(Originally crafted for Tastes Like Chicken in 2007, decided to repost it here.)
Brisbane, Australia – Spring of 2007.
Fucking heat… should be illegal to be this hot. Shorts and a tank top, and it feels like I’m wearing the pelt of a freshly murdered Alsatian . A sickly breeze trickles in through the open window bringing with it the cries of strange birds that echo off the rental-white walls of the little room I call my home. Adding insult to injury, the fan on this laptop is damaged – I’m literally getting sunburn on my legs. It’s borrowed, so I can’t complain. The humidity fogs my glasses, wiping them only makes things worse. I compensate by swearing more, inserting my ear buds and taking a long swig from a red bottle. You don’t want to know what happens to tender Alaskan skin in a land where the ozone layer and a cool breeze are fictional characters in a bedtime story, and a six-year drought means water is nearly non-existent, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Cerise warned me — tried to, anyway. I’m speaking of my good friend and generous host in the Land Down Under, a hard-line music critic for The Dwarf, and a woman with a thing for swords. “You’ll never survive the heat,” she said, “but at least you’ll eat more than Ramen noodles for a month. You can live on a mat in the spare bedroom with Pasqual’s guitars. You’ll probably get whiplash from all the eye candy – it’s summer here, the natives are practically running naked in the streets.”
I said I didn’t care about living on a mat, and I really didn’t mind the eye candy. “I just need a break.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll see you at the airport.”
My flight from Juneau, AK, to Seattle, WA, was uneventful. Arriving in LAX I sprinted through the terminal like a certain football player who killed his wife, arriving at my gate during my final boarding call. I’m no stranger to international travel, so when the customs officer asked for my visa, the wheels in my brain came to a screeching halt. “You need visa to visit Australia,” he said in an offhand and broken manner. “One minute, one hour, no exception, that’s how it go.”
Succinctly put, I plain ass didn’t have one. My jaw dropped, my eyes bugged and the temperature in the room rose slightly. I pictured myself stuck in Los Angeles with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Suppose they herded us out of here at dusk with sharpened bamboo poles and locked the doors behind us? Picture me if you will, adrift on the mean streets of L.A., hunted down by packs of gorgeous animals. Suppose I wound up with an addiction, or worse — an acting job? I hear that’s pretty common.
The clerk looked at my passport, checked my ticket, stole a glance at my special ID, frowned at his terminal, and whacked at his keyboard like mechanical moles in a boardwalk arcade. “Okay, you fine now.” No explanation was asked and none was given for how he pulled it off, and I never look a gift horse in the mouth. I stuffed my paperwork into my bag with a grateful nod and made a beeline for the plane.
Thirteen hours and customs later, Cerise met me at the airport and gave me a whirlwind tour of Brisbane on the way to the tiny but comfortable apartment she shared with her man Pasqual, pointing out seedy dives where “the good clubs used to stand”. Speeding along in her ancient Toyota, she worked the shift like a rally driver, weaving in and out of traffic, swearing like a sailor with a fast heel-toe at the stoplights. “Slappers,” she muttered, pointing the finger of one tiny hand accusingly at a line of scantily clad women standing outside a bar.
“Come again?” But the explanation would have to wait. I was crammed tight in the left passenger seat, silly from sleep deprivation and giddy at the thought of the month that stretched ahead. I took my hat off, and put it back on. Then laughed like a loon, breathing in the sights and smells of Brisbane, feeling as though I’d dodged the axe by simply being here.
Arriving at her home, I stacked my things in the back bedroom, accepted a cool drink and collapsed on the far end of the couch as Cerise continued to compile her notes for a scathing review of an unimpressive ‘Bullet for my Valentine’ DVD she’d received from The Dwarf.
Within three days of my arrival, Cerise and Pasqual, her long-haired and hospitable musician boyfriend, dragged me to Chinatown to meet one Anthony Ng, Chinese herbalist – judge, jury, and probably executioner, but according to the certificate on the wall, definitely a notary republic. Pasqual had been seeing him for sometime, claimed it had done wonders for his nerves. Ng took a pulse from both my wrists, examined my tongue, and in broken English told me it was high time I gave up barbecued chicken, drinking spirits, and shooting heroin. He then prescribed something that came in a stack of white paper envelopes, several of which I would leave behind when I packed, psychologically scarred and unable to consume. They looked like something you’d find in a Hobbit’s bath drain, and they cost me eighty big ones.
I boiled a packet up in a pot that night and choked down the pungent, woodland experience, much to the amusement of my hosts. “Go on, mate!” laughed Pasqual, “you’ve gotta get it in one!” They’ve got my reaction on video somewhere. I’ve eaten a lot of strange things in my time, having sampled grasshoppers, ants, snails, seaweed, sea urchins and Gummi bears, just to name a few. Never have I tasted anything so foul, like the dregs of an espresso maker abandoned in a rain forest.
“It’s good for you,” Cerise said, “it’ll chase the toxins out.” I’d stopped smoking almost two months prior but I still smelled like a Westerner, a man who drank too much, stressed over his job, and ate all the wrong foods.
She was right about my eating well in their home – both Cerise and Pasqual are wicked cooks who serve fine red wine with nearly every meal – and she was also right about the women here – they’re fucking amazing. So beautiful, in fact, that after three days I felt burned out, and my neck was sore from whiplash. Which was fine, as I wasn’t there to mate.
Australia has given birth to a shitload of good music, and it didn’t stop in the 80s. While the hard-hitting AC/DC, the now-deceased INXS, and the slick pop package known as Savage Garden have enjoyed considerable international success, there remains some noise as to whether Australian popular music really has a distinctive sound. What began with Johnny O’Keefe, the first Australian rock star to find fame by imitating Elvis Presley and Little Richard lasted until about 1961, when the family bands stepped to the mike. Though audiences in the early sixties still preferred this clean-cut sound, American and British acts inspired by surf, garage and psychedelics were soon making ripples in Sydney and Melbourne. Cut to 1964, and the impact of The Beatles. Enter the Aussie solution: Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs, The Easybeats, The Bee Gees, and The Loved Ones. But by the early 1970s, these 60s groups were dissolving like fairy floss in direct sunlight; few acts from this era saw anything resembling major international success due to low radio airplay. Australian musicians like Rick Springfield – formerly of Zoot – traveled to the US in search of fame and fortune. Solution? Double Jay, the first all-rock radio station, which allowed AC/DC, Olivia Newton-John and late 70s Icehouse (then named The Flowers) to find an audience, tour the world, and spread the word. See also: John-Paul Young, The Little River Band, Sherbet, Skyhooks. Things began picking up steam. Along came New Wave – and Aussie’s (pronounced with two Z’s) replied with The Saints, Severed Heads, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil (ironically, the former activist lead singer is now a politician).
In 1972, Australia’s first ever outdoor festival, modeled after Woodstock’s three days of mud, love, and brown acid, attracted some 35,000 music fans from across the land to the outskirts of Melbourne, proving the Aussie music scene was not only alive and well – it was flourishing. Enter the 80s: Hunters and Collectors, The Church, Divinyls, Models, Mondo Rock, Hoodoo Gurus, The Sunnyboys, Men at Work, The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, The Stems, The Celibate Rifles, The Lime Spiders, The Screaming Tribesmen, the pop-art sensibilities of Ratcat, and my personal favorite, Nick Cave (first of Boys Next Door and Birthday Party, who went on to form The Bad Seeds with Alex Harvey in 1984). American and British alternative music, the grunge and Britpop wave of the mid 90s, gave rise to Regurgitator, Silverchair, Something for Kate, Screamfeeder, Powderfinger, Ammonia, and Even. Industrial and electronic music saw fame with bands such as Paul Mac, Hilltop Hoods, Resin Dogs, Severed Heads and Snog. Current local bands of note are The Living End, Little Birdy, Sleepy Jackson, End of Fashion, Eskimo Joe, Gotye, Wolfmother, and the sometimes overrated Jet.
“Consider the Western Australia explosion,” Cerise said to me over coffee one afternoon. “In the ’80s, the great bands were from Brisbane. Now they’re all from Perth.” In a slipshod way, that takes us right up to February 24, 2007, and the Soundwaves Festival in Brisbane; a broiling pool of sweat, tattooed flesh, Manic Panic, pierced anything’s, and cold beer. Good times, essentially.
After threading our way through security, we crested a hill leading into the venue, and there she was – Juliet Lewis and her band The Licks, maybe 15 yards away. I was frozen like a deer in the headlights, transfixed by her energy. She screeched and howled into the microphone like a banshee, leaping, punching the air, working the crowd and flinging the sweat from her hair across the stage, the veins on her neck bulging like the business end of a live wire. The first thing that went through my head was my inability to believe this was the same actress from ‘Dusk Till Dawn’, and ‘Natural Born Killers’.
Actually, that was the second thing that went through my head. The first was more of a personal nature, and could probably be considered inappropriate without a credit card transaction.
Juliet performs like a woman possessed, and I promised myself to give her CDs a listen. Unfortunately, we arrived late for her set and left in a hurry to catch another far, far less impressive band.
I’d heard great things about the next act from Cerise. Maybe it was the venue, maybe it was the sound system, or the unruly crowd. Whatever the reason, the Bronx sucked it. But they didn’t suck it alone. Many of the EMO acts on the bill suffered the same ailment – you couldn’t really tell them apart.
It’s as if there was one act running the entire show, like maybe they’d lost a bet and had to cover the whole gig themselves. Picture if you will, one incredibly exhausted band playing a seven or eight song set, disappearing backstage, slamming into a shower and fresh clothes, reappearing ten minutes later, telling the crowd how happy they were to be in Brisbane, and picking up where they left off. And none of the audience seemed to notice.
In hindsight, I suppose I didn’t care, either. Why should I? I was well fed, gently intoxicated, and patiently awaiting my first taste of the goddamned Deftones.
Focused overt aggression and pure rock fury, the Deftones are smarter than you give them credit for, while trying to prove to themselves that they’re as tough and horny as everyone thinks. Talk about a balancing act. It’s tough to describe their sound, as I’m not a true rock critic but what I heard impressed the hell out of me. At one point, I remember looking up through the parting summer clouds and thinking the stars looked out of place. “Oh, yeah. I’m south of the equator…”
Suddenly there came a gentle tremor, and when I looked back at the stage nothing was moving. There was silence. Time had come unplugged, it does this sometimes.
Chino Moreno, suspended in mid air, the microphone cord wrapped around his fist, his face contorted.
Abe Cunningham, one drumstick high above his head, a frozen spray of sweat exploding from the kit.
Stephen Carpenter, doubled over in concentration, his hands a hair’s breadth from his next chord. The whole band, petrified. I felt as though I were standing in a crowd of strangers with my head on fire.
Beside me, Pasqual stood motionless, taking a picture with his mobile phone. Next to him, Cerise stood her eyes closed, locked mid-step in some swaying little dance, but her face said she’d been listening, really listening, to the music, as though she could eat it with ears.
I felt this phenomenon probably extended beyond the crowded hillside where I stood in awe, maybe even everywhere in the world. Imagine. Fish, frozen in rivers, birds halted in flight, the rain paused, sunlight on the far side of the world, immobile, the light of stars restrained. It was unspeakable. I felt a second tremor as life lurched back into motion. Chino hit the ground with a furious scream, the drum kit exploded with a deafening crunch, and when Carpenter’s frozen chord rocketed out of the speakers, the whole thing punched me square in the chest. Time moved on, no one noticed, and that was my first taste of the Deftones. Amazing.
FIERCE INVALIDS IN SURFER’S PARADISE
Two weeks later, lying on the floor of my motel room in Surfer’s Paradise on Australia’s Gold Coast, I’m praying for rain; my skin turned lobster red from a day in the surf. I’d pay for it, sure enough.
The last time I got this fried, I’d covered Akoostic Hookah at an outdoor event for the now-defunct, Columbus-based MOO magazine, a weekend which turned into a real safari. Completely unprepared for DIY hippie camping, I returned home vomiting, shivering, purple, and, I’m ashamed to say, no story for my editor.
I slept 15 hours and woke up nauseous. Managed to stagger out for a chicken wrap, some rice, and a bottle of Powerade, but every move brought me physical discomfort. Miserable, lurching, shuffling the sidewalk, abusing my eyes on the cheap plastic and gaudy t-shirts for sale in every store. Returning to my room, I read another few chapters of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’ and took another nap. Spent a majority of Sunday shivering and shuddering, and getting called a “wuss” by Cerise via text.
To compound things, I threw my back out Monday. Somehow, I managed to piss off a disc in my lower back and spent two days learning how to walk again, crawling to the toilet and rolling across the floor like an idiot in search of a village. The pain left me with nothing to do but stare into the ceiling fan in my room ala Martin Sheen in ‘Apocalypse Now’, with plenty of time to think.
“No matter,” I eventually decided. “Whatever happens is just another experience, regardless of size or shape, good, bad or ugly, it’s an adventure nonetheless. It’s the weird shit I crave, a catalyst. Any writer worth his ink knows that.”
It took a few days of lying around to make me realize I was on to something here, that it still beat the shit out of sitting at my desk on the other side of the world, and reaffirmed that there’s no time like the present. Reflecting on this, I felt strangely alive. Yes, I was a temporary invalid. But I was a temporary invalid in Australia.
Dear reader, I share this with you – my darkest fantasy! Gather near for the lurid details… I’m sequestered away in a motel room for an entire month. It’s hurricane season. I’ve got keys to the a swimming pool, the kitchen, a generous supply of Gledfidditch 12-year Scotch, a reliable laptop, and my iTunes library. Music is necessary, but the laptop is crucial. I’m a professional, I can get the notes on paper same as any monkey. But in order to get any real work accomplished, I require a word processor. That’s why they call them processors, because they process the words I spit out. Pasqual’s laptop was back in Brisbane, all of which explains why my notes from that week are muddled at best, jotted on café napkins and paper bags.
“On the patio of an Italian restaurant, savoring angry ions of a pre-storm front, tasting surf, scent of coffee, strange perfume, deep shades of chocolate / hissing palm trees like spiders on a pike / gulped down lion’s share of painkillers to be here / All these beautiful women, and I’m sleeping with an icepack? MESSAGE! / I don’t interact well, bought a large coffee and set my brain to Auto-Harvest / walking, looking, searching, observing, photographing and seeking the No Thing / Out there among the hordes of the Curious, the Vacant, and the Jaded lives the Source Code, the Fact of the Matter, Raw Intel worth craving / the background signal, something ignored, something no one’s has picked up on, like cutting out shapes with the scissors of your mind, and describing the space that remains. / The stench of Americana is everywhere, as if every country in the world is willing and content to volunteer their virgin daughters, their respective precious natural resource and cultural identity, for an evening out on the town with that Dirtiest of Uncles, Sam / There but for the Grace of God, off into the night without so much as a Bible verse for protection. Just past the circle of the porch light and halfway to his car, America’s got his mitts shoved halfway down her jeans, soiling her clean white cotton triangle, the turgid muscle of his booze-and-cigarette tongue snaking past teeny-bopper braces and headed south down her throat before pitching her through the passenger side door of his GTO. “We are Jesus,” he shouts toward the front door. “We’re the World Police! We’ll be back for more, we’re watching!” / Searching for food tonight, walked into a Hungry Jack’s, got hassled by a Jehovah’s Witness, didn’t know it at first. He cornered me near the soda fountain and made fumbling jokes about the Diet Coke. Dammit, I should have suspected. He came back a few minutes later with a worn copy of the Watchtower. I told him no thank you. He asked where I was from. I said America. He asked if there were a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses there. I told him probably too many. He seemed wounded by this, said it was a hard job. I said “Yes, I’m sure it is. Now please do it somewhere else.” He mumbled something about the end of the world coming and slunk away. I found somewhere else to eat. / Bus back to Brisbane on the 10th, a few days left till the Mars Volta gig.” END OF NAPKINS
NIGHT OF THE BAPHOMET
I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like, couldn’t possibly have known. It’s true, I haven’t seen near as many shows as Cerise or Pasqual, a bookend of genuine music lovers no doubt conceived, if not born, at a concert. And I can count my live music experiences on one hand, which means I’m easily astounded. ‘In the mind the beginner, the possibilities are endless,’ which is kinda how I feel about music. Even after all I’ve heard, I’ve heard so very little that truly moves me. So when my favorite experimental posse poured out of the darkness and took the stage in earnest to an old spaghetti western theme by Ennio Morricone, a sound close to my heart, I laughed out loud. Every hero needs theme music, and I was ready to enjoy myself.
The mood was dark, hot, close, and the music flowed on and on like a river that’d forgotten it’s source. Most notably, guitarist Omar Alfredo Rodriguez-Lopez and lyricist Cedric Bixler-Zavala were incredible to watch – one never stopping laughing, the other never stopped moving. My ears would ring for two days.
True, it was an all age show, plagued by drugged-out high-schoolers, inexplicably wealthy enough to spring for $70 tickets and the Ecstasy to make it all seem worthwhile. And in hindsight, maybe we were too close to the stage. And, I suppose TMV weren’t as fluid as they could have been after a long hiatus.
To answer Cerise’s question posed later that night – “What happened to going to see a band just to listen to the fucking music?” I honestly don’t know. Nothing lasts forever except nothing and forever, and all moments were custom made to end.
Maybe you’re right, Cerise, maybe it’s time to wear white again, bring back Milk Bars, and get excited about classical music. Maybe everyone’s just searching for the experience you took for granted, growing up in the Right place at the Right time guided by the Right set of rules and true a sense of self, a bolt of righteous circumstance no cheap Slapper can hope to repeat.
Still, it was a hell of a night.
INTO THE SUNSET
Needless to say, I wasn’t ready to get back on the plane to the States just two days later. It just didn’t seem fair, going back to the Big Awkward, especially since I’d learned Juneau was on the cusp of breaking their all-time snow record. But I had some loose ends to tie off, and a beautiful future waiting for me. Just accept it as gospel kids, vacations never end gracefully. There is no simple close, and nary a compound sentence or open-ended question anywhere on the planet that can make the transition any easier.
I don’t know how else to end this story, so I will.
My heartfelt thanks to Cerise and Pasqual for making my time in Australia memorable. Hope I wasn’t much trouble. (“Not TOO much trouble,” said Cerise…)