I hope I die before I get old 2
This is an extract from 'I Hope I Die Before I Get Old', the full story of Rough Red's four tours of Europe. I intend to carry on the touring next year with a three week solo club tour of Germany, Norway and Denmark. Another chapter no doubt.
We knew we were on to something the day we played the Skagen International Music Festival in Northern Denmark. It was our first gig on our European tour and something of a watershed for us all, the beginning of a grand adventure that I hoped would never end. We were about to live the rock’n’roll dream on a grand scale in a place impossibly far away from the quiet sunny streets of Brisbane. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them but we would soon be well acquainted and begin a love affair that stirs the blood and sends a shiver up the back during those delicious moments of reverie.
It was a cold, wet, miserable day in the middle of summer on a narrow spit of land where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet beneath the shadow of the sinister NATO early warning systems. From whence U-boats went in search of English prey and before them the Viking Long Boats headed out into the cruel sea to terrorise the coastal communities of any country within reach. We drove along the coast road from the Fredrikshavn naval base, full of the doubts and expectations that dog unknown foreign bands who are about to put their balls on the line in a musical climate where there is no room for error or for the faint of heart.
It was quiet in the rented van, we were approaching our moment of truth and everybody knew it. This was our first real trial on foreign soil, we had been thrown into the deep end, usually you could expect to work up to this kind of gig but here we were and we hoped we were ready. I looked again and again with dread at the programme. The Dubliners, (Irish National Treasures,) a band that has survived nearly four decades and is considered one of Ireland’s greatest ever exports. Iron Horse, Fairport Convention, Dedannon, The Oyster Band, Tom Paxton and of course the cream of Denmark’s music scene which we’ve never even heard of. It is a daunting line up and I’m wondering how my three chord guitar style is going to stand up against such competition but I figure we’re here to find out and if all else fails I can hide behind the others and bullshit my way out of it.
We drive past the tent city, there must be thousands of people here, the two marquees stand out like gigantic circus tents against a threatening sky; there are cars everywhere and traffic cops. The windscreen wipers are loud and starting to get on my nerves. We were told to drive into town to register and we’ve lost sight of the other car containing the Bong Brothers. We’re starting to grumble because if anyone is going to go missing at a critical time it will be these blokes, they have a very casual attitude to time. We arrive at the check-in point, which turns out to be not the check-in point and there’s still no sign of the Bongs. I’m starting to get agitated. I always do. I am eternally grateful I got into music at a late stage because I don’t think my military time ethic could have coped with the vagaries of people turning up too stoned or pissed to play, or not turning up at all. We head back to the grounds and make our way through the checkpoints and road blocks and are told we can register at the entry booths where we find the Bongs serene and signed up looking at us and shaking their heads. The devil has a way of looking after his own.
We are issued with the blue bracelet that marks us as performers and pointed toward the marquee where all the action is taking place. I remember standing there not understanding anything that was said and just staring in wonder at that small piece of coloured ribbon. It was the first tangible evidence of what was about to happen to us, proof that this was after all not just a dream, we were actually here and about to play to people, many of whom presumably had never even seen an Australian before.
The tension is building. I’m starting to become really nervous, smoking Dutch cigars one after the other. The others are outwardly calm, which is pissing me off even more and now I can hear music playing. We pull up outside the huge marquee and go in search of the stage manager, a Dane who points us to our own private marquee for relaxing and the storage of instruments, he tells us we are on after the act currently playing, it’s time to get serious.
Everywhere in the cold grey light there is colour, a riot of colour, costumes of stripes and checks and shining silks, Gypsy headbands and exotic make-up, a whirl of musicians from all the corners of the earth, a noisy, coloured throng, like rainbow-hued parrots on a honey-laden tree. It is beautiful and breathtaking to behold, being backstage before a major theatrical event, being caught up in the excitement and rapture, is almost better than sex. Well...
Tyso’s daughter Rebecca takes me through a vocal warm up. We’re throwing down Danish beer, which is stacked in crates everywhere you look and Tyso is tuning up all his guitars. The weather and new strings are playing havoc with the tuning and I start to panic again because mine goes out as quickly as I fix the bloody thing. The needle on the tuner bounces crazily back and forth as if it is hooked up to my ticker, which I can hear thundering in my head.
The stage is enormous and there are people everywhere in differing stages of stress, which of course does my stress the world of good. I’ve never felt this kind of pressure before and I’m not sure I like it at all. Sometimes I get depressed before we play, sometimes I just don’t want to play and other times I can’t wait to get on. I don’t know what causes these emotions. I’m a card carrying manic-depressive, maybe it’s that. Today I don’t even get much time to think about it, this is the big time, there’s too much happening, it’s all a blur and I’m into it. We’ve been living for this moment ever since Sean suggested we go to Europe. I’ve been dreaming about it and here I am with a guitar that won’t stay in tune and a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.
Tyso senses what is happening and gives me one of those disarming smiles of his and says, “Don’t worry mate, we’re here, we made it and we’re gonna kick arse.” That makes me feel better as I tune the accursed Takemine guitar again and woof down another beer. Now I’m worrying about whether I’ll sing in tune or not. If the foldback isn’t too flash it encourages you to sing a bit flat. It can also encourage you to try to sing louder so you can hear yourself and subsequently sing sharp. The foldback is everything, without it you can make a real arse of yourself. The life of a paranoid singer is not an easy one. We’re told the system cost a million dollars. Mashy has already checked out the desk and tells us he’s going to need a pilot’s license to run the thing.
“How’s the foldback Mashy?” I scream at him. ”No worries mate,” he says flashing that impish grin at me, “It’s so good it’ll even make you sound reasonable!” The little shithouse, I make a mental note to bash him later and tweak the machine-heads on the Taka one more time to be safe ( I don’t know why I bothered, they seldom plugged me in anyway the bastards!).
There is some local folk band playing before us and the large blonde singer is torturing a Bob Dylan song. I start talking to some bloke with a ponytail who I find out later is Tom Paxton. That’s the thing here, there are stars all over the place and everyone is a master muso, the beer is making me feel better.
The other act winds up and we’re told to get ready. I feel that rush of adrenalin I always feel; Tyso flashes me a smile, Pete Harvey bashes me on the back and says, “We’re here mate. Can you believe this?” Huddo gives me a wink and one of those laid back grins of his, Johnny Barr looks his usual unruffled self and I’m hoping the bastard guitar won’t make me play any worse than I usually do.
We walk out on stage and the inside of the marquee is enormous. I’m a bit disappointed with the size of the crowd. We’ve come a long way for this and I want every bastard in Denmark to hear our songs. Mashy is behind the desk in the middle of the tent and flashes us a grin. He’s fiddling with knobs and giving the sound engineer the low down on us... “don’t turn the bald prick’s guitar up too loud ‘cause he’s liable to be playing the wrong song... make sure his foldback is loud so he doesn’t sing sharp... turn Harve’s goanna down so it doesn’t drown everything else...” I make another mental note to bash him and plug in.
The audience is slowly dribbling in as the bloke gets up and announces us. He tells them we are the first Australian band to play the festival in its 20 year history and they are very proud to have us come so far to play. I’m feeling better; I watch the entrances and look at the people in the front row. They look at us as though we’re circus exhibits. Neighbours and Home and Away are big in this part of the world and they wonder if we’ve ever been to Ramsay Street.
This is it; the moment of truth; the climax to years of planning. Hours, uncounted hours of rehearsal and playing to miniscule audiences in Australia, a 23 hour killer plane flight and a long drive from Holland. The MC finishes speaking, Huddo counts us in and we move straight into ‘Stand and Deliver’ a song about the Kelly Gang, it’s a Fegan/Tyson thing, I’m feeling good, the sound is huge and the crowd goes off.
I introduce the band and tell the crowd something of what we’ve been through to get here and then Huddo counts us into ‘The Flying Dutchman’s Inn’. The crowd begins to stream in and continues to build; they’re really getting off on the sound. When we play Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, the response is deafening. The realisation we’ve got something begins to dawn, we’re having a ball and all too quickly our hour is up. We move off stage, the crowd chanting something that sounded to me like “Get off the stage you bald prick!” We find out later they were chanting our name… “Rough Red... Rough Red... Rough Red!” It is better than we could have hoped for. We go back out and the crowd roars. They are a multi-coloured, multi-limbed, flaxen-haired seething mass. They have moved to the front of the marquee and are dancing like maddened dervishes.
The fold back is sensational. I can hear everything clearly. It’s getting hot inside the marquee, we play louder and they roar and spin more. The adrenalin is pumping, we are 13,000 miles from home and Jesus, it doesn’t get much better than this. The stage manager tells us to get back out and do another encore, he is stoked and so are we. We’re here, we made it and so the Rough Red love affair with Europe begins.
A TOWN WE WILL NEVER FORGET
At last we’re on the road again. The adventure continues as we roll through Belgium, which you’d miss if you blinked. Where we are heading is still five hours away, so we stop at one of those flash roadhouses to have a ‘wedge’ or snack. As was to be expected we don’t have the right sort of money, we got rid of our Dutch shekels before we crossed the border, on pornography or something of the like. I’m desperately in need of a snake’s and decide I’ll take care of that matter before I change money and buy a feed. I leap down the stairs and head for the slasher. There is a little old lady outside the door. I give her a smile and head in happy with the knowledge that Belgium has deviates as well. When I leave she bails me up and demands money in some alien tongue. I then have to try to explain in an equally alien tongue that I don’t have any dosh because I haven’t changed any money yet. She refuses to take some small change that I find in a corner of my pocket and proceeds to abuse me.
I’m thinking, what the hell do I do here? I could thump her, take off with all her money and dunny cleaning utensils and become a fugitive in a foreign land, making a living out of cleaning bogs. Or I could call one of the boys to bail me out. I knew this to be a futile course of action because they would simply disavow all knowledge of me and encourage her to call the police. I could offer her some well-thumbed Danish porn as a last resort. Finally after a tirade of abuse she agreed to accompany me to the moneychanger and wait while I did the deal. I made sure I gave her a healthy tip for her troubles and chalked it up to experience. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d done something momentous in the dunny like throwing up.
Outside the diner at one of the tables, Doyle is in deep conversation with someone on the mobile. It is very obviously not a cordial conversation and Sean is visibly upset. After the call he informs us that the marketing manager of the Saint Germaine Football Club has definitely cancelled our gig in Paris on Bastille Day. There had been some suggestion from London that perhaps his hardline stance could be softened by intervention from Michael (Mincer) Maranta, so Sean is desperately trying to contact him.
The Frenchman, Laurent Dabe’, has cancelled because he says we will require very expensive hardware which we know we do not. There is now a cross channel war of words raging between the two marketing managers, all to do with the boys from Downunder and their appointment in Paris. We are somewhat relieved when Mincer assures us the battle is far from over and he will personally make sure this “big French prick” is put in his place. We carry on to Villers-Brettoneux.
Sean was in a plane coming back from a meeting in Melbourne and read in a magazine about a little French town on the Somme that has a very close affinity with Australians. It seems that in 1918 the AIF saved the town from the oncoming Germans and to this day they have never forgotten. We decide that we will visit the town and see it for ourselves. We continue on through the beautiful French countryside and finally reach the outskirts of the town. It would be difficult to prepare for what we found. In the middle of the seemingly endless French fields is the biggest war memorial any of us has ever seen. It is gleaming white and beautifully tended. Lines of white headstones stretch endlessly in every direction. The graveyard is dominated by a huge tower that looks out across what was once the bloodiest battlefield in modern history.
We are stunned and humbled by the magnificence of the place. We are curious as to why the grand stonework is chipped in so many places. Johnny Barr has come to Villers-Brettoneux on a special mission. A close family friend has a grandfather buried here somewhere and John wants to find some trace of him, but first we head into town to find somewhere to stay.
Villers-Brettoneux is very old. The people move slowly and treat us with polite suspicion. There is an air of rural hard times about the place, like many Australian towns of a comparable size. It is tidy but sullen, there are very few people about and they move with resigned despondency about their business. We come across a place called The Melbourne Hotel and pull in to see if there are any rooms available. The hotel manager meets us as we troop into the deserted bar and immediately starts talking to us in French. Tyso has a smattering of schoolboy French and finally our host understands that we are looking for rooms. He has four with two beds in each. Rough Red takes over the entire hotel. Bernard is his name and he turns out to be one of the most amazing and charming characters that we are to encounter on our travels. He speaks no English but we manage to get the message across and pretty soon we are having a great time in the pub.
Sean has phoned ahead and told the head of the Franco-Australian Association, Jean Pierre Thiery, we are keen to play in the town and there is a report on the front page of the local paper. It causes great mirth among the other members of the party because the paper says the band is called ‘Sean Doyle’ and will be performing a free gig for the local inhabitants. We slag Doyle unmercifully and claim that it is just another example of his naked ambition rearing its ugly head.
Bernard, our host, who has now firmly established himself as a cross between Basil Fawlty and Manuel has adopted us and takes us all over town to show us off. We sit up all night playing guitars and singing songs to Bernard and his friends. The townsfolk realise who we are and start to warm to us.
We visit the local school, a real buzz. There is a huge sign in the playground which reads - Never Forget Australia. The same words are to be found on the walls of all the classrooms and there are familiar pictures of Australia all throughout the corridors. The school is an eerie throwback to the 50s. It was built by the Australian government at about that time and the numerous visions and flashbacks to my youth were powerful in their clarity. Everywhere there are ancient faded colour representations of the noble aborigine and the Opera House. It was one of the most intense bouts of deja’-vu that I have ever experienced.
We arrive at the school during their special summer classes for the less scholastically gifted, which, judging by the attendance that day must consist of half the kids in town. When we walk into the classroom they are rehearsing a play and most of the kids have wigs and make-up on which makes them look rather ludicrous. Our laughter breaks the ice and pretty soon we are all having a great time yabbering at each other, not understanding a word. I think they were laughing at Tyso’s pathetic attempts at their language more than anything.
This occurred to me to be an answer to international tension. At all of those United Nations gabfests, where fat bald blokes in cheap suits get up and yabber away through interpreters, nothing ever seems to get done because the interpreters lose the meaning in the translation. Surely the answer would be to do away with interpreters and just let people yabber because if you can’t understand a word that is said, it is very hard to take offence. Perhaps if one wished to register dissent one could hang Mister Wobbly out which would have everyone in hysterics, especially in colder climates.
One evening after all the others had retired for the night, I sat up with Bernard and his friend, Richard the fireman and we talked till the small hours of the morning. I couldn’t understand a word that was said and of course they had no idea what I was on about, but somehow we managed to communicate and have a great laugh as well. It was an evening that once and for all killed all the preconceptions I had of the French being rude and arrogant.
Bernard was entranced by ‘Lady on the Wire’, a song off the album and would ask me to sing it at every opportunity. He would sit with a great stupid grin on his face and try to mouth the words as I sang them. That’s seems to be the best bet with the French anyway, just laugh and yabber and you’ll get along fine.
LADY ON THE WIRE.
I’ll ask you friend to listen to my story,
Long ago the circus came to town.
One night while I was doing nothing special,
Thought I’d go take a look around.
There was the magician and the strongman,
Acrobats and lion tamers too,
Then just like a flash from out of nowhere,
I caught a glimpse of you.
Lady on the wire,
Flying through the night,
Enchanted, fascinating, sparkling in the light,
A sea of upturned faces
Watch you tumble through the air,
My heart is flying with you,
I wonder if you care?
You said you’d take me flying,
A simple wish would do.
I closed my eyes and I was gone
And through the night we flew
I swear you showed me heaven,
What it was I can’t recall
But when you held my soul in hand,
You let me fall.
I woke my mind was swirling,
It was just an empty shell.
I hurried back to the circus ground
To break that magic spell.
But the caravans and the tents were gone,
They’d moved on in the night,
I’ve been on the road since then,
A travelling circus clown since then,
Searching for that woman,
So I can live again.
Bernard takes us to a small museum located above the Town Hall. It is a remarkably poignant place and some of the exhibits were so personal; letters, photographs and diaries, it was for me a very moving experience. There are many artefacts dug up over the years as the farmers work the fields. As well as letters and private diaries, there are good luck charms and photos of loved ones, sometimes all that was left of the owner. It is a beautiful museum and obviously a very important place to the people of the town and treated with great reverence.
The Australian War Memorial is a sight to behold. Jean Pierre tells us there are 46,000 Australians buried on these hallowed grounds, Jean Pierre, even after all the times he has been here is still obviously affected by the place and seems to know every grave. JB and Mashy go off in search of Percy Smith. Jean Pierre tells us that the chipped stonework is a legacy of the Second World War. The memorial was built in 1938 in the memory of the fallen, just in time to feature in the next big one in exactly the same area. The memorial was apparently the scene of some vicious fighting, probably because it is the only thing to hide behind for miles and it was decided to leave the bullet wounds as a reminder that we just never seem to learn the lessons of the past.
In Villers-Brettoneux there is a council works team whose job is to go around and retrieve the metal and munitions the French farmers are still digging up. Not long before we arrived in town the local council had dug a cutting between two roads. It was only a kilometre long but they dug out 10 tonnes of war detritus and a Tasmanian. He was identified by his dog tags, which were sent home to his family. The farmers leave all this stuff on the side of the road and these blokes throw it, albeit very carefully, into the back of the truck. I suppose these council workers, unlike their Australian counterparts, have good reason to drive slowly.
The boys find Percy. There was no headstone for him, because he was one of the dead never recovered. He was probably vaporised by a direct hit or mushed by a tank. There were many poor blokes never found and not too many in one piece. Jean Pierre told us there weren’t a lot of complete, pretty corpses in these graves. It was difficult, as we stood in the bell tower of the memorial, to imagine the carnage that took place here. It is a stark and beautiful place. As you walk up the steps to the top of the bell tower the wind moans through the stonework. The hellish sound puts the hackles up on the back of the neck and it is not difficult for an over-active imagination to believe that the tortured souls of young bank tellers and jackeroos still haunt this eerie, beautiful memorial. Devoid of trees, except in the graveyard and in distant towns that can be seen in the cold afternoon haze, the ghostly white shrine stands as a permanent reminder of the stupidity of it all. 46,000 people, twice the population of Armidale and that was only the Australians.
We bump into a family from Brisbane who’ve made the pilgrimage to visit their grandfather’s grave for the first time. It was a silent and mournful place to meet fellow countrymen as the chill wind howled up from the multi-coloured fields and we found ourselves speaking in low tones, a strange phenomenon in such a desolate place.
THE SPECTRE IN THE TRENCHES.
Dedicated to Percy Smith and all his mates.
I have seen the reaper as I shivered in the trenches,
His fouling breath has touched my very soul.
His tattered cowl stood empty, his eyes red, burning embers,
He left his mark upon me as he claimed his grisly toll.
I swear I saw him Katy as he stood above the trenches
And beckoned with a finger bony white.
He took young Percy Smith and the boy from Cootamundra
And I cried and begged him Katy, please don’t take me off tonight.
So where’s the fine procession and the sun-washed streets I love so
The waving, teary faces and the marching band so gay
And where’s the boyish faces that marched so young and gallant?
The spectre in the trenches has taken them away.
I tried to cry out Katy as I saw him through the gunfire,
Moving slowly out on No Man’s Land
But Percy turned and smiled at me, the pain had finally left him,
He paused to call he’s free again but I’ll never understand.
Katy what’s the reason for the horror and the slaughter?
The battles when the trenches run with blood?
This senseless, endless sacrifice to this ghoulish apparition,
Who claims the souls of thousands while we claim only mud.
So where’s the fine procession and the sun-washed streets I love so,
The waving, teary faces and the marching band so gay?
Now where’s the pride and glory the recruiting posters promised?
The stench of mud and corpses somehow took them all away.
So Katy, darlin’ Katy, will you wait beside the window?
Will you leave a lantern burnin’ in the hall?
If the mustard gas don’t tear my lungs and the reaper’s hook don’t claim me,
I’ll come home to you Katy even if I have to crawl.
We performed this song in the days before our repertoire changed to suit younger audiences in rock venues. It took on a new significance for all of us in the days we spent in Villers. We have since used the song in the video we made of the tour. When you stand and try to imagine the madness, fear and slaughter that took place it defies the imagination. You find yourself awed by the macabre magnificence of the gesture these people have made and the burden they carry to ensure the memory of their saviours’ lives on. It is something I have never experienced before, not even in the Canberra War Museum.
I believe it took us all some time to shake off the effects of the place because it is palpable. It is also a little embarrassing when you realise that these people revere the men that laid down their lives for a little French village that must have meant nothing to them other than it was a place that was about to become an innocent victim of tyranny. We tend in Australia to take the Anzac legend for granted to some extent; we treat it as more of a holiday than a day of remembrance because we are so removed from the places where they fought. It is still very real here.
We all decided a slap up feed would shake us from our maudlin frame of mind, so we headed into a little nearby town and decided on a charming restaurant over a bubbling stream of sorts. Tyso was becoming legendary with his schoolboy French and we were all quite envious of his ability to communicate. We assumed that he was conversing with the French, but how were we to know? The waiter in the restaurant didn’t seem too keen on Steve’s handling of the menu and seemed at times to be a little startled. We chose and Steve ordered; I’m sure it went something like this.
Waiter: What are you wanting Australian nancy boy, foreigner pig-dogs?
Tyso: Could we sniff your armpits accompanied by two plates of garlic pencil-boxes, one jambon et fromage dog’s bottom and your mother has the head of an Armenian camel driver’s testicles, si’l vous plait!
The meal, in spite of Tyso’s French was great and feeling much better we headed back to Villers and the Melbourne Hotel. I don’t know how much Bernard understood of Tyso’s French either; he was always staring at Steve with a perplexed look. Bernard however had no trouble getting through to us. One night after he had prepared a sumptuous feast for us, Mashy, who is probably the least adventurous of the whole bunch when it came to food, turned up his nose at something and Bernard came out of the kitchen brandishing a meat cleaver, babbling in French. Mashy was momentarily stunned as we all howled with laughter and tried to convince Bernard he should slash Mashy at least once with the cleaver, if only to relieve the boredom. Bernard also had an endearing habit of bashing on your door, then kicking it open and singing loudly if you were not up at the agreed time for one of his breakfasts.
We were also regularly attended by Bernard’s friend Joubert, who was obviously not the full packet of Vo-Vos. We would hear the loud revving of an engine and the scream of wheels spinning as Joubert would side-slide up to the kerb outside the pub, then leap in and shake hands with all of us before leaping into the car and screeching off up the road again. If we happened to be about the town when we heard the screeching tyres we would leap for cover as Joubert came careering around the corner heading straight for us.
The day of the gig finally arrived and we headed off down to the Town Hall to have a look at the set-up. We were escorted by Bernard and Jean-Pierre who had organised the sound system. He and the local mayor were very excited about the gig and fussed around doing whatever they could to help. The hall was an ancient affair, a combination meeting place and basketball arena. We checked out the acoustics and watched as a bunch of labourers put out about four hundred plastic chairs. This seemed quite ambitious to us, we figured that we might attract a few of the locals at best. They had after all been very shy of us thus far and watched us go about the town with a sort of resigned indifference.
I tried to do my best. I walked past a bunch of school kids and said in perfect French, “Good morning children.” Or I thought I had. They fell about laughing, much to my consternation, and when I got back to the pub Tyso told me I had said something akin to, “Hello, I’m a paedophile, please remove your trousers.” Being an ambassador for Australia is not always easy.
Bernard assured us the town was abuzz with news of the impending gig and that everyone was really excited. We were fairly philosophical about the whole thing and didn’t really care if we didn’t pull a crowd, as long as those who came enjoyed themselves. We hang around and begin to do battle with the French sound guys. It is usually difficult enough to communicate with sound blokes when you speak the same language and we were sorely tested. Mashy has his work cut out because the sound in the hall is a shocker. We are there until late in the afternoon. Suddenly Bernard appears in the hall and begins gesticulating and babbling in a rude and offensive manner, regularly grabbing at his crotch through his trousers and brandishing it at us. We took this to mean that the sausages were ready and we were late, which on closer examination of a chronometer, we were. Not wishing to incite Bernard’s wrath we headed off immediately, him muttering and threatening us with Gaelic curses. He cooked us a great feast helped by his mate the fireman. Richard had also become an ardent fan of the band. We finished the meal and headed back in the late evening twilight for the town hall and the gig.
We were delighted to find the place half full when we got there. People were milling about shyly. Not many would meet our eyes as we moved through the room to the band room up the back. When it was finally time to play, we came out and were greeted by the sight of an almost full house. There were people everywhere; all the chairs had been taken.
Jean-Pierre finally got the evening started as he strode to the stage with a flourish and began to read our bio to the assembled multitude who were still filing into the hall as he spoke. He introduced the band and each member received an ovation. When they got to me all the young girls down the front began to yell and cheer. It was a very embarrassing moment, because the girls in the group could have been no older than my eldest daughter. I must have been as red as a beetroot.
Tyso tried, in his best schoolboy French, to explain we could not speak any French and were glad to see that they all wore cow’s udders for hats and hoped they spontaneously exploded at the bus stop the next morning. There was polite applause. When we started to play they were very subdued and greeted the first few songs with polite clapping.
Suddenly Bernard leapt to his feet and began to yell at them and lead the young girls down the front in a waving frenzy. This seemed to do the trick, they began to really warm up. We finished the first set and were about to leave the stage when there was a sudden rush for the steps. The crowd that we thought were only lukewarm were suddenly all over us like a rash. It was quite incredible and overwhelming.
We had decided not to sell CDs at the gig because we knew that the little rural town was in the grip of the depression, but Jean-Pierre insisted that the townsfolk would love to buy them as a token of their gratitude for us having taken the trouble to entertain them. We sold heaps of them and began to sign all sorts of things for the people. I was mobbed by the young girls again and didn’t know where to look as they wanted their photos taken with me. I was chuckling to myself at how I’d feel if I was the father of one of these girls who was making such a fuss of some old fart Australian rock star. It was one of those amazing moments that seemed to keep cropping up for us.
Order was finally restored by Jean-Pierre and Bernard. Bernard went around clipping errant young stragglers around the ears and kicking them up the bum. None of the parents seemed to mind and I couldn’t help but marvel at how civilised the town must be if you can bash other people’s kids whenever the fancy takes you! We have a lot to learn here.
When we went on again they became more and more animated. We decided it was time to play ‘The Band played Waltzing Matilda’ and during the entire song you could have heard a pin drop. Eric Bogle, the song’s writer had been in the town and performed the song so they were more than familiar with it. When it was over they went mad. There were people with tears streaming down their faces. I always finish the song by breaking into Waltzing Matilda and they all roared the words with me. It was an incredibly moving experience. When we wrapped it up with ‘Drunken sailor’ we received a wild standing ovation and Jean-Pierre rushed onto the stage insisting we play some more, which we promptly did.
The people rushed the stage again. This time they lined up and every member of the band had to kiss every girl in the place and shake every bloke’s hand. I’ll never forget it. Little tiny girls and big buxom girls (some of them got a cuddle as well) mothers, grandmothers and a couple of blokes too I think, which was a bit sus but that’s rock’n’roll! Pandemonium reigned and we enjoyed the incredible sight of the mayor and the town’s senior councillors carrying our gear to the truck at the completion of the gig. The mayor then took us down to Bernard’s pub and shouted us a few beers. All in all it was a very emotional evening that touched us all and I’m sure that all the boys would count that particular gig as a memorable occasion.
The next morning, after we had packed the truck, I wandered into town to visit the morning market. The meat, cheese and even the bread seems to come from somewhere else in really flash, refrigerated vans that pull into the town square. There are also clothes retailers, toy stalls and magazine sellers. It had a wonderful carnival atmosphere; people stood around chatting, drinking red wine and laughing. People cooked breakfast and traded things, children danced and mothers chased naughty little boys. I can remember feeling great joy and peace, it was like being in someone elses movie, a situation I was to enjoy many times on our travels, it was a wonderful experience. As I moved about having a look people would come up and grab me and shake my hand or give me a kiss on both cheeks and tell me something I didn’t understand. JB very unkindly suggested they were saying that I was an ugly, bald old prick and if they ever saw me in their town frightening their children again that they would fix me. Whatever they were saying it was a great morning and I think we left behind a lot of friends.
It was with heavy hearts that we finally waved the little village of Villers-Brettoneux goodbye. It was a humbling and enriching experience and an exercise in the restoration of faith in human nature.
THE WATCHERS IN THE TOWER.
Today is the day that we move into the North. The papers and the TV screens are full of the trouble that is developing there. I feel a little like Bilbo Baggins again as we sit around discussing what we are likely to encounter. Doyle seems a little nervous, he’s been there before and experienced first hand what can happen. He had been parked next to a dumpster not far from the Europa Hotel. Later on that day he heard that the dumpster had exploded causing devastation on a wide scale. He had taken the car to his brother’s place and hidden it for a few days because it would have been a prime suspect. Mind you Doyle told us that he was innocent but he is at times a belligerent Irish Catholic bastard so you never know!
We cross the border and the changes are immediate. The roads are better for a start and the old stonewalls are gone, replaced by British style fences. There is English orderliness everywhere, the cluttered charm that is the Republic was disappearing fast in our wake. We begin to see fortress-like police stations and observation towers. British flags fly from flagpoles everywhere. People seem to move faster and don’t look as happy and content as they do in the Republic. There is a feeling about the place that is hard to describe and none of the boys in either vehicle is as quick with the wisecracks as we drive into the walled city of Derry.
Doyle has impressed upon us the need to keep a low profile while we are in town, we would create enough unwanted interest just walking around. This information rests uneasily with us all and we resolve to practise invisibility. We put our newly made resolve into immediate action by trying to drive the van into an underground, secure carpark and becoming jammed in the entrance. The driver and the rest of us had forgotten the bags on the roof and the truck came to an inglorious halt in front of a line of traffic. The scene was now set as eight sinister looking blokes in leather coats and wrap-around sunnies, travelling in two vehicles, one with Amsterdam plates (the well documented sign-on city for mercenaries), the other with Republic plates (well documented origin of IRA gunmen) are stuck in the entrance to a very public carpark. The unsuspecting Derry shoppers line up behind us making it all the more impossible for us to pull back out of the mess we had driven ourselves into.
Eight people of musical inclination, in an emergency situation is akin to having three good men off sick and there was much gesticulating, finger pointing, direction giving and profane language as the irritated Derrians began honking their horns in a display of impatience that only made things worse. We were all quite happy, if the truth be known, that Doyle was responsible for this latest faux-pas on behalf of the MSG because, for a change, he couldn’t yell at us. But he did anyway. Somehow he managed, as only Snake Oil Doyle could, to blame us and to rain epithets down around our ears. Finally, with some fine police work by Doyle, who had managed to persuade all the other drivers in the line to back up, we dislodged ourselves from the constraints of the carpark entrance and limped off to find other car-parking arrangements.
We already know that our gig in Derry has been cancelled due to the violence only days before, but we decide to go and say hello to the publican at the Gweedore Bar. Terry is one of the toughest looking blokes I have yet seen anywhere in Ireland. Sean knows him from previous visits and assures us that he is most definitely a presence in the walled city. He tells us only days prior he was barricaded in the hotel as the gangs roamed the streets firing automatic weapons and fire bombing anything that was vulnerable. We have lunch and a few Guinnesses there as Terry tells us what to expect as we move around the town.
He assures us that we are going to cause notice and suspicion and are a walk up start for gangs of local youths to bale us up and look for any excuse to bash the lot of us. Everyone is still very much on edge after the night of fire and violence and they’re still a little trigger happy. He fixes us with a steely eye and tells us that if anything should happen to us on our travels to tell whoever it is that is threatening us that, “Terry sent us.”
We move off through the town to look at the wall. We are feeling decidedly uneasy and try our hardest not to look threatening. We pass shops that are being cleared out after the firebombing. We make sure that we don’t lock eyes with anyone and make sure that we spread ourselves out as much as possible.
It is a pretty little town on a hot summer’s afternoon. People are out in their shirtsleeves walking about as though they are in a place no more dangerous than Indooroopilly Shoppingtown. Everywhere there is graffiti, defiant and desperate and the old people have a war weary look about them as they hurry about their business.
What you notice are the steel shutters everywhere. At six o’clock the pretty little town becomes a steel shuttered city of fear. It is an incredible transformation. In the evening as the uneasy wind pushes litter about the cobbled streets it’s as if you have stepped into a science fiction novel. The eerie, forbidding steel shutters link with one another right down the street forming a formidable metal barricade against Molotov cocktails - We had already seen evidence that they were not always effective.
We head into the town square that nestles like a sitting duck beneath the awesome expanse of the wall. The Free Derry Wall and the ominous wall murals are in the square under constant surveillance from the ugly barbed wire and corrugated iron tower that sits all seeing above the parapet that looks straight into the Bogside.
This is the wall that causes all the problems. In 1688 some Apprentice Boys saw the English Catholic King moving toward the castle with an army of men and raised the alarm. The king was eventually defeated after he laid siege to the town and it is this incident that the Orange Men and the Drummer Boys celebrate every year. It is a celebration that strikes fear into the hearts of the Catholic minority in the Bogside. Their houses face the wall as they sit like that Catholic army so many years before outside the gate. The subtlety of this of course is not lost on the Protestants as they march atop the wall their drums thundering as they attempt to goad the Catholics from their houses to fight.
It is a sad and sorry struggle that has perpetuated itself since 1688 and there appears to be no easy solution. Even the mainly Protestant police can’t do much about it because the Protestant marchers threaten to go and visit their families if they try to stop the festivities. While we were there, there was a very public case about a Protestant policeman whose wife and family had been terrorised by his own side because he had been present at a clash somewhere else and was carrying out his sworn duty to stop trouble.
It is a haunting and troubling place even on a lovely warm day beneath a clear blue sky. It is difficult not to feel like a voyeur receiving some sort of vicarious thrill as you watch somebody else’s agony unfolding. Sean explained that they don’t feel like that, they want people to come in and find out for themselves and to understand the oppression that they live under. Nobody paid much attention to us at all except the watchers in the tower who never took their eyes off us. You could regularly see the sun glinting off the lenses of the glasses they were using for surveillance.
On some of the unit blocks that front the wall there are large signs, their messages reflecting the fear and frustration that these people are feeling. It seems so simple to us in this day and age when we live in a country where there is little if any sectarian trouble. Why don’t people just gather here in the square and have a beer and discuss the problems and find solutions for them. It will never be that easy unfortunately and we were about to find out why.
Since we had arrived in Ireland we had been talking about shooting a film clip for ‘Innocent Victim’, a track off the first album that deals with the subject of the problems in Northern Ireland. It was a song that we left off the repertoire in most of our Irish gigs in case we upset someone. I even had the situation where someone fronted me about the song one night in a toilet at a gig and that was in Brisbane! Shooting the clip was not an idea that sat well with everyone, me included, because we felt so vulnerable out here and we were bound to pull a crowd.
We decided that we would shoot the clip in front of the Free Derry Wall and feature the morbid wall murals that the people of the Bogside had painted on the end of buildings for tourists to photograph. Mike got the camera ready and we, with much trepidation, readied our instruments. Suddenly we were set upon by a bunch of kids, about 8 or 9 years of age, who immediately asked us what the hell we thought we were doing. We were taken completely by surprise and didn’t quite know how to handle it at first. Here we were on the streets with a bunch of street-smart Bogside boys and we weren’t sure how they would handle our intentions. It was quite a moment for us and it illustrated only too clearly why there is little chance that people’s attitudes toward each other will ever change.
The conversation went something like this:
Kid: Are you lads Catholic or Protestant?
Kid: What sort of religion is that for fook’s sake?
Tyso: It’s a new one that hasn’t really had too much press over here yet.
The kid seemed quite happy with that and so the Protestants among us were safe for the moment.
Kid: Wher’re you from then?
Kid: Ah, fookin’ kangaroos. My Auntie Shirley lives there. Do ya know her?
Tyso: Er, no but I’ll probably bump into her sooner or later.
Kid: Do they throw petrol bombs at coppers in Australia then?
Tyso: Well, no, not really, it’s frowned upon you see.
Kid: Have you ever shot anyone then?
Tyso: Well as a property developer I’ve killed a few Koalas but I haven’t shot anyone lately, no.
The little kids became quite animated then and started to tell us about their run-ins with the ‘fookin’ prodos’ and how they would own guns one day just like their brothers. It was a lot of fun talking to these little blokes, they were little charmers and a great insight into an intractable problem but you could not help go away saddened by the encounter and wondering what sort of future awaited the poor little buggers. You could recognise the ones who were all talk and front and the quiet ones who would grow up tough and carry on the madness they had inherited. We spent quite a lot of time with the kids and the light began to fade so Michael decided instead to shoot some of the available scenes and we would worry about the clip in Belfast. It was probably just as well. As we were starting to pack up our gear a truck full of bad looking buggers slowly cruised past us and then turned around further up the road. We decided we didn’t want to know what it was that they wanted and jumped into the trucks and took off. We wrote a song about it.
THE WALLS OF DERRY.
In 16 hundred and 88
the boys clanged shut the iron gate
They locked outside the Catholic prince
and they’ve been fighting ever since.
The watchers in the barbed wire tower
upon the wall look down and glower.
Even they must have their doubts
does it keep them in or keep them out?
I watched a little boy walk past.
“Are you Catholic or prod?” he asked
“Do they stone the coppers where you’re from,
have you ever thrown a petrol bomb?”
When I grow up I’ll have a gun,
like my older brother’s done.”
I asked him why and all he said:
“You don’t fight back, you end up dead.”
Drink up boys the Gweedore’s closed
drink up and be merry!
Tonight they come to bang the drum,
along the Walls of Derry.
So bang the drum and prime the gun,
watch the little children run.
RUC or IRA.
Whose side’s God on anyway?
Breathe your last upon the grass,
a rubber bullet up your arse.
The wall’s stood for a thousand years,
wash away the blood with tears.