It was a twenty-four hour turnaround decision. I had returned from backpacking around Europe about a year earlier, but I remained uncomfortably restless. The decision to buy the cafe was made the day after seeing it, while visiting an old friend in a small town on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Traveling through Europe had widened my perspective and I had become both dissatisfied and disillusioned with teaching. It was a snap decision with unforeseen consequences; but a very good one.
The business I bought was called the “Oasis Café”. It was located on the main street of a town that lay within a rural setting, but that was surprisingly industrial in character. The town had a very large small arms factory producing rifles for the army, which was constructed during WWII at a considerable distance from Sydney, for security reasons. There were also railway workshops and coal mines that employed very “down to earth” type of homogeneous, Anglo-cultured people. The lack of cosmopolitan culture was strange, as there were many foreign surnames within the town’s population. These foreign sounding names were a remnant of the migrant hostel that was located there many years ago. However, it seemed that over the ensuing generations, assimilation had been complete. Most houses were very plain and the shops unsophisticated. There was very little in the way of cultural variety. Most of the population were descendants of the northern and western British migrants who settled the area around the turn of the century, when the coal mines and now defunct steel mill were established. Some of the residential areas reflected this industrial heritage through rows of workmen’s cottages that would not have been out of place in the industrial estates of northern England. The people were generally friendly, “salt of the earth” types who worked hard and loved their sport.
The Oasis Cafe was something very different for the working class town and was created by a Swiss, Jewish woman who introduced some cosmopolitan influences. The cafe was filled with indoor plants, including huge Boston ferns that cascaded down from pots hanging from the ceiling, and there was modern art on the walls. The cafe sold quiche!
Quiche was something quite new to the town but it became very popular. I remember one gentleman who regularly came in for his quiche meal every Thursday afternoon on his way to his shift at the Small Arms Factory. You could tell that he was a factory worker from the green uniform he wore. Every Thursday at around 4:30pm he would come in, take a seat at the same table by the window and call out his order to me:
“I’ll have some qwieesh, thanks.”
Every Thursday I would futilely attempt to correct his pronunciation and reply:
“One quiche, coming right up!”
One afternoon, this lovely gentleman came into the cafe as usual, but must have been feeling somewhat confident. He marched in, sat at his usual table and in a loud, self-assured voice called out:
“G’day, I’ll have some of that qwieesh Louise, thanks.”
There were other occasions when I would be asked from some locals for a “cup-of-chino please” or an “expresso, thanks.”
Operating the cafe was a great way to meet lots of people, quickly. I met a group of New Zealand born musicians who taught me a lot about country music and who I ended up playing professionally with for a while. I met teachers from the local schools, people from the local radio station and people from the local newspaper. I ended up writing a weekly newspaper column in which I reviewed live bands and also became a part-time radio announcer, after some free training from a friend. I started doing relief teaching at the local high school as well. At that time I was very busy. During periods when I was operating the cafe, relief teaching and replacing radio announcers who were on holidays or on sick leave, my days were very full. A typical day would start at 7:30 am when I would arrive at the cafe and start cooking quiches, cakes, scones etc. and start preparing all the other day’s food. Just as my staff would arrive at around 8:30, I would regularly get a call from the high school asking me to come up for a day’s teaching. I would get to school by 9am, be back at lunchtime to help out during the lunch rush, then return to school for the afternoon lessons. I would close the cafe at 5pm and do the accounts, have a bite to eat and then drive down the road to the radio station to start a radio shift that went from 6pm-12am. On these days, I would drive home after midnight, play the sedative tune, “Angel Flight”, from an LP record by the band “Shadowfax”, and sip a small glass of port to calm myself down from the hype of radio announcing, before going to bed. Next morning I would be up at 6:30am ready to start all over again. There were occasions when I would do this for weeks at a time. It was around this period that I also started to play music professionally, in pubs on weekends. To this day, I still play the album track, “Angel Flight”, to calm me down at particularly stressful times, and it always reminds me of those busy days.
The town was a hub of music during that era. It was just before the prevalence of poker machines in hotels, so publicans would still hire bands to draw crowds. It was also the introductory phase of the multi-track, pre-recording technology that eventually led to the dominance of duos and solo performers over four and five piece bands. That dominance had not yet developed. So, at the time, all of the several hotels in town were still hiring full bands two or three nights per week. Furthermore, both the Returned Soldiers Club and the Lithgow Workers Club would present a major, well known band about once a month. I recall members of the support band to the well-known band INXS (later to reach “best band in the world” status) coming into the cafe before a concert, one afternoon. They enjoyed their food very much and Paul Hester (who later became the drummer with the international band, “Crowded House”) kindly gave me free tickets to the show, featuring themselves and INXS.
The town was filled with live music every night from Thursday to Saturday of every week- halcyon days! Poker machine revenue and new technology that enabled one or two musicians to sound like an entire band, put an end to all of that.
I learnt to play and sing professionally around that time, by travelling up to the Capertee Hotel every Friday night for about twelve months and playing in a Country and Western trio in the hotel’s main bar. Capertee is a tiny village at the top of the Wolgan Valley without much more than a pub, a roadhouse petrol station and a Post Office that doubled as a general store. I played acoustic guitar and sung with a guy called “Nobby” who also played guitar and sang, and his half-brother John who played bass. We expanded to a quartet for a while when a friend brought his keyboard along, and the ironing board that it rested on, to the hotel sometimes. We each received ten dollars petrol money every Friday night and free beer in our breaks, for our services. It was the best fun I have ever had playing music, eclipsing the experience from any of the more polished and professional bands I was later part of. We played old country songs from Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Johnny Horton, Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. We even played some Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan.
The entertainment starved yokels lapped it up and things regularly got raucous as the night wore on and the beer flowed freely. People would dance, sing along and generally have a hoot, every Friday night. The audience was always a mixed lot. It seems that “C&W” (country and western music)can appeal to just about all types of people. There would be the old “digger” in a dusty suit, waistcoat and hat; the man in overalls constantly showing off photographs of his family to anyone that would look, and two young men with long, full beards who looked like brothers, sitting on stools at the bar all night and who would slap their thighs and laugh through the entire performance. There would be tall women dancing with short men, men with earrings and women with tattoos. There would be the regularly attending gent with a massive comb-over his bald head, singing the wrong words, slightly behind time. There were always some unique dancing styles too. All the locals would be forgetting their weekly worries and thoroughly enjoying themselves. It is the type of musical identification that you just don’t see with other types of popular music.
Every Friday night on the way to the Capertee Hotel, I would drive through a little one-horse town that had a bad reputation. People in the larger towns regarded the people there as very coarse and the town was infamous for several incidents of criminal behaviour. Once, a car carrying a businessman who was passing through from a nearby town with his weekly takings was ambushed and gunshots were fired. Another time a man who was thrown out of the local hotel for fighting, returned a few hours later with a small, homemade cannon and fired a shot into the pub.
Sometimes, as I passed through the town on the way to Capertee, I would pick up a girl of about 18 or 19 years of age who would often hitchhike to the Friday night fun. She was a dark, very slim and pretty young woman with a beautiful smile and a quiet, shy nature. We would chat on the journey to the hotel and she would always tell me how much she was looking forward to the music and revelry. Sometimes, I would give her a lift home as well. I was devastated to hear on the local news one day that this young woman had been murdered after a night out listening to live music in another small town, nearby. She had been raped and subjected to unspeakable atrocities, then dumped in the corner of a local school yard like a bag of rubbish. It was a scandal that made it onto the national news bulletins and brought much distress and sadness. One young man turned himself in and confessed to the crime but the common belief among the locals, at that time, was that he was the designated fall guy, and that he was protecting others who were also involved. No one else was ever charged.
In my mind, Hank Williams’ music will always be associated with those Friday nights at the Capertee Hotel. And I still think about that pretty and sweet dark haired girl from time to time.