Monday, December 22, 2008

What's important?

The biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere is about fifteen kilometres down the road from my place. It is an emporium on a vast, Mephistophelian scale. It has a sign at its entrance (which, symbolically, is directly across the road from the biggest crematorium in the southern hemisphere), that proclaims "You haven't lived until you've shopped here".

It is impossible to overestimate the level of pride I have in my countrymen's perspicacity when I see, as I'm driving past, thousands of cars turning into the place and making a beeline for the gargantuan underground car-parks, from which their occupants will emerge to stroll along the leafy boulevardes of the centre, which is hermetically-sealed, of course, and capable of withstanding any of nature's challenges ... er, like rain.

So dauntingly impressive is the sheer physical scale of this place that it has its own postcode - it is a suburb all to itself. I forget the figures I read about it in the local rag, an organ of biblically slavish regard for the god of mammon, but there are something like five billion acres  under one roof, two or three billion separate shops, etc. etc. You get the picture. It seems we have inherited the Texan philosophy of "bigger equals better".

Now, I must disclaim that I have not, myself, personally, under my volition, actually entered this sumptuous pleasure-dome, but just the sight of it on the horizon, as I drive past on my way to a gig, fills me with a Coleridgean longing. 

Through twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers girdled 'round...

Apart from the hugely satisfying architectural splendours of this behemoth, apparently one can, if one is so inclined, purchase every single appurtenance necessary to the maintenance of the modern lifestyle at this one place. That's so gratifying a concept that I am at a loss as to why I have not, myself, personally, set foot inside the joint. I will never know the pleasure of using the labour-saving "travellators" that effortlessly shunt the shopper through the emporium without the need to use any muscles in the body except those that are required to shove ice-creams made from pig-fat into the mouth as one gawks and marvels at the cornucopia of earthly delights on offer.

Leigh and I were pondering this place as we drove out of the crematorium after attending the funeral of Leigh's sister-in-law, and my friend, Rosalie, last Thursday. Rosie was a woman that everyone would have been proud to call a friend. Strong, but gracious; intelligent and funny, she had come across this world and become a child of it. She and her husband, John, had not so much built a place at Misty Mountain, out in the Colo wilderness, as grown it. Their little house was lovingly assembled, mainly from the natural features of the landscape. Rosie had made gardens, sandstone walls that would make a mason weep with joy, paths and tracks through the bush, places of solitude and contemplation.

Rosie existed on tea and happiness. She was the exact opposite of the shopping dullard - fit, energetic and completely satisfied with simplicity. "Things" meant nothing to her. Her greatest extravagance was to go to the Bluesfest every year with us, where she and John would spend five days revelling in wonderful music. Like the damsel with a dulcimer, she was the true Coleridgean. Nature, with its beauties and fascinations, was the world; a butterfly landing on her shoulder in the glow of early morning, up there at Misty Mountain, was a day's worth of pleasure.

As we drove from the crematorium and passed the shopping centre, I wondered what Rosie would have made of the sign over its entrance. I think I know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A cautionary tale

Years ago, as a young feller, I'd have the occasional puff of a joint. Marijuana, in those days, was stuff you'd go and pick from shrubs on the banks of the Hunter River near Newcastle, where I lived. It was there because, in the nineteenth century, hemp was an important part of any economy. It was a versatile fibre used for making rope, fabric and even paper. When the hemp industry fell into disrepute thanks to the propaganda of the emergent plastics industry in the 1930s, all that survived were wild stands of the stuff skirting the river systems. By the time I came along, of course, it was an illegal "drug", and was considered by the establishment to be the cause of a myriad of evils, including mental retardation and abandoned licentiousness. I don't know about the first, but it always produced an effect that made me think of sex as a decidedly bizarre affair.

Thus disabused of the idea that my parents' generation had the faintest notion of what they were talking about, my friends and I happily puffed away on our pickings for a number of years. Eventually, though, my interest in it waned to the point where a joint or two per year was about as big a drug habit as I had (discounting the copious amounts of Tooheys Old that I'd begun to consume. But alcohol is a good drug that had the establishment's seal of approval, of course.)

I hadn't even had a puff for several years. It was about 1990, and I was playing in a fairly large ensemble whose raison d'etre was to make as much money as possible for all concerned. It was a very well-organised band whose methodology was described to me by Phil, the band leader, as "play the thirty most famous and popular rock songs ever released." Which is what we did. It was a cornucopia, an alphabet of pop: we did everything from Abba to ZZ Top, cranking out note-perfect renditions of all of the greats. My job was to learn, and play, exact replicas of all the famous guitar solos, perfectly, night after night.

Now, the interesting thing about this band is that it was all about the vocals. We had three very good female singers, a great male lead vocalist, and the other four blokes in the band able to hold a tune. And, without being immodest, we were pretty fucking good at it. As well, we had a synthesiser system triggered by a computer, so on top of the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, we had all sorts of other sounds - more keyboards, horn sections, strings, percussion, and the like - belting through a gigantic, and very beautifully mixed, sound system. The computerisation of the band meant that we all had to wear little "in-ear" monitoring systems which would give us the click track from the computer so we could start the songs at the right moment and remain in time with the synthesised sounds. This is an almost universal phenomenon with professional bands these days, but in 1990 it was a technology still in its infancy.

We were doing one show at a very big club in Sydney. Just our regular set, which we'd played hundreds of times before, and which had got to be so robotic as to be like any other production line work. We really had to be conscious of making a performance out of it - once you've played the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" exactly the same way a hundred times, you're over it.

On this night, we had a new sound engineer. He was a very competent operator, and our sound-check had gone smoothly. We'd played our first set of two to an audience of about five hundred people. We had a twenty minute break, and the sound guy came over to me in the dressing room and said "Hey Laurie - you look like a bloke that might enjoy a smoke."

Without thinking - probably bored senseless - I replied "Sure, let's go." We went out to his car, where he proceeded to get out a bag of pot, and load it into an evil-looking bong. I'd never had much of an association with these devices, and had always considered them slightly anti-social, but what the heck - I was just getting stoned.

"This is really good stuff," he informed me. "Durban Poison - I grew it myself; it'll get you nicely stoned, mate."

He offered me the thing, and I sucked as hard as I could on it while he lit it up. It nearly killed me going down, I can tell you. "Thanks," I said at the end of it, spluttering and gasping for air. "Your turn, mate."

"Oh no," he said, "if I have one of these I'll be ratshit. I just thought you might enjoy playing after one."  Oh fuck, I thought to myself, what have I done?

We walked back into the club. It was time to go on stage again, so I walked on, strapped my guitar on, checked my tuning, turned around to face the audience, and thought I was going to die. I had, suddenly and completely, entered a world of trouble with a capital T, short for tetra-hydro-cannabinol. I was fucked. I had walked into paranoia city, and had the instantaneous fear that I wasn't walking out of it in a hurry.

I looked down at the set-list gaffer-taped to the floor, and saw that we were about to launch into the Doobie Brothers' Long Train Runnin'. I'd played this song hundreds of times; I could play it in my sleep, but I had an almost overpowering urge to throw my guitar away and run like buggery.

I didn't, though, because I heard the count-in in my earpiece, and it was me who had to start the song: da-da-da, da-da-da-do, da-da-da, and so-on. I was playing it, and it seemed OK. The bass was next to come in, and, as he did, I realised that he was a semi-tone away from the key I was playing in. The drums rolled, the keyboards played a riff, and I very quickly changed to the key that the song was now in (F sharp minor, to be precise). I kept playing as the intro unfolded, but then I started thinking "Hang on, this is in G minor - it has to be; we've always played it in G. The computer doesn't change; the synthesiser should be in G, but it's not - it's in F sharp! But that's impossible. Oh, no - maybe it has always been in F sharp. No - couldn't be; I've always played it in G. Aaaaaaaaahhhh - I'm going mad; what the fuck is happening???"

I kept playing; I had no choice. We got to the solo section, where I had to play a harmonica solo. I whipped the harp out of its pouch on my guitar strap, and there on the top of the harp was the key for the instrument engraved on it : "B flat". I was right! It was in G minor! But - I couldn't play my solo, because the song was now in a different key. I had the very morbid feeling that the establishment had actually got it right - marijuana does, indeed, cause brain damage. I looked around at the other band members, who seemed to be happily and unconcernedly playing away. The harmonica was useless, so I played the solo on guitar in the new key - becoming increasingly aware that the guitar strings had taken on an appearance like furry spider legs, and the sound coming from my amp had ceased to resemble a Stratocaster and had taken on the characteristics of Chip n Dale having an orgy.

I played through the rest of the set, trying to overcome a bizarre feeling of sinking into the stage. I had to keep lifting my feet, one after the other, to keep on top of the quicksand the stage had become. And as for singing - forget it; I was afraid that any sound that issued from my mouth would just be a throttled scream.

The last song of the night was the abominable Hotel California, wherein it was my duty to play the solo that everyone knows by heart. I started with the right notes, but it quickly devolved into Chip n Dale having a Sorcerer's Apprentice battle. I felt like Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - "I'm talking about form, I'm talking about content, God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell.." Folks, I was seriously off the planet.

Mercifully, the gig ended. I let my guitar slide off me and crash into its stand, and bolted for the dressing-room, where I sat in a cold sweat wondering if I might eventually come down, say before I was eighty. 

Phil and the rest of the band all marched into the dressing-room, giggling and pointing at me. The paranoia meter went completely off the scale. Phil came over and said

"Man, you played some seriously weird shit out there." And then he winked at me and said "It was good, though, it was damn good. I'll keep you in mind as the guitarist in any experimental music bands I want to put together." 

"Oh, and sorry about Long Train. I took it down a semi-tone - I forgot to tell ya."

Drugs are bad, 'kay?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Here comes Santa's claws

Graham the Barbarian and his lovely wife Maria are our closest neighbours. They live in a rather large house which I helped to build. It wasn't so large when they first moved in; "shoe-box" comes to mind. They'd invited us for Christmas lunch; the turkey would be at their place, then we'd all (two couples and five kids) repair to our place, about a mile down the road and into the bush, for dessert and an afternoon by the pool. A peaceful and comfortable way to spend Christmas Day.

Maria and Graham had laid on a feast fit for a king: in Australia, more and more, Christmas dinner is a salad affair. Prawns, cold meats and lots of good things from our combined vegetable gardens went down superbly with a couple of beers each for Graham and I, and some bubbly for the girls. A warm westerly breeze was blowing.

We were all preparing to come back to my place, and as Graham and I were loading his kids' brand-new bikes in the back of his ute, he asked "Do you smell that, Loz?"

The breeze had become a fairly stiff wind, and on it I could detect the unmistakeable, and quite pleasant, aroma of eucalyptus burning. We wandered around to his gate, and, looking westward, saw a haze of blue-grey smoke drifting over the escarpment, the series of hills that identify the most easterly throes of the Great Divide, about ten kilometres away.

"Not good, Graham. I think we'd better go for a drive."

Heading out along the ridge, into a clearer vantage point, we could see that a fire was burning way off on the top of the escarpment. We decided to go to the fire shed, and, when we arrived, a flurry of activity was happening. I could see a neighbour, Eric, who was captain of the volunteer service, barking orders at groups of guys busy with their fire-trucks, reels of hose and a few water-tankers that had just driven in. I jumped out of the ute.

"What do you reckon, Eric?", I asked.

"Could be crook, Laurie - we've got a real bad weather report comin' in - forty degrees and 100k westerlies. We're going out along Cedar Ridge, cause it looks like if that fire comes over the hill, it'll blow straight through here. I'd get home and start gettin' ready, if I were you."

"OK mate - what about your place?" He just looked at me with the glum determination of a bloke who knows that, while he's out saving other people's homes, his own might just be burning down.

"If you get a chance, you know what to do, Loz."

"Sure thing." But we both knew that, if it did get bad, it could get very bad for all of us.

We got back to Graham's and decided to get his place as ready as possible, then head down to mine. Graham was in the reasonably fortunate position that there was plenty of cleared area around his house - especially towards the west from where the fire would inevitably come. The idea would be that we would get my place secure, wait for the fire and deal with it, then get back up to his to do the same. (As things turned out, our plans were totally demolished by the speed and severity of the fire when it did come.)

The lot of us drove to my place. Chris got on the phone to another mate, Greg, to get him to bring his pump and hoses over. (Out here, everyone has this sort of gear - you're mad if you don't.) Greg's place was in a relatively safe suburban area, and he was under no threat, really, so he got some things together and was on his way.

Now, my place is in a lovely little valley surrounded by ridges on three sides and about two hundred acres of virgin bushland. Tall eucalypts are abundant, and our house is in the middle of this green oasis of forest. Idyllic, except on a forty degree day with huge, hot winds. And they were really starting to blow.

From the house we could now see, beyond the western ridge, a massive and growing pall of smoke, extending about two thousand metres into the sky. It was action time.

The kids got every bucket and container they could find and filled them, placing them around the outside of the house. The bath was filled; I plugged the gutters and ran the sprinkler on top of the roof to fill them. Graham and Miles, my son, ran firehoses to various points, and made sure that they were all working from the five thousand gallon tank on top of the hill. Greg and his eighteen year old son Matt arrived, and immediately got his pump on the swimming pool, trailing hoses along the front side of the house. Izzy, my daughter, insisted that her horse be led up from the paddock to the shelter of the house.

The plan was to meet the fire at the interface of the clearing with the bush, about forty metres from the house, and divert it around the house and yard. In a previous fire, we'd done just that pretty successfully. But we had no idea that what we were about to face was going to make that blaze look like a sparkler at a kid's birthday party.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and by this stage the wind was beginning to blow ferociously. Graham took off back up the ridge to get some bearings, and arrived back, breathlessly, a few minutes later.

"It's comin', mate - and it's real fast. We ought to get things wetted down."

We began throwing great quantities of water all over everything we could. The house was drenched, as were the gardens and the shed that holds our generators and solar-electricity set-up. But the wind was so hot and strong that the water was evaporating nearly as quickly as it was delivered.

I heard a noise, and looked up. The fire was coming over the ridge-line, directly towards us, and it was in the crowns of the trees. I shuddered.

Crown-fire: the worst kind of bushfire. The last fire had, more or less, gently come down over the hill at scrub level, and, even though there was some fairly energetic activity for an hour or so, it had been reasonably easy to draw it away from the house, and pretty safe, as well.

This was different. I had to make a split-second decision. I ran into the house, and screamed at Chris and Maria to get the three little kids and take off out the back way and get back to the ridge and relative safety. They scrambled, and within a minute were gone, with hugs and some frightened tears all round. They knew we were putting ourselves in some real danger by staying, but Graham, Greg and I were buggered if we were going to lay down without a fight. I'm not saying this out of bravado; I and my mates were just too obstinate to see twenty years' work (Greg and Graham had had a big hand in building my place) go up in flames.

I told Izzy to get her horse "inside the house - now!". For months afterwards the story of her putting a horse in the downstairs lounge-room was told, with great hilarity, all over the neighbourhood.

We all lined up on the perimeter with our hoses going full-pelt. The huge gums along the hillside glowed white, and then, one by one, exploded into flame. Limbs of trees as thick as an arm came hurling through the air like incendiary bombs, often crashing onto the roof of the house. I hoped like hell the sprinkler up there was still working, but we had no time to go back as the fire came storming back up the rise towards the house with the most unforgettable sound I've ever heard: a roar like a hundred express-trains.

Miles and I were standing beside each other when the sound of an enormous explosion came from the top of the hill. The concrete water tank had simply exploded from the heat of the fire. Suddenly, the pressure in our hoses dropped to nothing. Graham and Greg were still pumping from the swimming pool, but we were left with no defence at all.

"Run," I screamed at Miles. We got around to the eastern, lee-side of the house and lay on the ground as the fireball exploded over and around us. Sheets of blue flame whistled past us where the vapor-laden air was igniting. We jumped inside through Miles' bed-room window, and raced up the stairs, where we were greeted with the sight of huge flames belting down both verandahs, melting the fly screens, frames and all, on the windows. The heat was intense and suffocating, but the adrenalin was coursing through us so voluminously that we were both shaking with energy. It was time to do some bucket work.

For the next half an hour we ran around with buckets, re-filling from the pool and throwing them on the parts of the house that had caught alight. Greg and Graham continued to blast away at the northern side of the house, standing in the middle of the yard with flames singeing their overalls. I've never seen anything as brave. 

At one stage I was running down the stairs into the lounge room. There was Izzy, holding the bridle of her horse, which was unconcernedly chomping away at its nose-bag. Tears were streaming down her face.

"Are we going to be all right, Dad?" she cried, with a look of abject terror.

At that point I should have stopped, given her a cuddle, and reassured her.

Instead, I yelled (you had to; the noise of the fire was still deafening) "We might be if you let that fucking horse go and grab a bucket!"

She and Matt took the upstairs south verandah; by this time the firefront was past, and it was a little safer to venture out. I don't know who, if anyone, could have been given the most credit for saving the house. One thing I'm fairly sure of is that if we'd been only five, instead of six, we might have lost the house, and possibly our lives, as well.

After about an hour's more work, I was assured that the house was in no danger. (Well, technically, it was, because the air was still full of burning embers.) But Greg and the kids could look after that, so Graham and I jumped in his ute (it and Greg's car were the only vehicles that hadn't been burnt to the ground) and left for his place.

We couldn't get out the top road, as several trees had come down over it, so we doubled back and fought our way through the bottom track with the aid of a chain-saw onto the ridge road. Even so, it took a good half an hour to navigate our way to his place. 

We drove in, under some power lines that were swinging precariously on burnt-out poles, looked at the house, and both cracked up. It was absolutely untouched. It must have been the adrenalin come-down, but we sat their for a few minutes just giggling. Then reality hit. Graham looked over at his tool-shed - a forty foot shipping container that held all the tools of his trade - tools that were not only valuable in money terms, but that had acquired a significance in the life of this professional tradesman; any tradesperson will understand what I'm saying. There was smoke coming from it. By the time we ran over to it, we could tell that the inside was not going to be pretty.

Graham got the door open; a huge cloud of black, toxic smoke billowed from the container. It was obvious that everything inside was gone. We hung our heads.

Then Graham said something that I'm not likely to forget in a hurry. He smiled at me and said "Loz - it's just stuff. Just things. Our homes are here; we're here. That's all I need."

The fire claimed twenty homes in our area, countless sheds, out-buildings, fences, tractors and other vehicles. Everyone in the community pitched in and fought it for a week. Eric's house was safe. I got a wonderful Christmas present: one of the best friends a bloke could ever have.