Wednesday, February 06, 2008

1 Song

You don’t need to have the mind of a criminal genius to recognise that Donkey hasn’t really been firing on all four hooves of late, and I’d have to admit that I’m not really sure what future, if any, this blog has, but in an attempt to get things moving, I thought a metaphorical soaking in kerosene, a vigorous squeeze and a struck match to the little bugger may just pump some life back in and provide me with an indication of whether I’m onto a winner, or merely flogging a dead ol’ nag.

So I’ve been reading Nick Hornby’s interesting, albeit rather self-indulgent, 31 Songs, in which he wittily reflects on a number of songs and albums which have affected his life in some way, and being at home in Australia at the moment, catching up with family, old friends, their families, old work colleagues etc, I got to thinking about the significant role music has played in my development as a person, and in particular, the special role that a hard-working local blues performer played in shaping my behaviour as a young adult, and which almost certainly directed my actions towards a sense of social justice and responsibility.

Just across the street from one of Melbourne’s oldest and busiest markets, in a quiet, shabby, narrow laneway obscured by hulking, stinking, over-flowing dumper-bins stands a small bar with an unusual, 24-hour liquor license. The Public Bar has, for generations, catered for the early morning appetites of the market workers as they finish setting-up the stalls each morning, receiving the fresh produce as it arrives from the docks and market gardens, and distributing it amongst the sleepy-eyed stall owners. While the city snores beneath their quilts in their hermetically sealed bunkers, the Public Bar hums, as it has done for close to a century, with the nocturnal buzz of union dissention, football club speculation, political dissection, bawdy jokes and negotiation of sexual liaisons (both paid and otherwise), all wrapped-up in the atmosphere of a kind of topsy-turvy six-o’clock swill at the wrong end of the day.

By the time I was old enough to know better, as in many cities of the world, the inner suburbs of Melbourne were changing. The working class battlers, upon whom our politicians of either persuasion love to wax lyrical, had been shoved out of their traditional environs to make way for Porsche-driving young executives or funky hipsters indulging in hedonistic, drug fuelled pursuits of artistic brilliance. At that time, the seedy Public Bar, with its peeling paint, cracked ceiling roses and chipped plaster cornices; with its mildewed wall tiles and filthy, gummy carpets changed its entire image. Oh, the dirty tiles and carpets remained, and the ceiling was still in need of a good coat of Taubmans, but the cracks of the market-workers, poking up out of frayed bar-stool cushions, had made way for the less hairy slots of uber-trendy Levi’s low-riders, and the unshaved chins of the drunken labourers were replaced with the peach-fuzz goaties that characterise recently nest-fled university arts students.

Also part of the change was the entertainment. The satellite TV hook-up of greyhound and horse racing, American football, cricket, billiards and darts was taken down from its corroded stand above the ciggie machine, and in its place live music bloomed. Unlike the slick venues across town with their neon-rimmed mirrors and Cougar Bourbon promotions, however, the Public Bar was neither well located, nor well-reputed to attract headline acts. What it did have going for it, though, was its unusual liquor license; a loop-hole in Government legislation from the 1880s, exploited long ago by the labourers’ union, and institutionalised through eighty years of all night revelry. It was its ability to remain a nightly stayer, long after all the major venues had gone nigh-nighs that soon attracted serious musicians and music fans alike, and which eventually cemented the Public Bar as the place to be after 2am, if one wanted to hear talented musos jamming together and trying out new material before heading into the studio.

It was to this filthy, stained, smoky chamber of horrors that Donkey gravitated after late-night shifts, a move much maligned by his peers, who tended towards the afore-mentioned shiny bars with their neon glow, and where he first learned to feel at home amongst strangers. It was here that he learned to appreciate that a public place can also be owned, in a sense, by the individuals who visit it, and it was here where he first heard many an unknown, talented musician as they emerged from obscurity, and began their climb to the mainstream market. It was also here that Donkey was first blown-away by Chris Wilson.

One late evening, Donkey was plonked on an uneven, rocky bar stool when a touring Sydney three-piece blues outfit, seemingly to me at the time, invited one of the older bar flies up on stage to accompany them. This fat, balding slob of a man lumbered up onto stage and whipped out his harmonica to the usual, good-natured jeers of the crowd and then disaster struck.

No one knew quite what happened, either then or after, but it appeared that a huge freight train had derailed and come screaming through the front window of the Public Bar, bringing with it a howling hot wind and the screech of metal. Everyone in the bar was thrown backwards by the shockwave of the impact, and after a dazed moment or two, I opened my eyes to see Mr Chris Wilson and the three Backsliders in the middle of one of the most amazing blues instrumentals of all time. The noise, reverberating through every one of my organs was as physical as being beaten with a cricket bat; the sound coming from that tiny mouth organ was intense.

I stood there awed for about 18 minutes while the instrumental played itself out, and then joined the throng in enthusiastic appreciation before the group started up again, this time with a much slower air, and Mr Wilson slipped-in with powerful vocals that soared to the highest peaks, and plunged to the resonant depths of the deepest chambers. I was awed … I was hooked.

I talked of little else for a week, and then dragged a friend back for a listen. This friend, far from being a fan of drinking, seedy bars or music, was about as glowing as one could have hoped, “Well, he didn’t play any numbers that I didn’t like”, and so I know Chris Wilson had to be good.

I soon began to see and hear his name everywhere. It seemed as though he was performing somewhere, almost every night of the week. I would come back to the Public Bar every Wednesday to see him, and each time I would see someone else that I knew, who had also stumbled across the performer, been blown away, bought the $10 CD (about the best music buy you’ll ever make) and become hooked.

Looking back, part of the charm of Chris Wilson, and those gigs at the Public Bar, was the interaction of the patrons. Wilson would have a laugh and jeer at someone, who’d give it back just as wittily, and everyone, be they wealthy and well-dressed, wealthy and terribly-dressed or poor and not dressed much at all, would interact with comfortable, jovial banter. I even went along with some of my homeless clients from time to time, who’d become fans themselves, and who, despite their usual, opportunistic requests, would happily go in a shout together – such was the atmosphere of the place, its clientele and entertainer, the Big Man, Chris Wilson.

And what about him? I mentioned he was a hard-working muso, but I also stumbled across him one day in my work, while he was working as a volunteer English teacher to migrant kids. On another occasion, I attended a gig he performed at a barbeque our organisation was holding for disabled children and their families, but it was all coincidence … it had nothing to do with me; he was doing this stuff – contributing his drive and talent – for his community, and clearly other people had discovered him, and his music. It was as if everyone I knew had a secret obsession for this artist, but that we were all unable, or unwilling to share that obsession with each other.

This was supposed to be a piece about one song that blew me away, or changed my life. I don’t think any of Chris Wilson’s songs actually changed my life … it wasn’t a song, it was a place, and a way of interacting, and a feeling of familiarity and solidarity amongst a performer and his audience, and a way of valuing and celebrating people for who and what they are which helped change my views on a whole host of things.

The Public Bar, always changing, I guess, has now had a real-life face lift, and predominantly caters for the booming backpacker market (let’s face it, you just can’t beat the lure of English pounds). The carpet has been replaced with polished floorboards, and the gritty tiles with French windows, but the all-night license still sees the odd grungy type hanging around at 4am, and the open mic nights still lure the avant garde poets on a weekly basis. Chris Wilson is still pounding out live performances, and can be heard all over Melbourne just about every second night of the week, albeit on a different stage, however the lesson remains; the Public Bar, Chris Wilson, and the people that gathered there to see and hear his performances demonstrated to me that there is something to value in being part of a community – that unique, expressive individuals, and the interaction between them, are not easily found in the plastic, throwaway society of today’s cities, but like all things, those that are hardest to obtain, are usually all the more valuable for it.

Blues harp, fags and beer: a pretty typical night at the Public Bar, circa 1995. Pic: