“Get out on the road,” he said. “It’ll clear ya’ head, blow out the old cobwebs,” he said. “Take some time to rediscover ya’ self,” he, the bastard, had the nerve to say. He . . . was Sidney Treloar, my agent of twenty-five years and friend – off and on – for almost half of those.
Sidney leaned back in his office chair and peered up at me from behind his glasses, the thickness of which would put the tanks at SeaWorld to shame. Behind him, on the wall, framed concert posters of mine from yesteryear.
Australian Tour – 1993 – my first full tour to all six State capitals
Europe – 1995 – Seven countries. I slew ‘em on that one.
The sky wasn’t the limit; it was just another barrier in the way of where I was truly going.
America – 1997 – Up and down the West Coast for three interminable months.
I should have seen the writing on the wall back then, but I was still too full of piss and vinegar. I spent three more years trying to crack the American market. Me – pouring my guts out on stage. America – turning a blind eye and instead propelling, “Who let the dogs out?” to number one.
Oh, I was still cranking out the tunes like clockwork. Spending hours upon hours in the studio, putting out new albums every year. Too busy plowing forward to see the fallow fields I was leaving behind.
The sales of each new album continued to shrink as the miles on my body accumulated. If I had of been smart enough to know how to graph it on an X and Y axis, the two lines would have intersected somewhere around 2002.
I put it down to too much time on the road. I heard a comedian once say he hated being on the road all the time because that’s where the cars were and eventually one would get ya’. Funny line that. So I took some time off.
The next four years were spent back in Melbourne doing nothing but hanging out at my country home outside Healesville. Drinking good wine during the day, which I book-ended with good coffee morning and night. From the front porch, watching the seasons have their effect on the vineyards. From the back porch, watching the kangaroos feed at dusk, listening to the harsh squawk of pissed-off cockatoos. And writing shit lyrics.
For the first two years the music rags called me a recluse. “A musical genius taking a much-needed rest,” they said. Then, “working on his masterpiece,” they said. After another year of producing nothing for the masses . . . “Retired,” they said.
My record company was getting restless. They’d run out of possible permutations in re-packaging my greatest hits and live recordings. They wanted new material.
In their Fitzroy studio, just before Christmas, I put a backing band together and recorded the best fifteen songs I’d accumulated. They sent me a cancellation of services letter for a Christmas present.
– Trust me, mate. This will be the best thing for you. Get back to your roots. Re-discover that muse that produced those wonderful lyrics.
“Muse,” he said. What the hell is that? I wrote of what I saw, what I felt. Of wanting to escape so badly from the shit hole of a place you were born in, that you’d chew your arm off to escape the shackles.
I was born a stone’s throw from the Murray River, on the outskirts of a small country town named Echuca. Dad had been a wheat farmer. Mum took care of the homestead. Although, I do have them to thank for my introduction to music. Dad played guitar, Mum the piano. Together, at night, they played all the old country tunes they heard on the radio. By ear. Badly.
During my eighteenth year I left home to attend university in Melbourne, I’ve only ever been back twice. The first time to bury Dad, three years later a repeat performance for Mum.
June 17, would be only the third time in over twenty years.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. But there it was, the poster stuck to the window of the bingo hall.
One night Only
June 17 – 7:30 p.m.
At the Echuca-Moama RSL
I almost dropped my groceries. Had to read it twice for it to sink in.
Ben Mathews. It was a name, a face; I hadn’t thought about in donkey’s years. Should I go? Of course, I should. What am I thinking? How could I not? Tickets were on sale at the newsagents across the road. I ran across the road, my mind a whirl of emotion.
Merv, in his battered Holden ute, honked his horn as he swerved to miss me. His blue heeler, Trixie, was almost thrown from the bed. I waved an apology – to Trixie – and headed for McCutcheon’s. Merv could suck a sav.
The McCutcheon family had owned the only newsagents in town since before the war, the first one. Their daughter, Emma, and I had attended Echuca High School together and had been the best of friends ever since.
– Simone! Bet I know why you’re here. Can you believe he’s playing a show here?
Emma was manning the register and had seen me enter before I’d noticed her.
– I know. It’s terrific, isn’t it?
– You think he’ll remember you? You and he were quite an item there for a while.
That same thought had already been jangling around in my mind. Would he remember?
– So here’s what I’ve lined up for you.”
Sidney had thrown my objections aside like only an agent paid by commission could. He scratched his head as he read from the page in front of him, his fingers doing a number on the perfectly aligned rows of his combover.
– You start off in Kyneton, then on to Bendigo, you’re playing at an excellent winery in Heathcote, then the final show in Echuca. The old prodigal son . . . You know? What do you think?
What I thought was, I needed a new bloody agent.
It sounded like a week on the road playing in small halls where the acoustics would be a fuckin’ disgrace. And a winery! A bloody winery, in winter? It sounded like a week of driving across the flat land that went on forever with only the sighting of the odd rogue kangaroo to keep you alert at the wheel. It sounded like a week of crap restaurants. And God only knows what the coffee situation would be.
And didn’t the prodigal son, if I recalled correctly, return home a failed wreck?
What did I think? I shot Sidney my most heartwarming smile.
– It sounds good.
As they say, beggars can’t be choosers.
I’ve got to tell you; I was bloody useless the rest of the day. The floors needed washing and the carpets a good vacuuming. Instead, I opened a bottle of Brown Brothers Chardonnay and put on my favourite Ben Mathews album. Then another. And another. Then, more wine. Well, you get the picture.
When he sang of the girl that he kissed by the river. I knew he’d written it for me. About me. The song about the pub in Fitzroy brought back memories of our nights there. I laughed recalling the way we’d slip out the back door, past the toilets, when we’d drank more than the contents of our pockets. And I cried all the way through the song he wrote about our last fight.
I can still recall that tiny, dank, room we rented just off campus. Just a twin bed, a small desk with a lamp and the mildewed bathroom down the hall. Dying from the heat in summer, then climbing inside each other’s skin in winter to keep warm.
Our parents never did know we were living together.
And I can still recall that stupid argument. He wanted to leave school and play his music. I wanted him to continue his studies. I knew I’d lose him for good if he quit. He said we’d always be together. He won the argument, and soon after I lost him from my life.
– What’s ya’ hurry?
I was mid-way through my set at the first show in Kyneton, taking a moment to retune, when the comment from the audience threw me for a loop.
– What was that? Did you have a request?
– Yeah, I do.
The bloke speaking was in the second row. Thick arms folded across his massive chest, and sweat-stained Akubra hat screwed down tightly on his head. He didn’t just look like he raised sheep, the big bugger looked as if he used them to hone his shot-putting skills.
– I want you to slow down and sing the bloody songs with some feeling.
His wife buried her face in a hanky hastily pulled from her purse. The crowd murmured their disgust – or agreement; I wasn’t sure.
It took me a moment to compose myself. Was that what I’d become? What I’d always despised? A sell-out?
I once opened for a famous country singer on a month long tour across the American Midwest. His name doesn’t matter, but you’d know him. Every night for a month he ran through the same setlist. Of course, assuming he was playing to different folks each night no one would be any the wiser. But I knew. And each night he played faster and faster. By the end of the tour, he was doing his set of twenty songs in thirty-five minutes. On the last night of the tour, I fully expected him to drop his guitar after the last note, sprint off stage with arms spread wide – as if breaking the tape at an imaginary finish line, and disappear.
I vowed back then that I would never become him. I had some serious soul-searching to do.
For the rest of the show in Kyneton, I gave my all, well as much as I was capable of on such short notice. Trying to find some soul to my singing that had been, apparently, missing for so long was going to take some time.
After the show, the hulking sheep farmer was waiting for me on my way out of the hall. Just when I’d resigned myself that I was about to take a beating – I figured a refund wouldn’t suffice – he greeted me with a hug. As the big man released his grip, I noticed tears running freely down his deeply lined face.
– That last song. That . . . That was the most beautiful version I’ve ever heard you play. I lost my only child a few years back and the line about “the moments that you’ve missed” just tears my heart out.
My SUV was packed with ghosts on the drive to Bendigo that night. The old sheep farmer had touched a chord. A chord that I’d thought lost within me forever. When did I quit caring? Was it around the time I’d stopped remembering?
As the motorway shepherded me around the outskirts of Castlemaine, I fed an old CD into the Audi’s player. One of my old CDs. If you can’t beat those old ghosts, may as well join them.
I was in such a tizzy. The show was only five days away, Friday, and I had a million things to do to get ready. Justine at the beauty salon would take care of my nails and hair on Thursday. Maria over at the fabric store was running up a new dress for me. Now all I needed was a plastic surgeon, liposuction, and a psychiatrist.
What in the bloody hell was wrong with me?
With none of those three things readily available in Echuca, I settled for the next best option. I picked up a couple of bottles of wine from the grocer’s, a movie from the video parlour and invited Emma over to talk me off the proverbial cliff.
– Love. You need to relax.
– Easier said than done, Captain Obvious.
We were done with the first bottle of Shiraz and were halfway through The Martian. If Matt Damon couldn’t get my mind off of Ben “bloody” Mathews nothing would.
– What’s the worst that can happen?
– He totally ignores me.
– And if he does?
– No worries. I’ll just throw myself into the Murray.
– I seem to recall you saying that same bloody thing when you came home from Melbourne all those years ago. You got over him then, didn’t you?
Did I? I was a blubbering mess for nigh on a month. Everyone close to me put it down to the death of my father. After his funeral, I never went back to Melbourne. I took the easy way out, using Mum as my escape clause. True, on her own, she would have been incapable of running the farm, and rather than sell . . . I dropped out of school and started on my new life. A new life that was no different than my old life, the exact thing that I always promised myself I’d avoid.
And now, twenty-some years later, part of that alternative life that never materialized, that was stillborn in a squalid room that overlooked a North Melbourne pub, was bubbling back to the surface.
– It’ll be nice if we can at least talk about old times. That’s all I ’m hoping for.
On the television screen, Matt Damon’s character had been sucked out of an airlock and blown across the surface of the planet. Utterly helpless, at the mercy of forces out of his control. I knew how he felt.
– Ben, Ben. I’m getting tremendous feedback on the shows. What say you?
What say you? From where do agents get their sentence structure? Shakespearean cavemen? It was Sidney calling me on my mobile. The show in Bendigo had been the night before, and I was re-filling the Audi before heading east to Heathcote.
– Yeah, the show did go well. I think a little of the old passion is returning to my performance. That what you’re hearing?
– Indeed it is, my warbling wanderer.
Oh shit! I hadn’t heard Sidney in such a giddy mood since my last ARIA nomination.
– Now, you are recording these shows as I asked, correct?
– I am indeed, mon Capitaine.
Two could play this linguistic bullshit game.
– Excellent. Call me after Heathcote. And be sure to pick me up a few bottles of plonk while you’re there.
I punched the disconnect button just as the Audi’s petrol fix came to a gurgling halt. Inside the petrol station-cum-convenience store, I grabbed a bottle of mineral water, a bag of chips and pack of chewing gum, then waited in line to pay.
Ahead of me a small boy, no more than five, leant against his mother’s leg as she searched her purse for enough change to pay for her purchase. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes; his hair was closely cropped, face dirty, snot running from his left nostril.
In an instant, I was back in a school room of my youth. Tall gum trees shaded our room from the relentless afternoon sun. A bell bird’s high-pitched song drifted through the air. The torpid river flowed westward just to the other side of the cricket oval.
Our teacher had her back turned from the class while she wrote on the blackboard. My best friend, Harvey “Bones” McIntosh, was digging in his bag for something, trying his hardest to be quiet. Bones – he earned the nickname because he was forever bringing the bones of dead animals to school and attempting to convince us they were from a dinosaur – had pulled two pieces of Castlemaine Rock from a tin hidden in his school bag and was offering me one.
Castlemaine Rock – if you aren’t familiar – is, indisputably, the hardest candy ever manufactured in the history of mankind. One sucked the rock; one never attempted to bite it. It also had the effect of producing prodigious amounts of saliva that were impossible to contain.
Not wanting to be caught eating in class, I declined. Not so Bones, he popped both pieces at once into his gob. A moment later – as fate would have it – our teacher, Ms. Peebles, finished writing on the blackboard and began asking the class questions.
In a panic, Bones started to crunch . . . loudly. If the noise of his crunching hadn’t reached the front of the room, the howl he let out a moment later surely did the trick. In his haste, he’d broken a tooth on a piece of the rock. The pain must have been excruciating. Blood mixed with saliva ran from his mouth. Tears joined the snot running from his nose. And all combinations of the above pooled on his desk amidst rock and tooth fragments.
– You’ll have to put that back; I don’t have enough to pay for it today.
Tears welled up in the small child’s eyes as he watched the pack of jelly beans he craved were replaced on the rack.
– Here. Let me.
I handed the package of jelly beans to the child and paid for them with my other purchases. Why? Hell, I don’t know. He didn’t look anything like Bones. But the memory it triggered . . . The memories of Bones and I. . .
I hurried from the store and grabbed a notepad from the back seat of the Audi. The lady must have thought me crazy as I rushed past her. For the next hour, I sat in the Audi, in the parking lot, writing a story. Not lines that rhymed, that had no soul, any hack in Los Angeles or Nashville could do that. A story. One that I felt. That had a heart. Meaning. A composition that made me feel proud.
At one stage I had to wipe tears from the page. I suddenly recalled, for the first time in years, that I used to do that a lot.
– Oh, love! Don’t you look a treat!?
Maria had finished my dress, and I was trying it on in the small fitting room at the back of her shop. It was true, even if I had to say so myself, she had done an excellent job.
– Do you think it’s too low cut?
– Not at all. You’ve got a lovely figure; you need to show it off a little.
– Yeah, but . . .
– No buts. You’re wearing it, and you’ll look positively fabulous. Now slip it off so as I can finish that hem.
I stepped back into the fitting room and pulled the curtain across.
– So. . . Has he called you at all?
Did I wish he would?
– No. Why would he?
– Well . . . I just thought that he might have planned this, you know?
Had I even crossed his mind?
– Look, Maria. It’s been almost twenty-five years since we’ve talked. Yeah, we were once an item. But, he went on to become a famous singer. He’s travelled all over the world. I moved back here. To my home.
A home with roots so deep and tangled in the dusty red dirt of this place that I sometimes feel they are going to strangle the last ounce of life out of me.
– I still love his music and besides, sad to say, I’ve never seen him play a proper live show before. I’m just going to enjoy myself. That’s all.
And if I said that over and over enough times it would become real, right?
I heard a line in a song once that asked, “how many notes in a saxophone?” Can’t remember why, the song offered no answer, a rhetorical question, I guess. But anyway, my point, I knew how chords were in my guitar. Not many. I picked out a melody, one from the failed album, that fit with the lyrics I’d written that day and sprung it on the winery crowd.
And it proved to be a hit, well, the audience all clapped at a level that was a notch above polite. Perhaps it even tugged a few heart strings. What song about a young mother escaping the clutches of an abusive husband wouldn’t? Especially when seen through the innocent eyes of a five-year-old boy. Of course, looking back, that mother may have just been at the counter picking up a pack of cigarettes.
I put it down to artistic license.
I had even begun telling a few tales between songs. I hadn’t done that in years. Nothing too revealing, just to help set up the next song. Although I found once I’d started, it was hard to stop. Not just the tales, but the memories that came flooding back and washed over me like a tidal wave.
The show in Heathcote went especially well, and as a bonus, the manager even threw in a case of his best Shiraz. I imagine he must have made a killing on the food and wine sales.
The next morning, leaving Heathcote, I stopped at a small cafe on the outskirts of town for breakfast. While waiting for the waitress to take my order, and wondering how old the rickety little table I leant on must have been, I spied behind the counter a rare sight. Snuggled into the back corner, between the sidewall and a sink, majestically sat an enormous espresso machine.
I say enormous because they just don’t make them like that anymore. Today, most of the mass-produced devices are economically sized. Some even require pods. Pods, my arse! This majestic beast from another age looked like the illegitimate offspring that had sprung from a beer keg after it had run amok in a chemistry lab. Tubes, knobs – bells and whistles, for all I knew – sprung out from all angles.
My heart began to race in expectation of a much-needed fix. My blood flowed with added intensity.
– Does that thing still work?
The waitress had returned and followed my stare to the back corner of the café.
– Sure. What would you like?
I ordered a flat white and crossed my fingers.
Coffee is a funny thing. Much like wine, you, unfortunately, don’t appreciate the fine until you’ve had the filth. I’d discovered earlier this week, to my chagrin, that the further removed from Melbourne you were, the worse the coffee.
We all died a little as a human race the day drip machines began replacing the venerable old espresso machine. Drip coffee! Just the name says it all, an alchemic abomination combining Chinese water torture and a nasty disease. Whoever invented drip coffee, along with the inventor of the oversized glass beaker and warming tray it sits on, needed to be strung up by their twig and coffee beans.
– Here you go, sir.
My flat white had arrived. I sniffed. I sipped . . . and . . . Not too bad!
Not as good as Di Bella’s in North Melbourne. Nor even close to Pellegrini’s in the City, where you have to learn to walk crab-like just to squeeze into the crowded cafe. Closer in taste perhaps to that other little cafe in North Melbourne, what was its name? I’d go there during my university days when Simone and I lived . . . Lived in the tiny room above the yoga studio.
When we were so poor, we lived on leftover noodles from the Chinese restaurant down the street. Where we took turns studying at the one small desk that was squeezed in next to the bed. Where we loved. Where we fought. Then loved again, until the sequence finally ran out on the wrong side of the coin.
Like spinning a roulette wheel and putting all your chips on red. And it stops short on black. Too young and proud to say you were wrong. And no chance in hell of ever getting those chips back.
Simone . . .
The show was tonight. Seven-thirty. I was ready at six-thirty and toyed with opening a bottle of wine to help settle my nerves. He’d have arrived earlier today. Probably staying at one of the swank new resorts across the river. Probably already turning his nose up at our backward country ways.
I checked my make-up again for the tenth time. Too much mascara? No, I think it’s okay. Is it? What about the lipstick? Too dark? Shit!
The Northern Highway pierced the rolling farmland to either side for as far as the eye could see. I drove into Echuca around lunchtime, arriving in town from the west before turning left onto High Street. I drove slowly through town noticing the changes, pensively wishing it hadn’t.
Memories of Simone and I, our times together, filled the kilometres from Heathcote to my old hometown. Her hometown also. Was it still her home? It’d been close to twenty-five years since we’d parted. I’d been back just the twice but hadn’t seen her on either of those occasions. The timing hadn’t been right. The feelings still too raw.
At least for me.
The young girl at reception handed me my key, smiled and wished me a pleasant stay. My reservation was at the old Echuca Hotel, I had wanted to stay at the Bridge, but discovered it had closed down a few months earlier. Such a shame. My parents would take me there each year for an Easter meal, a special treat. Afterward, we would take the short walk down to the banks of the Murray. My father and I would throw stones trying to reach New South Wales on the other side. We never came close.
Occasionally, a paddle steamer would glide past. We’d halt our stone throwing and wave back to the passengers on deck.
The week before we left for university, I took Simone on an hour-long cruise aboard one of the steamers. Back then, we both shared the dream of escaping. The events of that day, the feelings we shared, later became the inspiration for my biggest selling single. And another tender ballad that I rarely ever played.
Once again, as if it were yesterday, that fleeting hour was etched clearly on my mind.
I wondered if she still remembered.
The concert hall at the new RSL seemed bigger than I remembered. And it would be a packed house here tonight. Emma and her husband, knowing I’d be nervous, had picked me up early and so we were able to get seats just six rows back from the stage.
– Want to see if we can get closer?
– No, Em. These will do fine.
– Want a drink? Sure you do. Tony, get us a glass of wine each, please.
Tony, Emma’s husband, picked his way between knees and seat backs for the length of the aisle.
– Thanks for being here with me, Em. I’m not sure I could do this alone.
Tony had returned with the wine. The three of us made small talk as we waited apprehensively for the show to begin.
With little fanfare, the lights in the hall began a slow fade to black. Just a single spotlight illuminated the stage. All that was visible was a small wooden stool, a microphone stand and a six-string guitar resting on its stand.
I clasped my hands tightly in my lap in anticipation. I hoped that he would play our song. I just hoped that . . .
Nerves. I hadn’t been nervous before a show in a decade. Longer. All the ghosts and demons that had been dredged up over the past week had picked this final show, this moment, to all join hands and start up a jamboree in the pit of my stomach.
Sidney had called just moments earlier to wish me luck and to tell me that he had a new indie label interested in hearing the tapes of my shows.
– Ben, I’m excited about this opportunity. It could be the re-launch for which we’ve been looking.
I told him I may stay on in Echuca for one more day, that I wasn’t sure yet.
– Well, let me know as soon as you make up your mind. I need to set up a meeting with these blokes, and I need you there. Strike while the iron’s hot, eh?
I told him he’d be the first to know.
– Plus, I bet you could use a decent cup of coffee by now, eh? Am I right?
I paced back and forth in the cramped backstage area, running over the setlist in my mind.
The house lights began to dim, my cue to take the stage.
From over the PA:
– Ladies and gentlemen. Please join me in welcoming Echuca’s own – Mr. Ben Mathews.
I’d made a couple of changes to the set from the show in Heathcote, even adding a ballad near the end that I hadn’t attempted in years.
To the welcome sound of hearty applause, I climbed the stairs and pushed through the curtain. Stepping onto the small stage, my eyes downcast against the glare of the spotlight, I wondered if anyone in the audience would remember that ballad from long ago.
If Simone . . .