Freedom. Or Perks?

It’s the time of year when we reflect on the past and look forward to the future. I’ve spent part of the past week at the Woodford Folk Festival and, unlike a lot of other festival-goers, for me it’s been a sobering experience.

Often we don’t notice the changes that occur in our everyday lives. The days slip by, the years flow on and we ease gracefully into other states of being. Well, that’s how I perceive it happening for other people. For myself any change is usually accompanied by much clashing and gnashing.

The first Woodford Festival I went to was a tribal experience. I drove up from Sydney with five others in a Kingswood called Gretel. We set up camp in amongst other people’s tent ropes and tarpaulins. I wandered wide-eyed and sleepless for the entire six days. I went to every jam session and danced all night in the Chai Tent. I joined the choir and made lanterns. I entered The Great Band Competition and circled every act in the program. I immersed myself in the Woodford experience and when it was time to resurface I couldn’t even remember my pin number.

My second Woodford Festival was spent as a performer. I played the Big Top and slept in the Performers’ Camp. I hung out in the Green Room and played in a few jams. I wore one of those coveted “access all areas” wristbands and got to watch packed out shows from the space beside the stage.

The next time I went as a radio announcer. It rained the entire time but I didn’t care. I was like a pig in the proverbial and there was plenty of that.  I interviewed as many performers as I could and when they played for me a crowd would gather. It was live radio at its best.

Since then I’ve produced and presented many national broadcasts from Woodford for the ABC. And when I became a published author I spent a couple of Woodfords on stage as a speaker. Every year I’ve had special privileges because of my position as a broadcaster, a performer and an author including parking spots, all-access wristbands, free tickets and speedy entry.

This year all that changed. It was the first year since that first tribal trip to Woodford that I’ve paid for a ticket. No access all areas, no special treatment.  At first I felt free; I had no responsibilities, no burden of care, nobody expected anything of me. I had no deadlines and no particular place to be. For the first time in almost twenty years I could experience the Woodford Folk Festival on my own terms. But when The Hubby and I had to park in the day parking area and catch the shuttle bus along with all the other punters, the reality sunk in and I didn’t like it. The truth is I enjoy being special. I love having perks and privileges. I scowled like a cranky toddler.

‘Don’t they realise who I am?’ I huffed.

‘Don’t you mean, who you were?’ The Hubby replied.

And it’s true. I love the freedom of retirement. Every day I’m grateful that I get to choose what I do, or don’t do. And after a lifetime in the public eye in one form or another, I adore the invisibility of anonymity. But freedom comes at a price. And for me that included the cost of a ticket and experiencing the festival as a mere member of the public.

So would I change anything about that experience? Would I shackle myself back to the burdens and responsibilities of a working life for the sake of a free ticket and more convenient parking?

I have had the experience of attending the Woodford Folk Festival in many different guises, and those roles of musician, broadcaster and speaker have suited me at the time. But times change and we change with them or we are doomed to a life of resentment and regret. Freedom is more important to me now than recognition, prestige and the perks of a media pass (even though, yes, sometimes I miss those perks).

So here’s to looking forward, to a life of freedom and choices based on that freedom. And if I get a bit huffy from time to time because I used to be someone, I hope I remember that I much prefer the someone that I am now.

Happy 2017.

Burning Up

Black Saturday Fires, Victoria 2009. Photo: Jake Valance.

Summer on the Sunshine Coast. It’s hot, it’s windy and the first serious fire of the season saw flames leaping over three stories high through bushland in Mountain Creek. 

All of us who’ve been close to fire never forget it. I remember the heat and darkness of the bushfires that burnt Tasmania to the ground when I was a young child. A huge red sun low in the sky made our home feel like an alien planet. Our house was the last safe refuge at the bottom of Mt. Nelson. The lounge room was full of kids. Their dads were in the smoke battling to save each others’ homes armed with nothing more than wet gunny sacks and garden hoses. The women gathered in our kitchen talking in hushed and worried voices, not knowing whether they’d have a husband or a home to go to that night.

During the 1994 bush fires that circled Sydney, the band I played in was booked to perform at a festival in Byron Bay. We set off up the highway not knowing whether we’d get through or not. Flames were burning along the side of the road, licking at the bitumen. We could feel the heat through the metal and glass of our hired tour van and were acutely aware that we could be trapped by fire at any moment. The highway closed just after we passed through. 

The festival went ahead, with other acts having to be flown in and much borrowing of amplifiers and equipment. It was a relief to be away from the smoke and the big red bushfire sun that cast Sydney is a strange sepia-toned glow.

The highway was open again by the time we headed back to Sydney, five musos on the road, after a successful performance at the festival. Our career was going well and the future looked good. Not for much longer.

Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment when you know a relationship is over. It may not end right there and then but eventually it’s the reason the whole balancing act comes tumbling down in ruins. As we drove back towards a fire-devastated Sydney our bass player flicked her cigarette butt out the window. I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I turned to another member of the band just to check what I’d seen. She looked as shocked as I did. It was a single thoughtless act that highlighted a hundred other thoughtless acts. Families had lost their homes, children had lost their pets, others had lost their livelihoods and that cigarette butt, smouldering on the side of the road, could start the horror all over again.

Three months later the band had a new name and a new bass player.

If only a home or a life were that easy to replace.

Outback & Overwhelmed

my-feet-in-the-desert_2Many years ago, when I was a musician, I travelled through the world’s biggest living dot painting to the Northern Territory, a bag in one hand and my guitar in the other. 

I paid my way by singing for my supper, songs I’d written about the sea. Being a coastal girl I’d never been to a place where there were no seagulls. 

I arrived at Yulara, the tourist town that leaches dollars from the grandeur of Uluru. The rock is a magnet for cars, tour buses and four wheel drives. It was hard to find a peaceful place in the middle of the desert.

During the day I would wander away from the resort and sit on a small dune, my pale bare feet digging into the red sand.  I felt as though I was in a postcard, with the rock to my left and Kata Tjuta directly in front. I loved the Olgas, they welcomed me with embracing arms. But I found Uluru overwhelming and kept a respectful distance.

On the last day of my desert adventure, a friend took me out to the gorges. We went for a walk. A gentle gradient to the top of a cliff where a ghost gum grew. There we perched like rock wallabies, watching the light shift and change on the range. Down below, birds were coming home to their water hole.

Time slipped by unnoticed.

I gazed at the rock face, the ancient hills and cliffs, always seeing something new. Gum trees clung in seemingly impossible places. Why did they grow there? How? They had no choice, they had to stay where they sprouted and make the most of it. I felt shiftless and reckless in comparison.

We were running late when I took the wheel of Nelly, ship of the desert. She was a big boat of a Kingswood, column shift, dimmer switch on the floor near the pedals.

I sped across the plain chased by a blood red sunset; the fingers of night creeping up and the darkness scurrying behind us, descending gloom and the threat of looming cattle on the road.

The evening star guided us, first through grey/pink clouds and then through the twilight suspended dusk.

The sun disappeared with a thud and leached all the heat out of the air as it went.

I knew the next day Sydney would slap me in the face but that was many hours away.

The night was restless, windy and warm.

What makes a girl fall in love? And out?

Petersham InnWhat makes a girl fall in love? Even more interestingly, what makes her fall out of love?

It was another great night at the Petersham Inn on Parramatta Road in Sydney, thanks to the enigmatic Duncan who booked the music and was the licensee. (Duncan died last month but his legacy lives on.)  The band was firing and the buzz about them was beginning to grow.  They were a long way from the multiple ARIA Award winners they’d become but all of us in the Pismo Bar sensed we were witnessing a legend in the making.

Now, I’ve been guilty of falling for a few boys in bands myself in the past but I was nothing compared to my friend Angie. All the excitement got her hot and bothered. She’d caught the guitarist’s eye and wanted to move in for the happy ending.  Neither of them had a car so I was coerced into driving them, and his guitar, back to her place. He and I chatted about music while she hung onto his arm and gazed into his eyes.

That was how it started and that was how it was destined to remain. They didn’t have a lot in common so whenever she was going out with him she’d ask me along too. I’d act as a kind of interpreter; they could both have conversations with me but were at a loss when it came to talking to each other. The three of us spent many happy evenings at No Names in Darlinghurst eating spaghetti while I acted as their go-between.

However, there was one area of their relationship where I couldn’t help them. It’s an area that doesn’t require much talking so I assumed everything was ok. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It became clear that after the initial rush of excitement something was dreadfully amiss. My friend was not happy. She didn’t mind that he was lost for words but she found it inexcusable that he was tongue-tied.

It’s been my experience that ultimatums don’t work but try telling that to someone with a bee in their bonnet. They can’t hear you, the buzzing’s too loud.  She borrowed a friend’s apartment to ensure privacy and cooked an amazing dinner with candlelight, wine and Peggy Lee. Lord knows what they talked about over dinner but I do know what was said at the end of the evening.  He took the “or else” option and opted out of her life.

She didn’t miss him, but I did. I missed our conversations about music, guitars, books, bags and bands. Was I ever tempted to go out with him? No way. After all, this girl could never fall for a guy who didn’t….have a car.

Do The Mashed Potato

dee-dee-sharp-mashed-potato-time-columbia-2My friend Fiona was a career woman. Like a lot of my friends at the time she had a great job, plenty of money, all the perks she could possibly demand… and a part-time man.  There was an era of my life when the latest accessory for the woman who had everything was the no-commitment relationship.  Fiona called one such relationship  “Three Days”. Once a month he’d fly up from Sydney and they’d do the long weekend thing, an arrangement she was perfectly content with.  Many of my female friends longed for the perfect relationship – not true love, commitment and roses, but a man who’d leave them alone to get on with their busy lives and only be around when it was convenient.

Fiona asked me around for dinner one night, at that stage she was going out with a sailor, a Rear Admiral no less, whose home port was San Francisco. How marvellous we all thought, she has a boyfriend she only sees every 6 months, very clever.  She asked me what I’d like to eat; Thai, African, perhaps Japanese.  She was a rather put out by my reply. At the time I was working on average 14 hours a day (a relationship with a hermit living in a cave in Estonia would have been too much for me) and I wanted bangers and mash for dinner. I think the trend for good old-fashioned home cooking, like mashed potatoes, was spawned by exhausted careerists who needed to feel looked after, just for a while, before chaining themselves to the corporate juggernaut once more.

Fiona did her best with what should have been a simple task; boil potatoes until they’re falling apart, drain, add milk, lashings of butter, salt to taste, and then go to it with the potato masher. Worked for my mum every time. Unfortunately a glossy coffee table book detailing these instructions hadn’t been released and Fiona was way out of her depth.  What should have been the pinnacle of comfort food arrived on our plates as grey, lumpy soup.

Fast food, disposable music and no-commitment relationships left me feeling empty and homesick. But I didn’t have time to dwell, there was too much work to do. I was dishing out instant gratification on commercial radio, highly researched and tightly formatted for maximum monetary gain. My head was full of call-out figures, familiarity scores and burn factors, that was what music had become to me.  Slow cooked food, slow music that cooks and a slowly cooking relationship were way too inconvenient. But the day after that dinner I found time to buy a potato masher.

These days my life is a lot slower and I love it. Everything has changed. Who would have thought that the career-frazzled woman I used to be would become a happily married writer? Not me. Now I have time to think and cook  and write a book that’s coming along way too slowly. And that’s okay. Other things have changed too. The Hubby and I no longer eat mashed potatoes but have discovered the delights of mashed cauliflower and it’s just as delicious and comforting. Fast food no longer enters the building and I’m feeling well and truly committed after 12 years of marriage. But one thing hasn’t changed. I still have that potato masher.

The Song That Broke The Band

There are some songs that stay with you, not just for the week that they might be on high rotation on the radio, but for a lifetime. Songs are highly emotive creatures. They plug into us for all kinds of reasons.

I was very young when I first heard this song and yet it’s stayed with me through the years.

I was reminded of the song and of the writer, Greg Quill, when I read this article about a new tribute album recorded in his honour – Some Lonesome Picker.

If you know Gypsy Queen you’ll know why it’s such a special song. If not this quote from the article might help.

Gypsy Queen is a song of the road no less than the poem Walt Whitman wrote a century earlier. It was a song about going on an adventure where your horizons would be expanded, and you’d live a larger life because of it.

But for me it has extraordinary significance. Why? This is the song that caused the demise of my band.

If you’ve read Sex, Drugs & Meditation you’ll know how devastated I was when my band broke up. The story behind the story is that we’d been playing together for years, touring and releasing CDs but we’d never really cut through. I had the idea of recording a cover version of this song, it was perfect for us with our line up and stunning harmonies. We’d never released a song written by anyone else – all originals up until that point – but I thought this song was worth it. It was such a brilliant idea that one member of the band quit. Why? Because she knew it would work, that we’d get airplay with it and therefore success and she didn’t want us to succeed. She wanted out. She wanted to pursue a solo career. And thus our band became an ex-band.

Ironically a few years later Adam Harvey recorded a cover version of this song and had a hit with it but by that time I was well ensconced in the world of radio and being a music director I got to decide what got played on radio and what didn’t.

When it comes down to it I’m grateful. If the band hadn’t broken up I never would have got into radio, I might never have started writing books instead of songs and I definitely wouldn’t have the superannuation that enabled me to retire early and have the freedom I now have – to write more books and to pick up my guitar whenever I feel like it.

And all these years later, I still love this song.

“I’m singing for the dark and lonely highway, I’m singing for the rivers and the trees, I’m singing for the country roads and byways, And I wonder as I go, Is there anyone I know, Who’ll sing for me.”

How Michael Franti Saved My Marriage

Many years ago, when our relationship was just a young bud, I took The Hubby to the Byron Bay Blues Festival. I’d spent many years at music festivals of all different kinds, as a performer and a punter. I loved them. I loved music. I’d spent most of my twenties and thirties playing in bands, touring and recording. Now I was working in radio. Festivals were still on the agenda but this time I was usually presenting an outside broadcast or interviewing musicians.

The Hubby had spent most of his twenties and thirties in a very different world. A world of aircraft carriers, trackers, Orions and uniforms. Sure he liked music but his tastes were formed by the mainstream and restricted by what was available on board or at the base.

Bluesfest was an ear opening experience for him. I dragged him from one must-see, or must-hear, to the next. I was in heaven. The Hubby was not. He became decidedly downcast. He didn’t know any of the acts, he’d never heard of them and what he heard he didn’t like. I couldn’t believe it.  Here we were, surrounded by the best music in the world and he was unhappy, dejected, out of place.

I thought dancing together might cheer him up. Another disaster. When I’d played bass and then rhythm guitar in bands  I’d always sat just behind the beat. I liked to stretch out the rhythm into a relaxed lope. The Hubby, perhaps due to the military bands and all that marching, sat right on the beat, or even just in front, always vigilant, always aware. Our dancing became an awkward, wordless struggle. We were clumsy together and became impatient with each other.

In the meantime the kind of bloke I used to go out with was circling. A three-quarter boy with a lopsided grin, a cigarette and a pair of drum sticks. Yep, yet another muso. Charming and shiftless but talking a language I understood. The more The Hubby struggled with the sounds he was hearing, the more I was tempted to stray. Back to the world of talking crap and hanging out, of being surrounded by a pack of wise-cracking musicians strutting their stuff. The world I used to live in. The life I left behind. The pull back to that louche existence was strong in this time of doubt.

I looked at The Hubby and saw a stranger. The man I loved, the honest, soulful, wise and funny man, was gone. I couldn’t see him. Instead a saw a grumpy, rhythmless lump. A millstone. I wanted to be free. Free to enjoy the kaleidoscope of music, free to dance to my own beat, free to indulge in the sonic feast spread out before me. Free of my husband.

And then Michael Franti came on stage.

The Hubby stopped frowning. His body loosened up. There was a hint of a smile on his lips.

‘I like this man,’ he said. ‘I can understand every word he’s singing. His message is great. He has something worth saying. And I like the music.’

The Hubby nodded his head in agreement with Michael Franti’s words. The nod became a smile, the smile became a dance.

I stopped frowning. I loosened up. I began to smile.  I reached for my husband’s hand. If this man could love Michael Franti, I could love this man.

We were back. Back in alignment. Back in love. All thanks to Michael Franti.

Ten years later The Hubby and I were at another music festival. Michael Franti was playing. I said to The Hubby, ‘Let’s go check out his sound check, before the crowds get there.’

We sat on the grass in the natural amphitheatre at the Woodford Folk Festival. Michael Franti gave us, and the other ten or so people who’d had the same idea, a private concert. We danced, we cheered, we clapped, we laughed. And then he came down from the stage in his bare feet, walked over to the grass and sat with us for a chat and an acoustic song. It was magical.

And did I tell him the story of how he’d saved our marriage? You bet I did. He looked askance at first. Unsure of where the story was heading. But when I got to the end there was laughter and hugging. Lots of hugging. “Everybody gotta hug somebody at least once a day.”

Thank you Michael Franti, the man who saved my marriage.

Above is the song he sang on that magical afternoon. If you listen closely you can hear The Hubby and me singing along.