Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The musician and the ergotron

Way back in the dim distant, I was a travelling minstrel. To be a little more specific, I played guitar in a succession of peripatetic rock and roll bands. I was on tour for years, traversing the length and breadth of the country, playing everything from tiny hotels and community halls in the outback to big clubs and concert halls in the capital cities.

I've read a few memoirs of prominent rock artists, who generally discuss the existential angst of the wobbly life of the musician on the road. It's a life, they say, of hidden hardships: relationship problems, difficulties with their band-members, the gruelling grind of perpetual movement, ultra-late nights, no sleep, too much alcohol and too many drugs, etc. etc.

Wankers. It's fucking brilliant. How many people get to indulge their passion, work three hours a day, and develop serious mastery of their tools of trade whilst being cosseted from the real world by managers, roadies who work like dogs, and the fawning attention of sycophants who keep telling them how wonderful they are?

The only down side (and it's so trivial as to be almost not worth pointing out) is that occasionally you have to spend time with wankers who might later go on to write books like the above. Egotists who believe that what they do has some import in the general scheme of things. These idiots have never met an eye-surgeon, a nuclear physicist or a social worker. 

So, if you have a sensible disposition and a reasonably healthy liver, life on the road is a ball. I suppose I got my love of travel generally from my experiences as a musician on the road. I loved the feeling of coming into consciousness in the back seat of a car at dawn in a new town; taking in the sights and smells of different latitudes; meeting people who had the same, slightly or wildly different attitudes to life in general because of who they were, what they did and where they lived.

All of this is a preamble, of course, to telling you the story of the stupidest thing I ever did.

Now, I've been in danger of dying a few times in my life: surfing-cum-drowning, various work accidents on the job, etc. But all of these have been accidents of circumstance where I didn't have much control over events. The accident that almost took my life was an accident by design, and I was a willing, ridiculously dumb participant in it.

Of course, the reason why I can write about it so flippantly now is that it didn't do any lasting damage, as far as I know, and that it was, in the end, a pretty funny thing, considering.

I was playing in a kick-arse boogie band; as well as our original tunes, we played some Dr John, Stevie Ray Vaughan- type things, as well as boogied-up versions of Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix. I was the rhythm guitarist; it was my job, with the bass player and drummer, to set up a huge rhythm section from which our brilliant lead guitarist could launch himself into massive solos. We were, if I do say so myself, a pretty hot band; we were the band to go and see if you lived in that vast area between the Great Dividing Range and the New South Wales/South Australian border. (And, for out-of-towners, that's a big area.)

It was a Saturday night, and we were playing in a big pub in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales - not really that far from the place that I now call home. We'd come in to town at about 6.30 p.m., got our accommodation sorted, had a shower and something to eat, and had made our way down to the pub for the show. A typical night - no dramas; the boys had everything set up; all we had to do was stand on the stage and play our guts out. Easy.

We walked into the pub, and there was the band's gear all set up on stage, as usual. I could see that the roadie who doubled as a guitar tech had changed my strings; everything was plugged in ready for sound-check. We ambled up onto the stage, went through sound-check, then waltzed off into another section of the pub for a few Jack Daniels. Life was good.

I was sitting in the dressing-room; ten minutes before on-time. I was practising one of the riffs in the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post", which we were going to play for the first time. The riff, for second guitar, had a fiddly bit in the middle that I'd kept slurring in rehearsal; I wanted it to be good on the night.

We walked up the hall and onto the stage; the place was packed to the rafters. My guitar was still slung over my neck; all I had to do was grab the lead which was loosely draped over my microphone stand, plug in, hit the A/B box at my feet, and I was ready to go.

Just as I was about to do this, our second lights roadie came running up to the stage. 

"Laurie," he yelled above the general hubbub, "that light loom over there has come apart. Go and pin it back together, will ya?"

He'd pointed to a loom of cables on my side of the stage. I saw what he meant; a four-pin adapter had slightly fallen apart. I gave him the thumbs up, walked over, held my guitar to my chest with my left hand, bent down, grabbed the offending part with my right hand in order to squeeze the two sections together, and was blown fifteen feet across the stage.

The middle finger of my right hand had touched a live pin that was sticking out in between the two sockets; this was impossible. Only the socket part of a connection can have power delivered to it. Something had gone terribly wrong.

This knowledge, of course, didn't help me much at the time, for, to compound the situation, the electrical current had immediately caused my right hand's muscles to go into a seizure, which resulted in me not being able to let the fucking thing go. So here I was, on my knees in the middle of the stage, holding on to this electrical cable and screaming my lungs out while 415 volts coursed through my body. I thought I was screaming instructions to the other guys in the band, like "Get it off me!"; my comrades later told me that I was just issuing a blood-curdling howl.

The pain was all in my brain; loud sounds of popping and crackling bounced around my auditory cortex, and I felt like my entire body was rattling like the carriages on an old train. I felt my heart rate go into overdrive; it was pumping fit to burst. I could only wait for something to happen; all control of the situation was gone. Eventually, I found my vision starting to close in from the outside, like one of those cartoon endings: "That's all, folks!" I felt my heart falter - b-bump, b-bump, b- , b,... Everything started to go black, and I remember thinking "What a stupid way to die." It was all over.

Well, of course it wasn't, because I'm telling the story. The bass player, Keith, had run over to the wiring looms immediately and started kicking them apart. After about ten seconds, he calculated, he kicked the right plug out of the right socket.

I instantly dropped to the floor; I let the cable go, and, remarkably, came back to consciousness immediately. It was as if nothing had happened; I checked my body, as best I could, and found that there was no pain, I was conscious and clear-minded, and I was able to stand up and take in my surroundings without any further perceptual hallucinations. I had suffered a ten-second blast of high-voltage electricity and survived unscathed. Until I looked down and noticed a huge burn line across the fingers and palm of my right hand.

The audience, of course, was at sixes and sevens about all of this. Was this some kind of absurdist stage-act? The realisation that something pretty weird had happened came to them as the guys in the band half carried me back down the hall and into the dressing-room.

As it happened, there was a doctor in the house. (Really!) He had realised pretty much straight away that I was in trouble, and came flying into the dressing room as the guys settled me down on a bench seat. By this stage, I felt, at least physically, OK, but the shock of the realisation that I'd just nearly been killed started to settle in, and I slumped forward with my head in my hands. The doctor, to his credit, immediately began to check me out thoroughly: listened to my heart, checked my pulse, looked into my eyes, ears and anus (no, just made that up), and started asking me questions like "What's your name?", "What's your address?", and "What is the aerial velocity of a swallow?" (sorry, just made that up too).

After checking me out, the doctor pronounced that it would be a good idea to get an ambulance and have me taken to the local hospital for observation. I, of course, was having none of that. I had a gig to do, and I was gonna do it. 

About half an hour later, the band came back on stage. I cautiously plugged into my amp, hoping like hell that no further electrocution would take place, and asked the bass player "What's the first number?"

He just grinned at me, and the three motherfuckers launched into a fearsome reggae version of Knockin' on Heaven's Door.

1 comment:

Apathy Personified said...

Hee hee - It's amazing how people can brush off near death experiences so easily!