“Exactly what have you got us into, Barry?”
Barry was the guitarist and made most of the bookings for the band. We had just driven through the gates and checkpoint at the showground of the little country village that was miles from nowhere, after explaining to four huge, fearsome looking men in black leather and hostile attitude that we were the band for the night. The beer-gutted leader of the group, sporting tattoos, piercings and a full, red beard that cascaded down his barrel chest, did not look impressed, but waved us through nevertheless. As we drove the small and tightly packed van up a little further along the dirt track, a vision splendid was revealed to us within the bright glow of our high-beam. A row of several men of various heights and in very similar black leather costume to those with whom we had just negotiated, were illuminated while emptying their bladders along a wire-netting fence. A few of the now startled, urinating party looked up as we drove past and did not seem to appreciate the extra lighting we had provided for them with our headlights.
“I’m not sure I want to do this, anymore.”
“Okay then, you go back and tell those gorillas at the gate that we’re cancelling. We can’t pull out now.”
“Well, I just hope they like us!”
The gig we had been booked for was the annual Brass Monkey Rally, organised and managed by the Bikers Australia organisation.
Our band was a blues band that we had named after the famous rhythm section of the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn. As the name implied, we played a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughn tunes as well as some Buddy Guy, John Mayall, ZZ Top and a few songs from the Garry Moore album, “Still Got the Blues”, that was very popular at the time. We also played a few songs from a legendary Australian blues band called the Bondi Cigars, whom we later played support to one night and whom we became friendly with.
Our band was a good band. Other local musicians respected what we did and would regularly come to watch us play. Our style of music was not always what publicans wanted however, and the relatively unusual genre of music we played meant that we had limited venues in which to perform. I remember one gig we performed at a hotel in Lithgow, west of Sydney, where there were several musicians standing around, watching and listening to us play. These musicians had come along to the hotel that night precisely because we were playing there. We did not get a return gig at that venue even though we received an excellent and extremely complementary review in the next edition of the local paper; the headline in the paper read “Up and Coming Stars”. Understandably, it seemed that the female publican was not enamoured by the sight of young men standing around and watching our band playing in her hotel. What she really wanted was a large group of women bopping around on the dance floor, because this meant bigger crowds and more alcohol sales. I remember that publican seriously asking me if we played any Madonna songs.
I sang most of the songs and played bass. Some musicians are impressed by the ability to sing and play bass at the same time, but it was how I learnt to play from the very beginning and so it came naturally to me. Our drummer was a local farmer who was very well schooled in drumming and was highly adept at playing all of those blues shuffles that we were all so fond of. He was one of the rare breed of drummers that are extremely competent but who do not feel the need to show-off or be too prominent. Our guitarist was an extremely skilled player and was just as good as or better than any guitarist from the famous bands we heard on the radio. He could play all of the famous Stevie Ray Vaughn riffs, flawlessly. This guy was so talented he could have achieved anything in the music business, but his personality was problematic. He was a brilliant guitarist, but as a human being… he was a brilliant guitarist. People in the crowd would sometimes take an instant dislike to him due to his seemingly arrogant and self-centred approach, and as the front man, I had to calm things down with a joke or friendly chat on more than one occasion. One time we were playing at a hotel in a tough, timber mill town. During our break between sets, someone who had probably taken offense at him, surreptitiously got to the guitarist’s guitar and detuned it by twisting one or more of the tuning pegs on the headstock. The out of tune introduction to the first song after our break gave everyone in the audience a good laugh, much to the guitarist’s chagrin. He did not see the funny side of the joke and continued to exude bad vibes and dirty looks all through the night. He just would not let it go. At the end of the night and as we were walking out of the bar after packing up the gear, each of us carrying speaker boxes, the door was held open for me to walk through but slammed in the face of “Mr Congenial” just as he approached. We were lucky to get out of there alive and the guitarist refused to consider ever playing at that pub again.
Sometimes, when we could get our occasional, fourth band member to join us for a gig, we had a brilliant saxophone player to add colour and complexity to our music. He was simply the best blues sax player I have ever seen live; then or since. When we were playing at our best and the crowd were into the type of music we were playing, there was nowhere in the world I would rather be. On those great nights, I believed I had the best job on the planet. There were lots of ordinary gigs however, and more than a few bad ones.
One of the very good gigs was another brush with the motorcycle fraternity. The wedding reception of “Spanner” (the bride) and “Grubb” (the groom) was held in a large shearing shed on a grazing property just outside the town of Bathurst in the Central West Region of New South Wales. Bikers seemed to like our brand of music and they often would host functions in isolated areas, away from other people whom they might offend. The reception was held over an entire weekend and guests slept in tents in the surrounding paddock. The matrimonial couple provided beer, wine and two bands, including us. The catering was provided by the local Bush Fire Brigade who sold steak sandwiches that were cooked on a gas hotplate, to the assembled one hundred and fifty guests. It was the most enjoyable wedding I have ever been to. Lots of beer, lots of music, and steak sandwiches- what more could you possibly want. And the local Bush Fire Brigade enjoyed some much needed fundraising. The crowd really appreciated our music and we were treated to free beer. We were also able to enjoy watching and listening to another band performing. We were happy that Spanner and Grubb, who seemed to enjoy so much respect and status from their fellow bikers, were very pleased with the way things went and that the happy couple seemed to appreciate our performance very much.
We had some other great gigs too. On one occasion, we played every night for five nights in a row at a club in the NSW snowfields, and were paid handsomely for it; or rather, we thought we were paid well until we heard what the famous Australian teenage band, “Silverchair”, were being paid for their one performance at a much bigger venue, down the road. One night during that week we played for a business party and we were given long sleeved skivvies to wear on stage that brandished that business’ logo. The only trouble with that gig was that we were accommodated in a rundown old mountain shack, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and with no heating. We just about froze to death. I do not think the boys in “Silverchair” would have had such Spartan accommodation.
Another time we felt a little like “The Beatles” when our stage was the first storey veranda of an old hotel in Bathurst and they had closed off the road below that was packed with spectators for a town festival. The publican was so happy with proceedings on that day that he asked us to immediately repeat our entire performance on the spot, for payment of the same fee, again. Yet another time in Bathurst, on the Bathurst 500 car racing weekend in a night club, the audience were really enjoying the band. So much so, that the club owner paid us an extra one hundred dollars each, in return for us remaining on stage for another hour longer, to the almost hysterical delight of the audience. Whenever I hear a Stevie Ray Vaughn recording, I always think of that wonderful night at “The Tavern” nightclub in Bathurst.
Anyway, back to the Brass Monkey Rally at the small village showground hall, for Bikers Australia. The experience on our arrival was a little disconcerting to say the least and our welcome was not exactly what you would call warm and inviting, but it turned out that we had nothing to worry about. The crowd enthusiastically embraced our music from the very first song and cheered wildly; it seemed that they were into Texas Blues. The set went on without a hitch and the crowd became even more appreciative as the night wore on. People applauded, whistled and yelled compliments. I spotted “Spanner”, the biker bride, in the crowd. She smiled and waved to me and it occurred to me why we had probably scored that particular gig. We were feeling very good about proceedings as we packed up our gear and made room for the next act. We thought that we might as well make a night of it by staying for the remainder of the event and enjoy the proceedings.
It turned out that the last act in the night’s entertainment was a stripper. A very tall, statuesque and confident young woman danced onto the stage to her own recorded music. She was beautiful and sexy and went through a very explicit performance. The crowd went wild. There was lots of yelling, wolf whistling and cheering. As was the case during the entire night, there was absolutely no trouble. If anyone was looking like they had too much to drink or if they were being too loud, or even if they just staggered a little, a couple of very large bikers would quietly move in and escort that person from the hall, and they were never to be seen again for the remainder of the night. The Bikers obviously had their own very effective security system.
During the stripper’s cavorting on stage, I could not help thinking that she looked strangely familiar, somehow. The show ended and I stood around chatting with my new biker friends when to my amazement, the now semi-dressed stripper walked directly up to me.
“Hello Mr Grech. Do you remember me? I was in your Business Studies class in Year 11.”
“Um…oh, yes. I thought you looked familiar. Yes, now I remember. How are you?”
Without thinking things through very well and feeling a little nervous, I then resorted to the usual, failsafe line when meeting an ex-student and struggling to think of what to say:
“And what are you doing these days?”
I already had some idea as to the answer to that rather asinine question and felt very stupid immediately after asking it. I probably tried just a little too hard to look inquisitive and interested.
“Oh, I’m an exotic dancer now. Did you see the show?”
Maybe it was the beer I had consumed, or perhaps the awkwardness of the situation was contributing, but I kept saying stupid things.
“Yes! Yes I did. Very nice.”
Very nice? I could not believe my own ears. Very nice? This girl had just performed the type of explicit live sex show that would make a porn star blush and I thought that it was “very nice”. Honestly, I had to be kidding. This girl was going to think that I was a complete idiot. Luckily for me she was quite generous of spirit.
“Oh. Um, thanks. I’m glad you liked it.”
Incredibly, we then engaged in a conversation about Business Studies and how she could more effectively market her business. The absurdity of the situation was slowly beginning to erode my composure. Stupid puns and double entendre to do with demand curves, push-pull factors and what the market would bear (bare) kept floating into my mind. I thought of the rising demand for her ample supply. I got the feeling from her changing facial expression that the fixed, supercilious smile on my face was starting to make the exotic dancer feel a little uneasy, so I furrowed my brow and tried to look sober and serious again. Meanwhile, the boys of the band had noticed what was going on and were staring at us from across the room, mouths agape and in absolute bafflement as to why this extremely sexy, young Amazonian of a woman was spending so much time talking to their bass player. They watched in astonishment as the gorgeous ex-student handed me her card, and then bent down to give me a little peck on the cheek before walking away.
It was a delightful end to a wonderful gig