'll have you for breakfast later on."
But Brod came back: "Do you mind if we step outside for a couple of minutes? I think we ought to talk between ourselves."
Seymour couldn't stop us from doing that and we walked a block away from his office, to a pub. We sat in a semicircle around the bar. When we got our beer we began.
"Ring Billy--all we have to do is find out what's fair. It's obvious Seymour doesn't know."
"He should have gone lower to begin with."
"Yeah. They might have given us nine."
"It's too late now."
"This being in limbo is killing us--we've got to get out soon or it will be too late--no matter what percentage Seymour can get."
"Yeah. Let's take the seven and a half and run."
"Seven and a half of something is better than fifteen percent of nothing."
"God! You're wise, Stockley," I said.
Kerryn brought the meeting to conclusion: "Let's up and down these beers and give the good news to Seymour."
Brod knocked on Seymour's door. The room was clear of smoke. I think he knew what we were about to say. Brod spoke: "We've decided to sign now. We've got to get over there soon or we won't have anything left for America."
"Very well." Seymour was disgruntled. "That's fair enough, I suppose."
He picked up his pipe and started to fill it.
"But there is something else."
He put the filled pipe on top of a box of matches and handed out five Xeroxed copies of page five of the contracts. As we read them he lit his pipe, speaking between draughts of air: "The second...sentence in para...graph three."
The flames from the pipe, dimly visible through the smoke, shot six inches above the bowl when Seymour released his sucking pressure. When he was sucking, I thought, those flames must be blasting right on his tongue. As he spoke I tried to get a glimpse of it, but the light streaming in from behind, and the smoke, made it difficult to see anything. I imagined that he had a kind of asbestos sheath which he slid over his tongue, and this gave me a mild case of the giggles as I was apparently reading the contract.
"This wouldn't be so funny, John," said Seymour, "if you understood what it was that was being said. That line means you have to pay back any advances they give you--whether or not you make it. Do you know what that means? You're going to be paying them back for the rest of your lives--unless, of course, you're phenomenally successful."
We carefully read the clause. To me, and everyone but Seymour, it seemed to mean the opposite. It said that advanced money was non-returnable royalty--it should be paid back only if we made money on the contract. But Seymour insisted that it said we had to pay back no matter what. Here, you read it:
Subject to ARTISTS fully performing all of ARTIST's respective obligations pursuant to this Agreement, and all of the ARTIST's warranties and undertakings hereunder, COMPANY agrees to make to ARTIST the following non-returnable advances against royalties:
He picked up his pipe which had been smoldering in his ash tray, and relit it. The small amount of time it had lay there allowed the tar to settle in the bowl and soak up into the remaining tobacco. The smoke produced was ten times more acrid. As he fired it up, we winced in anticipation of another burn.
"The percentage are okay...but you can't...go with... this....They will screw you royally....Mark...my words."
"But it doesn't say that, Seymour," I said. The others nodded in agreement.
"It says non-returnable--non-returnable right?"
"Yes. But look at the words before it. "Subject to artist fully performing...That's badly defined. They can say you didn't fully perform and make you pay back everything. You can't trust them."
"Now, look. Would I tell you how to play guitar. You hired me to interpret contracts for you. That is what I do."
He tapped his pipe on the ashtray and slowly cleaned it out.
"I'll tell you what we'll do. I know a Queen's Counsel. I'll take it to him and get an opinion. Fair enough?"
We supposed so. We should have said no at every step, but each time it seemed to be just another two weeks on a very crucial point. We walked out into the world of plaintiffs and defendants.
"I dunno," said Stockley. "I agree with you, John. But we've waited this long already. And it is a pretty important point. And, you know, contracts do have their own language. Maybe only lawyers understand them."
"I fuckin' hate this," said Kerryn as he kicked a can out into the busy mid-afternoon traffic.
"Yeah," said Brod. "But Stockley's right."
"I think that genius is full of it. But we can't take the risk of his being right," said Stockley.
"It's a jerk-off," said J.L.
"This is like The African Queen," I said. "We're bogged down in the swamp at low tide. We think there is no escape and we lay down to die not knowing that the lake is a stone's throw away. So, instead of waking up dead, we will be lifted up by the high tide and swept into the lake."
"But not until Seymour sees the African Queen's counsel," said Kerryn. We would see what happened in two weeks. In the meantime, there were jobs to do.
As we trundled up the Hume Highway between Albury and Gundagai, on our way to Sydney, I lay on a mattress in the back of Brod's World War Two vintage Land Rover. Stretched out like fallen heroes of el Alamein, Kerryn, J.L., and I were trying to urge Brod to go faster than thirty-five. In buying the Rover, Brod had selected style over speed, comfort, and utility--style, and fighting chance should we run into the Rommel's Afrika Korps. Brod, who was quite dashing in other ways, drove with palpable anxiety. He fidgeted to make sure he was still in gear, that the choke was in, the hand brake wasn't on, and that the rear-vision mirror was properly adjusted.
Kerryn whispered into my ear: "He drives like somebody's aunty."
"Try telling that to Field Marshall von Rommel," I said.
Brod drove with his foot slightly depressing the clutch, a move which, though rough on the clutch, was an excellent defensive tactic. Nobody could make him go faster than thirty-five and, so far, despite several near-misses from behind, Broderick had got us through.
Stockley, who was up front, had given up conversation and was nodding off. But sleep, for him, was impossible, since to rest his head anywhere on the violently shaking metal was to risk severe injury.
"Stockley," I offered. "I'll swap places with you. I can't sleep anyway in this rattletrap. Sorry, Brod. This very strategic rattletrap."
"Here," said Maury. "You're number one in my book, Mr. Murray. Number one."
After we changed places, at about three AM, I started to reflect on our legal situation. Seymour had tried to up our percentage by too much. This was a forgivable error in judgment; he was, after all, only trying to get us the best possible deal. He had called into question a crucial sentence about non-returnable royalties, and he had hired a Queen's Counsel to write an opinion on it. If all this was taking too much time, he was erring on the side of caution. That the Q.C. had gone on vacation, and couldn't give his opinion until after we returned from this series of final-farewell performances in Sydney, wasn't Seymour's fault. I didn't like Seymour, but I shouldn't, I thought, let that interfere with my opinion of his conduct.
On the other hand, though I was cowed by the bigness of our contractual dealings and my ignorance of law, I felt that Seymour was wrenching away our destiny by trying to make the negotiating process more arcane than it need be. I had a growing suspicion that he was like a dubious and unskilled motor mechanic, who thinks he can do any work he wants to because you can't tell he doesn't know what he's doing. Any complications only made his cover deeper. Maybe Seymour felt that by invoking the Q.C. any arguments about legal syntax would be stymied. But I wasn't so sure that law was as esoteric as engines--despite the efforts of lawyers to make it so. However, though these were concerns to keep in mind, all things that were presently being done, I thought, had to be done.
"Where are we, driver? Any sign of the bloody Krauts?"
"No, Sir," said Brod. "We should reach Cairo at about 0800 hours."
"Very good, Corporal. Carry on."
"Thank you, Sir."
"By the by, Brod. Do you know you're in second gear?"
He changed into third, but soon after, the Rover died on a hill. The same gear ratio that enabled it to pull six-inch howitzers out of the mud, robbed it of power on the highway. Brod pushed the pedal down to the floor with a clang, clang, clanging sound. The futility of that action reminded me of The Dingoes' efforts to throttle up and climb our current hill--Seymour and the contracts.
We arrived in Sydney at ten in the morning looking as deprived of sleep as the Rats of Tobruk. No sleep would be had before our first job, an afternoon open-air concert. As if we didn't have pressure enough, we had extra pressure in Sydney. Our record had not been played there, yet we were known to have a big overseas deal in the offing. We were either ignored somebodies or celebrated nobodies, and no one, least of all ourselves, knew which. And this hung like a giant question mark between us and every audience north of the Murray River.
At the concert, the radio station had thoughtfully provided a tent and free beer in huge garbage pails filled with crushed ice. Our common sense was anesthetized by our lack of sleep, and it was a very hot and humid day: we drank deeply. When it came time to play, we were barely capable. To ourselves we were hilarious. Behind the curtain of amplified sound we shouted jokes about Aunty Broderick and the Nazi threat. I was tired and became hysterical easily. I buckled up with laughter. The audience must have thought we didn't care if we were appreciated or not. We received polite applause as we hit the tent for another round of heavy beer drinking. Stockley stood in the corner of the tent in a pensive mood:
"What's the matter, mate?" I asked.
"You don't look like you're having such a good time."
Stockley answered in the whiny voice of Maury: "We didn't come here to have a good time, Mr. Murray. We come here to get fuckin' drunk."
With a full head of steam, and fearful of a devastating early-evening hangover, I kept on drinking. As I drank, I had, somewhere in the back of my mind, the foolish idea that I was only maintaining my state of inebriation--that I was keeping constantly, mildly, drunk. But later that night I attempted to pinch the bottom of every girl at the Trocadero Club. The companion of one of them punched me in the face. I wept for Man's inhumanity to Man, and, by four o'clock in the morning, I sobered up enough to realized I was on some suburban porch singing Elvis Presley songs. My audience of three included an auto accident victim who wore a cast on his leg and needed crutches. Like a Pied Piper of brotherly love, I led them through the streets to my hotel room. Kerryn, roused from his drunken sleep, promptly shooed my boon companions away. I passed out almost immediately.
The next day we had to drive north of Sydney to the Hunter Valley Wine Festival--of necessity another all-day drinking affair. We began playing an hour before sunset; the sun shone directly into our faces as we played. I was so drunk, dirty, and exhausted that I had to lie down as I played. In the morning the others told me I had made an idiot of myself. But, I had made no mistakes. I was tempted to praise my musicianship for maintaining its standard even under befuddled adversity--but then, I thought, I had played those songs so many times that my brain worked like an old pool table which had channels leading to its pockets--even the blind shots went down.
The next two days were a blur. But I remember Newcastle. On the way to the job, I said to everyone in the Rover: "Does anyone feel as bad as me? We really shouldn't drink so much."
"Naw," said Stockley as Maury. "A blokes gotta have a bloody beer, mate."
"But why does a bloke have to drink so much bloody beer, mate?"
"Because when a bloke's had a bloody beer he feels better than when he hasn't had one."
"Christ! I think I'm carrying my cold to Newcastle."
That night at the club, our warm-up act was a male stripper. Members of the Vice Squad were in the audience, so he had to stop his act at his G-string. When he came offstage he was livid. Retaining his G-string had stripped him, as it were, of his artistic integrity. Having protected everyone from his unsightly genitals, the Vice Squad left, and Stockley hatched a wicked idea. The stripper ranted backstage with a hissing sibilance as we were introduced: "Soon to be off to America, and signed to a big overseas recording deal--let's hear it for...The Dingoes!!!"
The audience, fully aware of the stripper's plight, cheered convulsively as we shuffled onstage with our pants down around our ankles, revealing all.
After the set, I had a tryst with a red-headed motor cyclist (she must have been impressed by my genitals). She took me speeding out on the Newcastle breakwater. As the huge Pacific rollers crashed a couple of feet below us, we made love, which was wonderful until she asked me to pinch and scratch her. My desire fizzled; we dressed. As I was about to get on her bike, she sped off. I found my way back to the hotel by sunrise. At ten we had to leave for Sydney and an early afternoon sound check. We were the warm-up band for the English group, Bad Company. After the show, we all went to a late-night club for a jam session. When the club closed we challenged the Englishmen to a test match--a beer-drinking test match. I think Australia won.
The next day was a rest day, except for an interview with a writer for the Australian section of the Rolling Stone magazine. We decided to meet her at a posh restaurant. Our conversation was sparse and unfocused as we sat waiting for service. Instead of making brilliant comments like: "Pop music is the sound track for a generation," I said: "So anyway, how long have you worked for Rolling Stone?"
We ordered food and wine. The waitress brought a delicious Chateau Tahbilk and our soup. Stockley, who sat at the opposite end of the table from me, was dressed in a dandy blue velvet suit. He had put his jacket on the back of his chair and rolled up the cuffs of his floral body shirt one meticulous roll, so as to admit no impediment to his Epicurean enjoyment. He delicately tasted his wine and nodded appreciatively to no one. Then he tasted his soup. He froze: "This soup is canned," he said.
"It tastes fine to me," I said.
"It's canned, mate."
"Stockley, they wouldn't serve canned soup in a place like this."
"Ask the waitress. I'll bet you it's real soup," I said. "I'd stake my professional reputation on it."
"As a rat?" said Stockley.
"No. As a professional knower of the difference between canned and real soup."
I was half joking, and half berating Stockley for making such a big deal over the soup. But, like a play fight that turns ugly, I became unable to tell whether we were still joking. The flatness of my wits, dulled by six days of high jinx, made me say, as I looked at the journalist: "Working Class Hero Likes Soup Just So."
I had meant it in a joking way, but I realized, after the first word, that I was sounding malicious. Stockley kept looking, with furrowed brow, toward the waitress station. By the time the waitress came over, all conversation had ceased, and our table was charged with an embarrassing tension. Stockley said: "Excuse me. Do you know if this soup is canned or not?"
"Yes it is," she said matter-of-factly as she busied herself at our table.
All faces turned to me.
"Waitress," I said. "This soup is excellent. What brand is it?"
After the soup and some more wine we recovered our humor--enough, anyway, to make it seem that drinking was a fun thing to do.
The last day in Sydney we were to play a live radio show. After the first note we realized we had made a mistake in trying to play. Halfway through the first verse we looked at each other like drowning men. Broderick's voice was completely raw; I opened my mouth to sing a harmony but no sound came out; no rhythmic connection existed among any of the instruments--we fell apart. One by one we stopped playing and looked pathetically at the audience. The producer cut to one of our recorded tunes and came out of the control room with his arms outstretched. "What's going on!"
Kerryn and Brod tried to explain our problem to him. To the confused and embarrassed audience we must have appeared to be undergoing a group nervous breakdown. Stockley's glasses seemed darker than ever that day as he and I sat on the edge of the stage with heads in our hands; J.L. sat on his drum stool staring straight into space. I longed to be an audience member who could casually walk out of my life and into their trouble-free existence of limitless possibility. But I was stuck.
"You want to go outside for a walk, John," said Stockley in a tremulous voice.
As our equipment was being packed up, Stockley and I were both experiencing a terrifying anxiety attack. The more we tried to comfort each other, the more validity we gave our attacks. Our anxiety was fueled by exhaustion, the compounding effect of seven days of drinking, and fresh guilt. And though the attacks were rooted in our pressure-filled reality, they seemed to override reality and take on a life of their own. The rest of the day was a day of going through the motions of life, but feeling only fear.
My attack lasted three more days--all through the Rover ride back to Melbourne (if Rommel had known our state he could have cut us to ribbons), and in my rented room where I sequestered myself and vowed I would never feel that way again. But, even as the days became tolerable, during the nights, since I was no longer sleeping in a drunken stupor, I developed worrying symptoms. I woke up several nights in a row in a cold sweat. I was convinced that my heart had stopped beating. I sat bolt upright in bed and clutched my wrist to feel a pulse. But I was grappling with tensed fingers and could feel none. I leapt out of bed and breathed feverishly to jump-start my heart. Of course my heart had not stopped beating, but, try as I might to convince myself of the logic of this, my emotions shoved the apparent fact of impending doom in my face every night.
Another consequence of my battle to cling to reality was that I clung more tenaciously to things I believed to be rational in everyday life. And one of these was the sentence that said that advances had to be paid back out of non-returnable royalties. I was building a parallel with my anxiety attacks. If I perceived the sentence correctly, if my powers of logic could prevail over a lawyer, a Q.C., and four men (for, by now, everyone was prepared to go along with the Q.C.'s opinion), then perhaps they could also prevail over the irrational nocturnal tigers of anxiety and beat them back to their primitive den.
We parked opposite Seymour's office in J.L.'s white minivan. The day was hot and Seymour had his window open; smoke was billowing out. A pigeon alighted off its air current and onto Seymour's window ledge. It flew off immediately.
"I've read that sentence so many times," said Stockley, "it could say 'Eat At Joe's' for all I know. I say we go along with the Queen's how's-your-father."
"I think we have to," said Kerryn.
"Even if it means we go nowhere," said Brod, "I think we have to take the Q.C.'s opinion seriously. We can't risk being ruined for life."
"Let's see what the Q.C. says," I said.
We climbed up and out of the mini. Seymour had heard our footsteps on his stairs and was waiting at his open door. He had a smile which desperately tried to show concern, but which was smug beyond the hiding.
"Come in and sit down," he said. "How was Adelaide?"
"Good," I said. "How was the Queen's Counsel?"
"Ah, yes," he said. "I'm afraid he thinks we have a problem. He says that at best the sentence is ambiguous, and that it probably means you have to pay back whether you make it or not."
We were silent. J.L. buried his head in his hands. Kerryn was exasperated: "Well, where does that put us now."
"We're fucked," concluded Stockley. "That's where it puts us."
"It's up to you. If you sign these contracts you'll have to be prepared to pay back for the rest of your life. Of course you can gamble that you'll make it. But if you want my advice--I wouldn't sign for anything."
"I think you're wrong," I said.
"Well, as I said, it's up to you. It's your risk, not mine."
"I think you and the Q.C. are wrong. The sentence means we don't pay back if we don't make money." My voice was shaking with exhilaration; I made no effort to hide it.
Seymour looked at me with a bemused expression and said: "Wait a minute. Where did you study law, John?"
"Hey! Don't talk to him like that," said Kerryn menacingly. "He's not an idiot."
"I'm not an idiot," I said. "I can understand English as well as you. And that's what these contracts were written in."
"And what about the Queen's Counsel? I suppose you can read law as well as him."
"He, Seymour. I don't know anything but that that sentence is a protection for us. It's common sense."
The others were a silent but appreciative audience.
"Come with me," snapped Seymour as he snatched up his pipe and lit it. He headed for the conference room. I walked out last, and the single file of bobbing heads, with Seymour's sending out clouds of smoke, looked, for all the world, like a train of heads. But this time I didn't get the giggles.
We sat at the conference table while Seymour wrote, on a blackboard, the disputed sentence. After twenty minutes of his syntactical brow-beating, the blackboard was covered with underlined syllables and arrows pointing from preposition to conjunction. I calmly said: "I'm sorry. But it says just the opposite, in plain English. I haven't got a clue what you're talking about, but you must have made a mistake somewhere."
Seymour shouted: "John, if you can't see it now you're a bloody moron!"
He quickly withdrew.
"I'm sorry. Look, I don't blame you. That's why you hired me. But you're not letting me do my job. Would I tell you how to play drums. Ha, ha. I hope not. No. But let me interpret the law, won't you?"
But the more he carried on, the stronger my conviction became. I felt as I would if Seymour were a doctor and we were all studying an X-ray. Everyone was saying the dark spot is a tumor. I can plainly see it is a fly.
"There's only one thing to do," I said. "You re-word it to your satisfaction, and I'll ring their lawyers tonight. If they agree to your change, we sign. If they don't, I'll bring the cyanide tablets to our next meeting."
"What do we have to lose," said Stockley.
"Cool," said Brod.
At one in the morning I rang Peter Rudge's lawyer. She agreed to the change without a quibble.
I saw Seymour only once after that. The amended contracts were mailed to him and I had the privilege of picking them up.
"I've looked at that sentence again. You might be right," he said.
So six months after the first call, we signed, sealed, and sent off the contracts. Two months after that we boarded a jumbo jet bound for America ...
Copyright © 2003 John Bois. Reproduced by permission of the author.