Observations From Isolation: Ch.8 – Grandpa, And The Three Generations Since…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.8 – On The Death Of Grandpa, And The Three Generations That Have Come After…

Grandpa died a couple of weeks ago, drifting off in a morphine fog sometime in the night. It wasn’t anything to do with The Virus, just the slow and dignified end to a life spent, in the main, stalking first the fertile sheep fields of the English and French countrysides, then in classrooms and boardrooms and finally his bedroom, slipping away between the sheets on a dark, early summer’s eve, the only sound the lowing of cattle in the verdant Yorkshire fields outside his window.

I knew him, of course, all my life, but I never really knew him until around ten or twelve years ago. By then, he’d mellowed with age, and having accomplished more than many men or women of his ilk, found more joy in his own garden surrounded by a sea of colour, all of his own planting, and at his table, surrounded by a glass, several glasses, of French red wine.

He revelled in it all and had more time for, in particular, his grandchildren and rapidly multiplying great-grandchildren.

***

Dad died a little over four years ago, a life cut short in an instant, an unknown heart condition calling it all off as he dozed watching ABC’s 7:30, an empty bowl on the coffee table in front of him, half a glass of wine next to it, the dog tucked up against him on the couch. He was only fifty-nine, and the shock was numbing.

Dad was Dad, no matter what he did. He was Business Dad for a long time, then with age, he mellowed and became, almost alarmingly, hippie Dad. He was always kind and strong though, he was always laughing, he was a Good Dad – there was little he wouldn’t do for you, for those he considered close to him, to those he felt in need. Indeed, he was a Good Person, and the shock of his death was, is, numbing, for years afterwards.

***

I was born almost forty years ago. I am, quit obviously, still here and I have indeed known myself all my life. Better, perhaps, in the past twenty years, as I’ve come to make my own path in life, taking cues from the two men before me, but also creating my own, melding them with my wife’s, forging a life for us in a town, in a state and country, on a planet that continues, at least at this stage, to turn and to carry on and to exist.

***

Adeline was born a little over three years ago, the first of the paternal line to be born in Australia, and I have certainly known her for her entire life; indeed, I feel as if I’ve known her for my entire life. She met her great-Grandpa, but not her Grandpa. She knows his picture though, and the star my sister and I designated Dad Star, she knows where that is and can point it out and tells me Grandpa Bill is up there somewhere, looking after us all.

***

One of my cousins refers to Yorkshire as God’s own country. Grandpa wasn’t God, but he could have been confused as same by those only vaguely familiar with him. He wrote books, he taught and he lectured, he invented sheep breeds and was honoured by the Queen; he was, by many accounts, a formidable man in his prime, to the extent that he as a father perhaps wasn’t what he could or should have been to his five sons.

Whatever happened over the years, or didn’t happen, he and Dad made up at some point and Dad called him “the old boy” and I think they enjoyed drinking wine together in the final few times they spent in each other’s company.

We’d find ourselves in the mother country every two or three years, making the long journey from the Antipodes to visit him and Granny, the uncles, the aunts, the cousins and the kids. We did it the two of us, Claire and I, for years, then the three of us, with Addy. The last time we were there, Grandpa didn’t really know who we were, but he happily sat in his chair, smiling at us, at the tiny hurricane that bundled across his living room carpet, bumping off the couch, the dozing dog, the glass doors out to the patio.

Granny would chat constantly, asking us questions by the barrow-load, and so Grandpa was, or had learned to be, quite content to just sit and listen. He didn’t know who we were, but he knew we were special to him in some way, and that seemed to make him happy.

***

Dad knew my wife. Claire and I met almost ten years before he died. He loved her, couldn’t believe I’d found someone like her. In a nice way, I’d like to think. When we used to visit him and Mum at their place in the middle of nowhere, a couple of hours north of Melbourne, they’d get into great debates on the business merits of this and that, what he was doing, what she was doing. They both had out-of-the-box ways of thinking, and so quite often agreed with one another, while Mum, my sister and I were left rolling our eyes and wondering, if they agreed so heartily, why the conversation had gone on for so long.

***

I wanted to, had planned to, head over to the UK for Grandpa’s funeral. I knew it’d be happening at some point in the reasonably near future, and I wanted to be the one from Australia to head over and represent the family from Down Under. In the current climate though, this wasn’t possible and so I chatted with an uncle over the phone, another over email, and received the updates on the progress of Grandpa’s funeral arrangements. I saw the photos, and read bits and pieces on the family WhatsApp thread.

I’d emailed Granny a few days before Grandpa died, telling her how we three were doing, how we were in isolation, but that we were lucky in that we had the space to move, to breath. I told her how, given the weather, we were spending so much time at the beach and how much Addy loved the beach. I sent her some photos, which I assume she showed Grandpa.

***

I look up and try to find Dad Star any time I’m outside at night, it’s become as normal as breathing or eating. In the winter, the star slips over the western horizon almost before if becomes visible in the gathering darkness, but I know it’s there. Addy knows too, although she’s not sure where it’s gone right now.

I keep on living life, trying to be a good person, looking back at the two before me.

And looking forward at the young one after me, trying to help her do the same.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.7 – On The Demise Of Civility…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.7 – The Demise Of Civility (As It Were… And Still Is…)

(Originally written in August, 2017, but still pertinent today…)

For the past ten months or so, as befits a hobo journalist with relatively new paternal responsibilities, I’ve been moonlighting at the servo in town. Slingin’ petty, as the local grommets call it. It is, for the most part, a good little gig that affords me both the flexibility to continue plying my literary trade, all while allowing me to provide a bit extra for my fledgling family; a good balance at this point in my life, I feel.

With this newfound outlet though, has come a startling realisation. For these months past, as I’ve slung petty to countless people both during the day and through the night, I have come to realise that the demise of civility is upon us. A dark day is dawning, one where people care little for others and where good manners are naught but mere refuse, cast from the windows of speeding cars, left to fester in roadside ditches along with other antiquated and little-used notions like respect for one’s elders, chivalry and downright common sense.

In this day and age, it seems, people are far too wrapped up in their own lives to spare a thought for anyone else. Even the simple task of greeting someone is beyond some people, the thought of a ‘thank you’ come the end of the transaction now little more than a flight of fancy. I have lost count of the number of times someone has come in to pay for their fuel, and hasn’t even acknowledged that I exist, not even a look.

I was brought up to be polite, so perhaps that’s why this lack of common decency sticks in my craw. And I too, over the course of my adult life, have been wrapped up in whatever it was I was doing, and so have spared little thought for other people at times, of that I am surely guilty. But I have never thrown anything at anyone, I have never unleashed a torrent of abuse at someone, I have never told anyone they were worthless. All of this has happened to me in the past ten months, and it fair makes me wonder what the world is coming to.

Eighteenth century English writer Mary Wortley Montagu said that “civility costs nothing, but buys everything” – it seems, in an age where instant gratification is king, where a sense of entitlement, as bold as day, has settled over the landscape, that not many are aware of how cheap civility is, and how far it truly goes. Granted, giving me a smile and a cheery greeting won’t pay for your fuel, but I can guarantee it’ll get a smile in return, a bit of pithy banter and a good feeling buzzing about in your stomach. It’s basic human interaction, but I can tell you it’s beyond a vast majority of people I come across.

So why is this? When did civility begin its demise? Has it been this way for a while, but because I’ve not been privy to it on a daily basis, I haven’t realised? Perhaps people have become so used to online interaction that a face-to-face exchange has so become alien and strange, the muscles in people’s faces slack and flabby from underuse and so unable to form a simple smile. Good lord, it paints a grim picture of the future, make no mistake.

All I can do then I suppose, is try my best to ignore what I find abhorrent (along with practising my ducking and weaving). All I can do is stick to the ideals on which I was raised, and try my best to pass them on to my own daughter. All I can do is get on with my own life, paying proper respect to others along the way, all the while hoping, just hoping, that perhaps people will return the favour, and we can do our little bit to help restore the civility this world so keenly needs.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.6 – Life On The Frontline During COVID-19…

I should begin by qualifying the above title. For you see, I am in no way a medical professional, far from it, and even further from it for me to insinuate that what I’m doing is anywhere close to being as ‘frontline’ as these people; these doctors, nurses, pharmacists, GPs, paramedics and countless other medical pros are the ones who are doing it tough in order to keep people healthy and alive, and hats off to every single one of them.

No, my frontline activities are far more trivial – I work in the local bottleo, and while the government has deemed this an ‘essential’ service (indeed, woe betide any Australian governing body which sees fit to deny The People a drink, and in a time of crisis, no less), it hardly seems fair to call it, really, ‘frontline’.

So I’m naught but a humble slinger of suds, a bourbon broker, a vino vendor. I am also, for better or worse, a talker of entertaining shit, a sometimes surly retail worker, someone who in order to pay the bills as freelance writing all but dries up, dons a logo-d t-shirt a few times a week, punches a clock and serves the grotty masses their daily swill.

A bottle shop is a decent enough place to work. It is, as you’d expect, a good source of exercise; the money is solid; the hours are fine. It’s also a front row seat to the spectacle that is humanity, in that the constant flow of human flotsam that wanders in through those sliding glass doors provide an unending source of amusement, disgust, of sympathy and displays out outright eccentricity.

The big, burly, shirtless bloke who one would think the quintessential iconography of something like Tooheys New, or XXXX Gold, who is well and truly addicted to Passion Pop. The young surf guys who come in and, between five of them, split a case of Vodka Cruisers. The 19-year-old girl whose taste in shiraz is far more advanced than most three times her age. The older lady who wears hearing-aids but delights in not turning them on and so speaks at top volume, listens to nothing (not that she can), berates you in good humour and waltzes out, leaving those not used to her, in a state of shellshock.

Steve – old and grey-bearded, scrawny and sun-leathered – comes in from mowing lawns all day and walks straight up to me to talk footy. I’m a known Broncos and Queensland supporter among the League tragics in town, and so usually, playful banter is at a premium. In the current climate though, rivalries are forgotten as we commiserate together about how there is no football, and when will the football return?

Old ladies will walk towards me to ask a question but they won’t stop a metre and a half short and so I’m backing away from an old bird half my size, lest she get too close. I back into a shelf and have to tell them to stop where they are. They always apologise and look embarrassed.

Bus driver Dave, with his huge and droopy white moustache, buys the same two bottles of cheap semi-sauv every couple of days and then stays to chat for ten minutes, forgetting that people are waiting for him to move away from the counter so’s they can buy. Alicia, always in big hat and sunglasses, no matter the weather or time of day, buys her two bottles of slightly more expensive sauv-blanc, and always asks how you are.

Max, who used to run pubs, shuffles in for his XXXX Gold longneck and a bottle of chardonnay and cracks jokes but is very much concerned with your welfare. He’s just had a hip replacement, and I ask him how he’s feeling. “A lot bloody better now,” he snaps over his shoulder, “although I can’t bloody well go anywhere, can I? But how are you going? Surviving?”

People don’t read signs. They’re incapable of reading signs. A bank of fridges broke down last week, seven doors behind which sit all the pre-mix spirits and ciders, getting warmer and warmer as the fridge backfired completely and, sometime on the Sunday night, started pumping hot air instead of cold. It got up to 35 degrees in there.

So we put signs, at eye level, on each and every one of those fridges while they were being fixed, a two day operation. I lost count of the number of times someone came up to me, genuinely concerned for the most part, to tell me that they thought the fridges might be broken, and did we know, because everything was warm. I look at them for a second, a long and silent second, before saying, yeah, that’s why there are signs on the doors. They stare at me, and then laugh, and they walk off as I roll my eyes and continue stocking the longneck shelves.

I wear black, latex gloves, the same kind you’d see on a tattoo artist. I stand behind the Perspex screens that have been erected in front of the two tills at the counter. I sanitise the gloves every few customers. If I’m heaving cases, I’ll not wear gloves but I’ll wash my hands ever ten minutes or so. I use my shoulder to heave open the heavy coolroom door.

People walk in and make jokes about Corona beer. There’s a stack just inside the door; people laugh and say they feel sorry for whoever makes it. It’s still selling like hotcakes. Someone says they drank ten Coronas last night and so this morning they had coronavirus (to be fair, that one was pretty good… at least the first time I heard it). Someone else will pick up a case and feint a pass to a mate, “Look out mate, Coronavirus” and they’ll guffaw and I’ll roll my eyes again.

Occasionally someone will get testy about something. (“But the customer is always right,” they’ll say indignantly. “A common misconception,” I’ll deadpan back). I feel, in the current circumstances, a bit of dry humour works well. At least in the main.

To be fair to the flotsam flow, people are generally well behaved and if they fail to follow a sign, or the arrows marked in blue tape on the floor, a quick and friendly remonstration is all it takes for an apology, and an about-turn to follow the correct path.

You’ve got to keep it tight, in the bottleo, people know that, for if they want a drink, well, you need to toe the line. I tell them this, and they look at me a bit worried but I’ll smile and they’ll smile and we’re all good.

Every person is a threat, every piece of money a potential carrier of infection, every cough a gun-shot. But a bottle shop is a decent place to work, and while we’re not saving any lives, life on the ‘frontline’ flows on.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.5 – Tiered Waterfalls, Up In The Hills…

Observations From Isolation: Ch.5 – Tiered Waterfalls, Up In The Hills…

 

We get to the

Top of the Bitumen Hill

And I pull onto the side

To lock the front wheels and then

Kick it into four-high and we turn

Off the scrappy blacktop onto dirt and head

Up and east.

 

There are houses at first,

Decent size and structure tucked

Into the dense rainforest

But we leave them behind quickly and

It’s nothing but green and swaying ferns and

Palms.

We wind the windows down and smell

The peat and the moisture coming up

Off the forest floor.

 

We catch glimpses of the

Ocean through the

Trees and the land falls away to our right

As we climb higher.

 

The road is fine, packed hard and almost

Pink gravel, running divots cut through in

Places from recent rain creating diagonal

Speed bumps. The truck

Shudders and bounces across them

And stabilises. I sip coffee

Carefully between bumps, quickly averting

My eyes from the road to tuck the

Cup back into its holder.

 

We find a spot, high up, to park,

Tucked against ferns and backed

Against a fallen log. We cross

The road, with the small stream running beneath

That then finds freedom on the other side

Through big concrete pipes that make you think

Of sewage, but the water is

Clear and clean and is colder than the air.

Adeline skips ahead on the

Slippery rock and we have to tell her to

Be careful but she doesn’t stop, just laughs

And keeps on skipping.

 

The rock tiers naturally, small steps

Downward, rivulets running and dropping

Then pooling before finding a gap

And gravity helps it along.

 

Birds call in the trees and there’s

No one about at all. You think

You hear a car somewhere further down one

Of the tracks but it turns out to be a lone,

Small, plane somewhere not too high above

Joyflighting over the emptiness of

It all.

 

Some parts are steep and you need

To find a way, a different way, off the

Track, somewhere easier to slide, to

Tumble, to step down to the next level

Where the water pools again, deeper this

Time under trees with dappled sun lighting

It in a way that makes the clear water gleam

Like nothing you’ve seen gleam before.

 

We race leaves down small runs to

See which will get there first. Mine

Always seem to end up caught under

Loose grass and Addy’s make it clear to the

Next pool.

 

We find the end, a proper drop to

Valley below, the view across Myocum

Towards Byron and the sea glittering in the

Middle distance. We sit

And eat mandarins and peanuts and sip

From the water bottle and find long grass

To make swords and we throw our fruit peel

Into the long scrub and sit and watch

The view.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.4 – Deep South, Pitbulls and Disused Railways…

On Walking The Track… Isolation In Nature… Pitbulls And Graffiti… No Sound But The Birds…

There’s a winding track a five or so minute drive from our place, that cuts through bushland and under the highway, running the couple of kilometres between north Ocean Shores and Billinudgel. It’s only wide enough for walking or bike riding, concrete bollards at each end stopping any cars coming through. It’s wild and untamed off the edges, but the track – cracked bitumen with faded white dividing lines down the centre – remains true and it curves lightly through the growth, little used by anyone aside from those in the know.

We regularly drive down, park the truck at the eastern end and pull Addy’s scooter out of the back. She darts ahead on three wheels and chatters constantly, picking up sticks and waving them in the air while we wander slowly behind. Aside from the tiny talk, it’s quiet and seemingly remote, a reconnection with nature as you make your way westward, stopping occasionally to peer through the trees, to look up to the arching canopy overhead.

Parts of it reminds me of the American deep south, rural parts of Louisiana in particular as you head west from New Orleans toward Baton Rouge and Lafayette – away from the interstate and the large towns that congregate along same, winding single-lane roads cut through isolated hamlets, past tiny white-painted churches and lean-to shacks partly hidden in groves of pine laden with Spanish moss, pick-up trucks parked haphazard in front.

There’s no hanging moss here, no rusty pick-ups or various houses of the lord, but it has that same lucid melancholy in the way the lantana grows right up to the cracked bitumen, hiding most that’s behind it all aside from the top third of power poles, the remnants of past industry, marshy wetland and rusty tin-topped sheds stacked with rotting rail timber and bolts the size of your forearm.

The only remaining signs of the actual rail line, as it were, are the rickety sleepers and oxidized iron that bridge the lethargic brown water of Marshalls Creek.

When you’re not close to the highway, all you can hear are the birds. You can’t see them, but they’re set in the trees and they call to one another like they’re the only living things ever to have been. Butterflies waft through on the occasional breeze, blue and orange, and clouds of grey moths disturbed by footfalls through the low grass on the edge of the path, puff up into the air in a silent frenzy before settling again once their danger has passed.

Walking under the highway, it’s a different scene altogether; brutalist and sparse, giant concrete beams span the width of the underpass and road-trains boom by a few metres above your heard, the sound below duller but echoing across culverts and divots in the scree piled out from the track. Storm water pools in stagnant ponds behind wilting wire fences and graffiti murals span beams, adding colour to an otherwise dull and grey concrete expanse.

Spent cigarette butts dot the darker grey of the rock, and there’s an empty cardboard carton of bourbon and cola cans half submerged in the muddy brown water.

At the Billi end, the track passes close to a residential property, a fibro shack built right up to the path, its grey wall scrawled over in green paint a paranoid message hinting at hidden security cameras. I can’t see any. Two pitbulls run the length of a wire enclosure across the patchy grass, barking madly, downing out the birdcall. It’s here that we turn and begin the walk back, under the highway, past the old rail bridge and the metal-encased cabelling running endlessly north, back under the canopy, the roar of interstate traffic fading behind us as we head east, to be replaced with the birds

We round the final curve and can see the truck sitting against the bollads were we left it. Addy scoots up to it and flops over in the grass, her helmeted head seeming far too large for her body. The birds call in the trees overhead as we load up and drive home.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.3 – Golden Orbs, Pirates & Dance Parties…

Golden Orbs On Thick Strands… Pirates In The Bottleo… Dance Parties About The Loungeroom…

Two golden-orb spiders have built a huge and complex web off the side of the palms bordering the driveway. I pull in at night after work and they hang directly above the driver’s side door; I have to slip out and around the back of the truck, walk down the passenger side lest I come face to face, in the dark, with their spindly legs.

In the mornings, when I head down to the beach, or go and buy some bread, a newspaper, they’ve extended their empire and thick and sticky strings are looped around the side mirror, the radio antenna. When I back out, the big diesel engine throbbing, the strands pull and then snap and the huge web bends and flexes, its occupants jarred into quick action before web and spiders settle and I’m free and away to start the day.

There’s something intriguing about the fact they’re working together – something oddly unsettling as well, but I don’t think about it too much until I’m face to face with them again later on.

There’s a mass of smaller orbs about the garden too, they’ve proliferated in the past couple of weeks, stringing webs in the little native trees out the back, off the edge of the clothesline, across the gate into the back garden. Mostly, they’re off to the side but occasionally they need to be gently dissuaded from invading public space and so a broom handle or a fallen palm frond snaps strings and the webs fall back gently so’s you can walk past.

They’re so delicate they float on a breeze you can’t even feel.

On Tuesday just gone, darkness fallen, sometime between seven and eight o’clock, a pirate wandered into the Bottleo, a pronounced limp and a grizzled, grey beard. Surprisingly bright eyes and clear, tanned skin though – I tried to guess his age but failed; he could have been forty or seventy.

Big, black leather boots, a ratty and long black coat, brown leather tri-cornered hat on his head, fingers adorned in silver, crystals and opals and all sorts hanging around his neck. Homeless but cheerful enough. He bought a small bottle of port, paid for it in change, then leant against the counter and talked to me about whisky. As befits a pirate.

He was surprisingly articulate, well travelled. He knew his whisky. We compared favourites, we both like our single malts heavily peated. He wasn’t crazy. But he was dressed like a pirate. I saw him the following day, down in town crossing the bridge in the sunshine but still covered in black with his long coat, the bright light flashing off his ringed fingers, the bottle of port nowhere to be seen.

Claire and Addy have dance parties in the loungeroom. They plug a phone into the stereo and find something they both want to listen to. Addy quickly runs into her bedroom to find a dress that twirls and then runs back out saying she can’t find her ballet slippers. They’re usually on the floor in plain sight. The two of them hold hands and swing around the coffee table, around the couch and Papa’s old armchair which sits, faded by decades of sunlight, just inside the front door. They try out new dance moves and Addy will then run into my office to tell me they’ve got a new dance move and that I have to come out and see it.

I sit on the couch and watch them dance, Addy’s dress swirling around her waist, both of them laughing, getting sweaty from the lingering summer humidity and the exertion of it all. Eventually they both fall into a pile on the floor, laughing, legs flailing and I stretch out on the couch and laugh too. This is our isolation.

Observations From Isolation: Ch.1 – Desperate Times…

These are desperate times and so desperate measures are required.

People are confused, their eyes dart right then left and they stand stock still, although not for too long lest they be pulled up by the authorities and told to move on. People aren’t quite sure, and so no one is moving fast, no one knows what to expect.

Desperate measures for desperate times. People adapt and do what they can to survive. The Fear is almost done perhaps, but the waiting – the interminable waiting – is in full swing. People wait, they tentatively go about their lives all whilst thinking to themselves how much their lives have changed, and they wait.

Do they think this is the new normal, or is it hard to adjust and to keep swimming as the current switches like a whip without a second’s notice? Some go with the current while others buck against it.

Places once viewed as naught but pit-stops have become all important places to meet, to catch up, to reconnect, albeit at a distance and in almost hushed tones so as not to affect anyone else, so as not to give the impression that one is flaunting the rules and congregating, mingling, whatever the opposite is of social isolation, of distancing, of doing for the good of the People what one should.

The supermarket and the bottleshop, these are the places where people meet now and so both, usually quick-stop-move-on types of places, ring with the laughter of friends reacquainting under the bright lights, in front of the craft beer fridges, leaning against the cold meat freezer, flirtations in the pasta aisle, catch-ups lit gold by the coolroom glare, recollections of isolation to the smell of BBQ chicken fresh off the rotisserie.

People wave from passing cars far more often than they used to and one wandering the streets is all too keen to wave back. It doesn’t matter who’s flung an arm from a slow-moving truck, it’s Someone and so the interaction is enough to elicit a response and a retelling of the episode once the wanderer has returned home. Home, wherever that may be.

People read the news more than they did and yet the news is dying.

These are desperate times and so desperate measures are required. It’s the new normal, but how normal is it, and when will the waiting end? You’re lonely, bored, sick of the whip-quick current switch and so you head to the bottleshop, hoping someone you know has the same idea so you can catch up, a casual elbow-lean on a stack of promo beer on the shop floor and interaction is once again achieved. Before you’re required to move on once more.

1990s Music Still Sound As Ever…

The 1990s. Musically, a monster of a decade. A bustling local scene, myriad venues thriving, people spilling from pubs and clubs creating a happening soundtracked by the most powerful of sounds ever to be wrenched from electric guitars, bass and drums, thudding and raw, a real time. Indeed, truly the greatest musical decade of all, at least according to anyone who was out and about during those heady days.

To be fair, anyone who was out and about in any decade will tell you the same thing; their music was the best, their venues, their scene, and anyone who disagrees is just plain wrong. Given the subjective nature of music however, this is no surprise. There actually are no right and wrong answers, and who’s to argue otherwise?

It’s always those from decades past who are the most vocal in this instance too; not many kids out there today will be assailing you with reasons why this decade we’re in right now, is the best. No, it’s those from times gone by, those who are now in their forties (at least), have kids, jobs, mortgages and all that sort of thing.

It seems, with responsibility, comes a hefty dose of nostalgia.

And this isn’t a bad thing. Life today is vastly different to how it was ten, twenty, even two years ago. It’s faster, it’s more connected, the world is smaller and people are louder. In the past few months alone, we’ve had ruinous bushfires, calamitous floods, there’s a virus on the loose across the world and those in power are seeming further and further out of touch with the common man.

So what can the common man do in these troubling times? When looking forward has never been more important, looking back plays a part too, an element of nostalgia acting almost as a balm to problems being faced in the present; those times back then were great, and for a short time, I can forget about the fact that, today, the world as I know it is ripping apart at the seams.

A little over a month ago, radio presenter and writer Jane Gazzo came up with just such a balm, creating a Facebook page entitled Sound As Ever (Australian Indie 90-99). In almost five weeks, this group has grown rapidly, now home to over ten thousand members, all of whom have spent the month just gone trading stories, pictures, memories, and videos of independent Australian music from the 1990s.

The enthusiasm these people have for that time and place is as infectious as COVID-19. Their love for this music runs as deep as an overflowing coastal river. Their passion burns as hot as a runway fire front. And it’s fuelled by a nostalgia for times gone by, times these people regard as ‘the best’.

My time spent ingesting music properly – as in, going out to gigs, buying CDs, actively being a part of the scene – began in the late ‘90s, and so for me this social media group has been almost an education, a filling in of the blanks as to what was happening in the seven years before I got on board, down in Melbourne as a rock ‘n’ roll obsessed 17-year-old.

I’ve spent more than a few hours in the past month trawling through countless posts from people – not just people who were in the industry in the ‘90s, but people who were genuine, dedicated fans – reminiscing about this time and place. Band photos, ticket stubs, grainy video, ads in street press, countless posts beginning in similar fashion: “Hey, does anyone remember [insert band x here]?” Invariably, lots of people do and so there are precious few posts in this group that don’t have at least a dozen comments below them.

I’m sure most of the 10,000 members of Sound As Ever would agree, that the ‘90s wasn’t necessarily the ‘best’ decade in music, Australian or otherwise. And indeed, no one can definitively say that it was, or wasn’t. What is very plain to see though, is that the element of nostalgia that this group has unearthed is playing a vital part in the lives of these people (myself included) who are older, who have kids and jobs and endless responsibilities but who fondly remember a time and place, one fuelled by music, and one which is just as important to them today, as it was when it was happening.

Perhaps even more important. Because you can run out of patience in people who are supposed to be governing, you can run out of faith that the world is doing OK, you can run of toilet paper. But you can’t run out of memories of the ‘best’ decade in music, ever.

Samuel J. Fell

 

LIVE – Mullum Music Festival 2017

[Published in Rolling Stone (Australia), November 2017]

SLOUCHING TOWARDS MULLUM

Mullum Music Festival, November 17-19, 2017 – Mullumbimby, NSW

The rain starts around midnight. Friday. Fat drops, cold for November. Stiff breeze off the ocean, pushes the wind chimes around a bit and they tinkle melodically in protest.

The palms dance in the dark; I can’t see them, but I know the sound.

Adeline is asleep, and Claire is watching something on Netflix. I’m sitting out the back, feet up on a chair, listening to the rain beat on the tin roof. Smoking cigarettes and drinking cold cans of Victoria Bitter. My favourite stubbie holder – white writing on black, Fuck Y’all, I’m From Texas, a souvenir from the deep south – winks at me from the otherwise dark.

Around seven clicks inland from here lies the township of Mullumbimby. It sits quietly at the base of Mount Chincogan, an almost perfect triangle that rises from the hinterland like a verdant pyramid and towers over this old town like a silent guardian, or a marker, a beacon that tells people from afar that this is where it is, this is where it’s happening.

Not much happens in Mullum, not usually. It’s a country town. It has an old IGA, which continues to exist in solemn defiance to the newer Woolies around the corner. It has a locally owned Mitre 10 which prospers despite the Bunnings in Byron. It has tennis courts you can rent by the hour for tuppence and the farmer’s market has stalls manned by farmers.

The barbershop doesn’t have eftpos.

And yet tonight, as the rain falls and drums on the tin and speckled toads dart through the light on the wet grass to the shadow over the garden beds, Mullum is ringing and thudding, its normally quiet Friday night streets awash with not just the rain but the continuously rhythmic footfalls of dozens and scores and throngs of people.

Music seeps from windows and doorways, suddenly loud as someone pushes open the glass to come out and smoke, veiled and muffled again as the door swings to behind them. Ten years ago, the Mullum Music Festival made its tentative debut in a town rich on culture but oddly suspicious of anything new and so it struggled to get a foothold for a few years before being embraced, now the multi-faceted musical beast that’ll sell out most years, drawing in people from all over the world.

The locals, an odd melange of refugee hippies and farmers, young families and single workers, embrace it all and dance in the rain with anyone who’ll join them.

Before the downpour, before I rounded the crew and drove them home, before I retired to my old wooden chair to sip a few of my own, a job well done, it’d been jostling for elbow room in the Courthouse Hotel, Sal Kimber playing her first show in a time. Country-soul set to a metronomic beat (courtesy of Cat Leahy), that’s equal parts jagged and worn smooth. Kimber writes from the heart and her songs carry a weight that’s hard to find.

Marty and I stay put once Kimber wraps it up, prop up the bar, waiting for Z Star Delta who, for a two-piece, take an inordinately long time to set up, their sound check promising waves of boogie blues but the reality, once it finally begins, is more a layered and layered soundscape of a set, guitar and drums, too many layers for the most part, too little substance amidst the fog. It’s interesting but it doesn’t land, for mine, and so we beat a lethargic retreat and stroll up to the Rizzla.

Lindi Ortega is onstage, sans full band, just her and guitarist ‘Champagne’ James Robertson. The former howls and wails, the latter picks and plucks, it all meets in the middle – country, blues, swing. Ortega, Canadian, has an odd method of lyrical phrasing, you think she’s not going to hit the right key but she does, almost impossibly, every time. It’s engaging, different. Robertson is the master, he is the roots guitarist, he tunes things way down and uses the slack to his advantage and plays blues like he’s somewhere steamy in the Delta and there ain’t nothin’ else to do nohow.

They finish with a completely rebuilt version of Janis’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, which becomes a habit – their Saturday set comes to a close with Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’, but it’s another beast entirely, the best reinterpretation I’ve heard in some time.

Like any other festival, happening, experience, Mullum Fest begins to run into itself. Saturday night and Sunday night, as wet as Friday, bend and colour into one another. Which is Mullum to a tee – “How weird is Mullum,” I overhear a man say to his partner, not a question but a statement. The town itself began life, back in the mid to late 1800s, as a refuge, and it still carries this feel today – somewhere you can come to hide, to sit, to be obvious or anonymous, a town where muddy Hilux’s are parked next to shitbox Kombis outside the Middle Pub and no one gives a toss in a place where kombucha is as common as black tea and damper.

Over the course of the weekend, the corner of Dalley and Burringbar Streets, the centre of the action, becomes home to an ever-growing clutch of ferals and pseudo-hippies; barefoot and ragged, they set up trinket stalls on old blankets on the pavement and smoke weed and stage their own festival, getting sloppy and bumping into people. They have no true ethos though, and the corner becomes one to avoid, the small throng becoming hard to see through the green smoke and the film of aggression which thickens as the weekend goes on.

Jon Cleary, by contrast, is true and pure, he brings N’Awlins with him, solo on Saturday and Sunday with band, The Monster Gentlemen. He’s a true keysman in the southern Louisiana style and particularly on the Sunday, as the temperature in the High School hall soars and the humidity climbs, he relishes it all and splays all ten fingers across his vast array of ivories and for a while we’re all on Frenchmen Street, just off the Quarter, soaking it up, laissez les bons temps rouler.

Back over at the Civic Hall, caught on the way in a downpour and sheltering under an awning outside the Bowlo, watching the Magic Bus lumbering up towards the middle of town, people hanging from its windows, driven by Timbo who has an amazing collection of Safari Suits, Mama Kin Spender produce a set that epitomises what this festival is – Kin drumming upright with a voice that builds and projects, Spender on guitar, a twenty (or so)-piece choir, they breath soul and vitality into the place.

This is Mullum Fest – it invigorates you as the seasons change, as the promise of the thick and hot summer looms, gives you the energy to finish up the year… Kin and Spender set this to music, myriad voices building together and releasing over a full house like the tide coming in.

It’s joyous and powerful and people smile and grab each other’s shoulders and grin in delight in the darkness, smiles still evident as they spill out into the sodden courtyard.

Wallis Bird has people talking all weekend, as does Sal Wonder and Ron Artis II. Marlon Williams is at his soulful best and his new album will be one to hear, to put on repeat listens. Suzannah Espie brings her own country-soul; Lucie Thorne teams up once more with drummer Hamish Stuart; Jimmy Dowling’s songs of love and life become real and large; Heartworn Highway turn Americana Australian.

I end up back on my wooden chair on Sunday night, seven clicks back towards the coast, listening to the rain beat patterns on the tin above my head. Adeline’s asleep but Claire is sitting with me. We drink beer and wine and talk about the weekend which has, all of a sudden, passed us by.

The streets of Mullum are still slick and wet, the ferals are still on the corner and people are still spilling out of the Civic Hall, waiting for the bus under umbrellas and raincoats.

I see festival director Glenn Wright not long before I leave and he smiles and is relaxed as the event’s ten year anniversary party comes to an end, a success. Which doesn’t take much – planning, yes, but once it’s rolling, Mullum Fest does it’s own thing and for the punter, for the observer, for the people dancing and listening and bumping in the street, it runs seamlessly and perfectly, a glittering gem of a happening.

Back out here, the speckled toads continue their dance, and the fronds and the wind chimes whip and tinkle. And it’s all done for another year. Tomorrow, Mullum will return to its quiet self, a little country town in the shadow of its green pyramid. Resting. Waiting for next year.

Samuel J. Fell

Canned Heat

Published in the March / April issue of Rhythms magazine (Cover Feature – EXCERPT)

Fifty-three years ago, three blues nuts formed a band. Today, Canned Heat are still at it, still pushing the blues, writes Samuel J. Fell

I’m standing on a hay-bale or something, maybe a milk crate, I don’t really know, it’s too dark to see, but it’s higher than ground level and so I’ve purloined it and am standing on it in a vain attempt to see over the swelling rip-tide of human flesh in front of me, to get a better glimpse of what’s happening up on stage.

It’s a futile exercise though and I abandon my poor vantage point and try to wedge my way through the throng but it’s leather-pants-tight and I can’t penetrate and so I retreat, reluctantly, to the outer edges, where I can at least hear, if not see.

I roll a cigarette, fishing around in my pocket for a lighter, spark, inhale, you know the drill. I lean against a pole and let it all wash over me, forget I’m well outside the tent and nowhere near the stage, just feel the old music bursting from under the gargantuan faded canvas cover, over people’s heads and across the grass to where I’m standing.

Despite when it was written, or what’s informed it, the music is muscular and bawdy and seems made for right now, like maybe it’s being played for the first time and all of us, crammed together in the humidity with dust on our boots, wild-eyed after three days in the field (as it were), are hearing something new that no one else has ever heard before.

It’s blues, but it’s rock ‘n’ roll and it carries with it, as it whips across distance, an effortless cool that despite its immediacy, is at once familiar and comfortable. Not because you’ve heard the songs before but because of what they represent, a particular time where the music meant something else entirely but has since been lovingly reworked and fawned over and loaded up on all sorts of chemicals and wrought through the wringer and so it’s old and new at the same time and it just fits, like an old and faded pair of jeans you just can’t remember ever having lived without.

The crowd throbs with an energy I’ve not come across all weekend, and the players themselves, up on stage – tiny from my vantage point, when I can catch a glimpse – seem to throb too, vibrating with an energy they themselves are creating via this music which all at once seems both timeless and of this one place and time. Frenzied harmonica cuts through buzzing guitar and the rhythm section bumps and grinds underneath it all like an old alligator death rolling in some muddy river somewhere south of the Mason Dixon.

I butt my smoke out and wonder if I can cut across to the bar on the other side of the stage to grab another beer before this song finishes but I can’t move and so stay and keep letting it all wash over me, somewhere in a field, wild-eyed, with dust on my boots and the sweat of a thousand others painting the air wet all around me.

***

That was the first time I ever saw Canned Heat, back in 2012 at the 23rd Byron Bay Bluesfest. I’d known of the band of course, but had never really delved into their extensive catalogue. I was actually introduced to them in a reasonably random way, a compilation album landing on my desk some years prior, Rarities From The Bob Hite Vaults, presented by some cat called Dr. Boogie, a collection of “rare pieces taken from Bob Hite’s fabulous collection of 78rpm records.” This is a record which still gets regular play at our place, and it was from this cut, along with the extensive liner notes contained within, that I was introduced to Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite, and the band he formed with Alan Wilson back in 1965, a band which would go on, in its own unassuming way, to change the face of popular music at a time when change was of the essence and a new way of looking at things – or hearing things – was paramount and carried with it weight and cred and cool.

Changing the face of popular music wasn’t what the band originally set out to do though. For many bands, this sort of ideal was high on the list, but Canned Heat it seems, just wanted to emulate the music of their heroes. Hite and Wilson were, as is well documented, mad blues fans and so the mandate of Canned Heat from the get-go – if indeed the band even had one – was to push the music of these mostly unknown players to a much, much wider audience. And it was this that was of paramount importance for Hite and Co., more so than fame, fortune, the trappings of being in a band in the red-hot middle-‘60s.

“Well, you had three guys, Bob Hite, Alan Wilson and Henry Vestine, who were all major record collectors,” recalls Skip Taylor, over the phone from Tucson, Arizona. “Mainly blues record collectors. They’d travelled to Mississippi in the south, and had talked to these older guys, and their lives were spent in the blues. And that wasn’t the most common thing [back then], it was really about rock for most young, white, American guys.

“So they were kind of a cult unto themselves, and in marrying their blues proficiencies with my rock ‘n’ roll background, together we were able to get something not necessarily commercial, but they always wanted to be as big as Paul Butterfield, having an album crack the Top 100 on Billboard, that was it. My thoughts had always been to go a little higher and deeper than that, but all of us talked about having a music that would appeal to a much wider, white audience, and give the blues and black blues… at least give the populace the chance to hear this more, and be aware of this more. In the same way I think John Mayall has always felt, you know?”