Rehearsing my bass parts for a show backing Melbourne singer songwriter Chris Pickering a few weeks back I was confronted with a sweet tune called simply New York. It’s a wonderfully crafted paean to that bustling metropolis of North America. It’s honest and frank in its explanation of his ambition as an artist, it’s affectionate and sentimental on a purely personal level. And so every time we play the tune it makes me evaluate my experience of the place itself.
There was a sort unspoken, unwritten rule in the Weddings, Parties group that it was pointless to judge every place we visited purely on how we were received as performers. This was a wise enough attitude to adopt and it has served me well post Weddings, Parties as I have had immense satisfaction playing in Europe to often minuscule turn outs (and sometimes correspondingly lukewarm responses). You just realise the longer you do it that there can be a vast set of factors involved in creating success and enthusiasm for a performance. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t. The two places this principle really applied to the Weddings were Montreal – where the language barrier seemed enough of a problem to stop us getting too much traction at all – but we still loved that town and had no problem with the fact we never seemed to get much of a crowd. The mighty Bar St Laurent was always waiting with open arms after the show and there always seemed to be something interesting to eat and great people to talk with. But our difficulties in that town was an accepted thing and a lot of other Canadian bands had the same story so there was no great ambition or expectation incumbent upon us. And the other place was, of course, New York.
When Dave Steel released his first solo record after leaving the Weddings there was a song on it loosely chronicling our career in the Northern hemisphere. I don’t remember what it was called, or too much about it at all – except for the line ” and the wheels fell off in New York”. When I first heard it I felt it was severe and just plain inaccurate. But all these years down the track as much as it hurts to admit, it’s probably a pretty succinct and appropriate appraisal of our early experience of the place.
The expectations a band has when it first hops on a plane from Australia to the northern hemisphere can be crushing. In our case we were signed to WEA Records – signed for the world even ‘though there was no firm commitment for release anywhere but Australia. Which meant in effect we were heading over to perform a bunch of auditions for company reps across two continents. And there was no bankroll for this, so money was tight, meaning time was tight, meaning flights were impossibly close to important shows, meaning there just wasn’t a load of time for us to get our bearings anywhere.
We began well enough at the Houston International Festival where we were part of a large Australian contingent and we managed to get some decent side shows where some reps from WEA managed to see us play and thought we were a good prospect. Then it was over to England for the same sort of thing – playing any show we could get in order for the record company people to get an idea of what this strange little folk rock band from Melbourne was up to.
Then it was back to New York to perform the most important show of the tour – for the big boss of Warners. In hindsight it was stupidity of the highest order but on paper a seven hour flight from London directly into a show had seemed do-able and the spectre of New York traffic and a taxi driver who didn’t seem to know his way into town from Newark Airport only seemed surreal and not an actual problem as such. I think it was one of the executives from Warners screaming down the phone to our manager that we were idiots for not treating the show with more respect that made me start to suspect we had been a touch cavalier when we had scheduled the entire trip so tightly.
In short the head executive of Warners that we had flown all that way to impress, at all that expense, only stayed for four songs. This was positive a lot of the more junior members of the company reasoned – apparently he usually only stuck around for half a song. Anyway – they took us out on the town after the show and of course we loved the place. We had a nice hotel up town and for the next couple of days we just took it all in. We went to a whole lot of meetings with the people at the record company who were convinced a release was in the offing, but really, it never even looked like happening. The problem with this was we were still contractually bound to a company that now had no intention of releasing our stuff.
Undeterred we found ourselves back in New York a year or so later – this time on tour opening for Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. We had been going down a storm each night and as Billy was using the Weddings as his backing band for various songs from his Workers Playtime album our stamp of approval was assured. It would be different for us in the Big Apple this time around we felt. The trouble was Michelle Shocked had just broken commercially with the song Anchorage and by the time we hit New York there was some or other high profile cause that she was supporting that was actually staging the show there and as it was now technically a benefit show there was suddenly some sort of extreme time restriction on the venue and so Michelle ended up being the headline act with Billy opening the show and the Weddings were unceremoniously dropped from the bill. But we still had our own side show for the record company at a small club downtown. This time around we were well rested and firing properly as a band. Billy and Wiggy came down and got up on stage with us and I remember it being a really decent gig. The trouble was the big boss, the one with the actual responsibility to say we would be released didn’t make it along and so the impasse we had created a year before remained. But hey – we were in New York and that meant there were places to go, meetings to attend and bars to visit. Mandolin Brothers music shop was a Staten Island Ferry ride away and Greenwich Village, Soho, The Devils Kitchen and Central Park were all there waiting for us.
Our next time in town was to play the CMJ (College Music Journal) convention – once again with Billy Bragg. By now we felt that our best option was probably to try and get something released on a smaller independent label (as we had in England where Billy’s Utility Records had released a compilation of the first two albums). We went on as Billy’s backing band to a packed house on a Saturday night before Billy gave us a great pumped up introduction and handed us over to the crowd for a set on our own. It was the perfect way to get ourselves heard and there seemed to be no shortage of smaller labels wanting to talk to us afterwards – but somehow nothing came of it. I think put simply, our management was focused only on the big deal, the big dollar, the big pay off for all the graft and all the heartache – for all the debt that apparently would be swept away with the signing of the big contract. By this time it was a different bunch of people in the band (Dave Steel had long gone) but it was the same familiar bittersweet experience of loving that place that seemed to give so little in return.
Our last foray to New York would be years later when were signed to Rooart. Somehow we still found ourselves in the position of being shackled to a company that had no commitment to release but this time around there was at the very least a dynamic and positive executive on our side that were far more independent of the major label (still inexplicably Warners). So the gig was booked and somehow they managed to have the place heaving with punters and we played a great show. There was plenty of attendance on the company level by past and present executives that had somehow all managed to stay on side with us – but there was no sign of the ones with the jurisdiction to actually get us released. The ones who could actually sign the big cheque we had been chasing all those years.
Once again we hit the town to lick our wounds and take it all in. The sweetness of the hustle and bustle, the movie set street scenes, the familiar shops, the public spaces, the street signs, the eateries, the bars and the people we knew from elsewhere who had chosen this as a place to pursue their own dreams. Once again we loved the place.
And my subsequent trips there have all proved pretty much the same on a smaller level. They have been a mixed bunch of shows – often to little or no people with a solid awareness that the tap on the shoulder after the show isn’t going to happen. Maybe the problem with the place is the damn song (not the Chris Pickering one – the other one that says ‘if I can make it there I can make it anywhere’. On a broad level, if the whole concept of ‘making it’ is your sole focus then isn’t this the very thing to surely deny you the chance to enjoy the place? Against that it’s reasonable to conclude this is where a lot of the energy of the place actually derives. And so, does it then follow that, if you can’t draw a crowd there you can’t draw a crowd anywhere? And if we couldn’t get signed there we couldn’t get signed anywhere? But then I think you have to extend this principle and say reasonably, if you can’t enjoy yourself there, then you can’t enjoy yourself anywhere. So, thanks to Chris Pickering for putting me through all these wonderful and ghastly memories one more time. Actually I can’t wait until the next trip. New York, New York indeed.