No matter how many times I’ve had it recommended to me the fact remains that six Sundays of my life have been spent in the town of Memphis and every time I have resisted the prospect of attending Al Green’s church. And it’s not as if I haven’t been tempted. So many times people have told me what an inspiring phenomena it is. The singing, the faith, the testimony, the community. Other performers, band mates, close friends, tourist brochures - all with the same intense recommendation. But there it is. I’ve chosen not to go and so you have to ask why.
The simple answer is I have never been comfortable with the whole idea. Witnessing something other people take so seriously when I am just a middle class interloper from another country gawking up the back. To say gospel music just doesn’t do it for me is simplistic. Like everyone else I watched Vika and Linda doing their Sunday morning online streams during lockdown with a great sense of joy and relief (wasn’t it just a highlight of the week in some ways?). I stood side stage with the rest of the Weddings at Bluesfest, Winnepeg and any number of festivals to be thrilled by the Five Blind Boys. Of course I did, but this has never been a heart and soul acceptance of the form. Maybe I’m too analytical, too aware of my own overeducated self to be comfortable with the raw emotion of it. I just can’t stand all that preaching I guess. And to say I’m not filled with the light of the lord is an understatement. I was bought up in a mildly religious family but made my own choices a long time ago. Choices I am pretty happy with.
But then scroll through to 2020 and between Melbourne’s two lockdowns Craig Delsinki invites me to be part of the Keep the Circle Unbroken streaming show at the Memo. I am missing live gigs big time and there’s no way I am going to pass up the chance to play with such a ripping bunch of players and vocalists. So many good performers I’d never shared a stage with and even though there was no audience there was easily enough people in the room (technicians, other players, venue staff) for it to feel like an actual gig.
And then there was the music itself - songs I seemed to inherently know (even if I didn’t really). But something about the overall choice of repertoire was as pervasive as it was uncanny. It was simply a good bunch of tunes to sing - easy, and fun. Weirdly those simple gospel songs seemed to be able to worm their way into my consciousness and somehow I found myself getting off on the raw emotion, the life and death of it all. Just quietly. Perhaps it was the feeling that in light of the pandemic we were living through something momentous that made it make sense. At the time I didn’t think too much on it. I put it down to the fact I was just glad to play something resembling an actual show.
By March 2021 Craig Delsinki had received funding to take the Keep the Circle Unbroken show on the road to regional Victoria. On the actual proper-live-shows-to-a-live-audience road. The concept he had was to have a core band of players (his band Row Jerry Crow) and then augment that with a bunch of guest vocalists and instrumentalists coming in and out, each and every night. In this context the wisdom of the repertoire became even more crucial and inspired. These are songs made to be learnt quickly and easily - whether they be country standards, Oz Rock bangers (courtesy of myself, Tim Rogers, Paul Woseen, Mick Pealing, Midnight Oil, Gangajang etc) and, yes, of course, Gospel standards.
The first of my shows was in Traralgon. Some of the band I had met before at the Memo in 2020, but most of the vocalists were new to me, and so were quite a few of the players. Dion Hirini played guitar that night and I was immediately struck by the fact that while he wasn’t a bluegrass picker in the traditional sense it didn’t phase him in the least. He just went with the songs and played his own parts which were tuneful and inspired. It was musical, joyous and original. It took no time for me to realise he was a force.
When he sang it was another thing entirely. Initially I got the feeling the music meant something more to him than it meant me. It was so real, so emotional I think it made me somehow question my own contribution - pretty much like the reason I have never attended Al Green’s church. But the further the show went that night the more I forgot my inhibition in this regard and by the end I was happily singing along with the Angel Band, Flying Away in the Morning - Keeping the Circle Unbroken.
The next show was at the Bundy Hall outside Sale. Tim Rogers was on the bill this night, the hall looked fantastic and the crowd were up for whatever the show had to offer. Craig Delsinki mentioned to me that a few weeks earlier when Tim had guested he had played a song of his own as part of the set. Would I like to do one as well this night he enquired? Sure - which one of Tim’s songs has they put in the set? Heavy Heart was the choice - mine could go in right before that perhaps? And then we forgot about it until out of the blue in the middle of the show he decided I should play a song and so taking the word ‘heart’ as a theme I thought Rain in My Heart was the quickest and easiest tune in my back catalogue to teach a band in front of 100 paying punters. It’s in ‘F’ I yelled with a fair bit of G minor, B flat and occasionally a phrase might finish on a C. Simple. It turned out the fiddle player John Kendall knew it fairly well from seeing the Weddings back in the day and the rest of the band fell in around it. By the time it got to the instrumental verse Dion and John traded solos as if they had been playing it for years and there was enough people in the crowd who knew the chorus to teach it to the rest. A resounding success I thought.
And thinking about The Rain in My Heart - it’s a song about life and death and finding strength in others. It’s got a simple chorus that repeats and repeats and repeats. It didn’t feel out of place on the list that night. After the show Dion told me he loved it and was looking forward to playing it later on in the tour. I was understandably chuffed to hear that. We shared a few jokes, a few road stories and then he left to drive back to Melbourne.
And then his heart failed and he passed later that night.
But the tour went on. I played on five more shows and suddenly the gospel stuff took on a meaning and power I’d never thought possible. A few days later I attended Dion’s funeral service at the Memo and once again music played an enormous part in that and it was fully evident the songs - be they Christian or Maori in origin - weren’t just there to make up some regimented part of the service. It had a sense of being and place in a spiritual way I had never witnessed.
There are people that would tell me that gospel music is the heart and soul of why we play music in the first place and normally I scoff and say no, it’s not why I choose to play music and leave it at that. But something in my brief encounter with a player and person like Dion Hirini throws all this into a great and joyous doubt. I was proud to sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot in a St Kilda backstreet with the rest of the Keep the Circle Unbroken people as the hearse took Dion away that day. When it got to the verse he had sung in the set a week earlier ‘and if I get there before you do’ I was struck with the realisation that if it’s about connection and potency, life and death, then yes, these are the songs you want, the songs we all need to see us through.
And next time I am in Memphis on a Sunday will I attend Al’s church? Probably not.
Condolences to Dion’s family and his partner Lisa
He said he’d spent the whole of the gruelling four month second lockdown in Melbourne dreaming of playing a gig in a dry paddock. On the back of a truck. In front of a broken windmill. And here he was actually doing it!
Somehow this resonated with me. As Bruce Springsteen once commented in reference to the ‘coffee colour Cadillac’ of Chuck Berry’s Nadine – nobody’s ever seen that car but we all know exactly what it looks like. And there I was in a southern Gippsland paddock thinking the same. That without realising it I had somehow been craving this gig and this moment. As soon as he said it I knew I had also been dreaming of this show. This vista of dry fields, an old shearing shed, a smattering of utes and a bunch of people sitting eating barbecue at plastic tables. And yes, it must be said – a broken windmill.
It was on the second week of our National Tour of Victoria and we were booked to play a Thursday evening way down in South Gippsland. To our delight when we arrived we found that musical comedian Rusty Berther was to be the compere and that Harry Hookey was also on the bill. The show was a sort of benefit/relief event for drought affected farmers and while no big deal in itself it was a good natured affair. We were treated well and were all incredibly grateful to be there. Rusty was his normal witty, pithy comedic self and while I know he was joking when he made the comment about playing the show on the back of the truck it somehow rang true with all of us there that day.
As career musicians we are conditioned to concentrate on the big shows. The ones that will bring in the revenue to put the tour finances into the black. Theses are the ones we plan to record and film, the ones where we make the profound statements and deliver the classic performances we hope we will be remembered for. But perhaps in many ways, it is the incidental shows that define us.
As the timeline of the second lockdown ballooned and we began to wonder what the rest of our year would look like it was the lack of possibility that began to ware on many of us so heavily. Any given year a musician might spend long periods not playing or touring. But it is always the chance that you will do something before the end of the month, or the year that fuels you creatively. To have that taken away was debilitating for so many people in a variety of occupations. For people that have been prepared to trade financial and occupational certainty for this privilege the weight was amplified.
The two albums we were able to record in isolation in 2020 provided a great lifeline and relief for myself and (I hope) for the members of our band. For the most part it was the main creative connection on offer. This was done with full recognition that nothing will ever replace the feeling of fronting up to a new studio with your fellow musicians to see what you are able to create with the confines of your small group of players. And I’m sure during both lockdowns as we beavered away in our own back rooms and sent the files flying wildly through cyberspace we all wondered if the amazing studios of Memphis a few years back hadn’t been some sort of dream.
Just like the thought of playing actual shows to actual people and not a camera or iPhone screen had become an abstract concept in itself. That the idea of performing and touring, on any level had suddenly become illusive. But it was an illusion that finally, excruciatingly, thankfully had given way to reality. Just like the dream of a dry paddock and a stage on the back of the truck. And a broken windmill.
I had begun to wonder if it had been such a good idea in the first place. The thought of getting people to pay for us to record a cover song of their choice had seemed feasible enough I suppose. And when you are sitting around brainstorming on ideas for your crowd funding campaign you often tend to charge from one thought to another without much sense of the consequence. But suddenly there we were with sixteen songs to record and didn’t they seem to be a motley rag tag collection to contemplate? How was I going to sing these tunes? How could we possibly make them ours in a short period of time? Rod Stewart, Ewan McColl, Fleetwood Mac, The Sunnyboys, Carter USM, Kenny Rogers, Prince, Sebadoh….what do they have in common apart from from the fact we would be covering them? Not a thing that I could see.
When we came to the first recording session for the project the problem I was faced with was the efficiency of the band in learning the songs from the original recorded versions. Through the years my method for learning any cover tune is to slowly inhabit it – often from memory. I play around with the key, the rhythm and see what I can justifiably alter to make it play like something I might have written myself. I just wasn’t ready for the speed at which Ben Franz and Nick O’Mara could transcribe the tunes and by the end of the first few hours my head was spinning as I tried to grapple with the delivery of this oddball repertoire. But some were easier than others and once we had the band sounding okay in an old hall up in the Wimmera where we were booked to play toward the end of the Coldwater Roadsongs national tour I had to come to a decision there was nothing for it but to trust my fellow band members and just play the songs as they saw fit. At least Ben and Nick would make sure we were actually getting the songs ’right’ as they were in their original incarnations. Admittedly I have been less than diligent through the years in regard to the finer points of some of the songs I have chosen to cover.
So, after that first session in the Banyena Hall we had half a dozen bed tracks. Then another afternoon set up at The Merri Creek Tavern rendered us another seven. I recorded one on my own in my home studio and then a free afternoon in southern Tasmania saw Jac Tonks, Nick O’Mara and myself at Jethro Pickett’s wonderful Rolling on a River studio where we polished off the last two.
It wasn’t until Squeezebox Wally came over to start work on the keyboard parts I started to gain any sense of attachment to the tunes. As we quickly ploughed through the accordion and piano parts it all began to make sense. The simple truth is that as a musical entity we actually mean vastly different things to different people.
The one thing that we found pretty much totally absent from all the choices was the whole modern idea of ‘classic songwriting’. Not a Townes Van Zandt or John Prine tune in sight. The one Bob Dylan tune requested was as close as it would get to this ideal although the tune Winterlude is surely one of his more idiosyncratic and plain oddball ditties. But looking at the tunes as a whole set we came to the realisation that they are strong character tunes – vivid and personal. The character in Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to town is a real person. So is the bloke walking to band practise past the foundry where modern warfare was invented (Bishop Allen’s The Monitor). The person in Dirty Old Town met their love by the gasworks croft, the guy in One Perfect Day contemplates a partner who has moved to London (I have updated this lyric and he is now following her on Instagram), Ringling Road has us falling in with a dysfunctional circus troupe, I’m Shaking (Sunnyboys), Landslide (Fleetwood Mac) and Taillights Fade (Buffalo Tom) are epics of angst and self evaluation. Grace is the love song of a condemned political prisoner and When You Were Mine is just plain weird. How is it possible to follow him whenever he’s with you? Isn’t it a little strange to be letting your romantic competition sleep in between you and your partner? Am I overthinking this? Of course I’m overthinking it but still – the point remains there is a really vivid character to be seen in nearly all of these tunes.
The one real hatchet job I ended up doing was on Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun basically because as it stood the whole song felt dependent on his razor sharp comedic delivery – making it (in its original form) a song purely about Tim Minchin. But in losing half the words the sentiment becomes a little more universal and there is still a tangible character there, making his way home for Christmas, watching his small daughter being ‘handed ‘round the room like a puppy at a primary school’. What a beautiful line that is.
And so I think simply that I am grateful to the punters who ‘bought’ these songs – not just for the financial benefit but for the lesson it teaches us. That songs appeal to people on a variety of levels, all as valid as each other and that the songs of mine which have resonated most through the years aren’t examples of ‘classic songwriting’ but are generally strong character pieces that people can somehow identify with. I’m not sure if it will be possible to gather these tunes together for some sort of release but I hope we can make it work as the bottom line is it has proven a really fun bunch of songs to play. I hope they are half as much fun to listen to. Time to get back to work.
As co-writes go Boxing Day Drive was almost as convoluted as the songwriting process gets. And so it makes me think of the various co-writes I have been involved in over the years. Of sitting with James Blundell and Leigh Kernaghan at one of the Mushroom songwriter’s junkets and trying to work out just why the irrepressible character in the song Never Gonna Get Me Down was ‘never going to be got down’. Of waiting on Felicity Urquhart after she’d been ferried back from Sydney to the Hunter Valley by helicopter after having sung for president George Bush. Are You a Good Man? was the song we wrote that day. Finding myself in Music Row in Nashville with a professional songwriter who half way through the process remarked in an off-hand kind of way “well, Kenney Chesney sure as hell ain’t gonna be cutting this one” (What I Really Wanted to Say). I sat with a book of Sydney Nolan paintings on the lawn at Mount Macedon with Paul Kelly and added a few spare bits to Our Sunshine before leaving him with the barest of chord progressions and a title which was to become In the Perfect World later that afternoon.
In most of these cases it seems to be a matter of trying to establish what you are trying to say, what the song is about. Quite often it’s almost a matter of agreeing on the pre-history of a character or a point where you are focusing your attention. After that it is a simple matter of getting the words to rhyme and writing a nifty bridge that brings you back to a final decisively profound verse that gets you into a repeated play-out on a chorus that people are going to have stuck in their head for weeks after a first listen. Yes, it’s simple really. But with Boxing Day Drive all I really had were the words ‘Boxing Day’ to begin with and no real idea of anything after that. No ‘angle’ to speak of.
It was Christmas 2017 and I’d just taken delivery of a brand new mandolin courtesy of our friends at Auden guitars in England. I took it down to the show we were playing Christmas eve at the Caravan Club in Oakleigh and we passed it around the band room all agreeing it was a fine little instrument. As it goes in that situation you can often start playing some little snippet over and over wondering just where it comes from. Perhaps on a mandolin the simplest of half remembered chord progressions can start to become their own riff. A riff that drives it’s own tune and ultimately a full song. And so by the time we had played the show that night and I’d fronted up at the family Christmas dinner the next day and then found myself at home later that night the tune was taking shape. The blessed relief of Boxing Day saw me sitting out the back yard strumming the new mandolin in a sort of distracted daze. And every time I played through what was to become the chorus and riff of the song all that would come into my head were the words Boxing Day.
Hell, it was Boxing Day – I had made it to another one! And for anyone involved with Weddings, Parties, Anything in the heyday of the band Boxing Day was indeed seen as an accomplishment – a sort of holy grail to aspire to during the relentless odyssey and madness of seven straight pre-Christmas shows. Seven chaotic days of celebration which were only to be followed by the commitment and awkwardly executed filthy hungover responsibility of a family Christmas dinner. Most years Boxing Day was the first chance any of us ever had to feel grounded at all. And so I suppose with that sense of relief built into my personal DNA those two words keep returning to me insistently as I began to set up a full set of chords and a tune. As I borrowed sequences from various other songs (as you do) no words were forthcoming. No subject matter other than, you guessed it Boxing Day.
And so, in the spirit of the way the current album was unfolding I thought it was another I would send to Ayleen. I recorded what I had onto the iPad and sent it off into the ether. Well, about two kilometres away to Brunswick actually where she was residing at the time. She liked the tune, the riff and the feel of the thing generally and all too soon she had returned a mostly finished song. A song of regret and rebuilding. Of someone trying to re-establish themselves after a break up of some sort. I suppose it was all right and the sense of sweet remembrance and sentimentality suited the tune quite well. It was all fine.
Except for the fact the words Boxing Day were nowhere to be found. I listened to the end of the informal recording she sent back and scanned the verses she had written. No, they weren’t there.
As it has tended to run with the pair of us we were both very careful in raising any objection to something the other had written. And so I was very tentative as I bought this up and she commented (as she tended to do in this situation) just how nerve wracking it is to send your idea off to be dissected by someone else. By me. But she admitted she had no idea just how attached I was to the idea of Boxing Day being the name of the song, and the first two words of the lyric. And so she went back to what she had sent me and made a pretty perfunctory adjustment.
Promises and old songs
Maybe there’ll one to keep
In this fading light
Yes, I liked this idea. Some doleful songwriter sitting out the back ruefully strumming away lamenting a relationship that hadn’t quite made it to the end of the year. It put me in mind of Cold Chisel’s Home and Broken Hearted from their first album. For me surely one of the greatest yuletide lyrics ever produced.
I hitched up to Sydney in the week before Christmas
It was twenty eight degrees in the shade
I bought a second hand Morris for a cheap 220
And I drove it down to Adelaide
It boiled for an hour twenty miles out of Houston
I thought that it would never end
But I knew I’d be home for Christmas with my Sandy
And a few extra dollars to spend
Home and broken hearted
I been pasted to the telephone
And Boxing Day break was wasted sitting here on my own
The beer we bought for Christmas ran dry this afternoon
On the radio it’s New Year’s Eve
What a low down time of the year to pack your luggage and leave
Yes, we were really close now. I added a few words here and there and refined the tune slightly. Yes, I was sure we had it. Another contender to place in the song arsenal to take to Memphis with us in June.
By this time Ayleen had already taken off for America in what was to be the first of her two trips there in 2018. I kept working at the song and when I was sure it was totally finished committed it to the Voice Recorder Pro app on the iPad and sent it off to her for a final listen before it took it’s place in the archive. By this stage I thought its inclusion in the form it was taking was a formality. I sent it to Wally and he liked it as well. Done.
Or so I thought – but no. Ayleen suddenly decided she didn’t like it and perhaps emboldened by her surroundings in America (or the miles between us) thought it was too negative. Maybe it lacked the blind optimism this particular time of the year can produce in people as they look to the new year and find an innate hankering to get started on the next part of their lives. It needed something else she thought.
I was kind of stunned by this as I tend to be scornful of second guessers (And this was second guessing I reasoned). I think the whole experience of the first few Weddings records made me see that indecision is the enemy in so many ways when trying to create art under any sort of constraint. When you read that an album, or film cost some mega amount to produce you can be sure it was the prevaricating, the re-doing of completed sequences and the lack of decisiveness that took up a fair amount of the budget. The fact we had a good cache of finished songs we had already chosen was the only thing that stopped Scorn of the Women and Roaring Days descending into complete chaos. Jim Dickinson came in for The Big Don’t Argue and only strengthened our conviction that it is important to make decisions and stick to them.
But here I was with a fully completed song, and while I liked what it had become, it was in no way one of the corner stone tracks of the album. And we were about to spend valuable time pulling it to pieces? Really?
But wait. Ayleen had this idea that it would be about a drive. A big, five day drive. With someone trying to get to someone else and make something ‘right’. And it could have lyrics about the Pacific Highway and she wrote of ‘loading up this old wagon’, which would ultimately phrase much better as ‘loading up the covered wagon’. And so before I realised what was happening I was well into a total rewrite. And there was suddenly an extra word in the title. It was now called Boxing Day Drive. And somewhere in the midst of all this my wife and I took our daughter to see the marvellous animated film Coco and there was a chord progression that I would never have worked out for myself except for the fact they made the Day-of-the-dead Mariachi character play it visually, believably on the guitar and I went home and stuck that in there as well (even ‘though Wally feels my musical debt for this piece is far more to Tim Rogers than a dead animated Mexican).
I had emailed Ayleen back with a rough of how the new verses might run, all the time hanging onto the chorus she had written which was more or less the only bit to survive each incarnation of the song. She came up with the line ‘on the road to make it right’ which was a really fitting way for the chorus to finish each time and so all it needed was colour I thought. It needed context.
And what comes to mind when I think of the Great Pacific Highway? Road signs of course! Road signs and traffic snarls as you enter various towns where the traffic seems to be perennially cut down to one lane because of FUCKING ROADWORKS. What’s the first thing a person walking into a back yard celebration somewhere after a monster drive is going to say when asked how the drive was? Single lane, fucking roadworks. Of course they’ll say that. Of course they will.
And so I emailed Ayleen wherever she was sojourning in the states and asked how she felt about the profanity and the barrage of road signs in the bridge bit and she loved it all. She loved it and I did too and it was easy to see now it could actually be a corner stone track on the album. Hell – it could (would) even be the opening track of the album.
Kevin Houston called it a ‘power pop masterpiece’ reminding us that Jim Dickinson had recorded Alex Chilton and therefore Memphis was one of the homes of the power pop genre. Boo Mitchell from Royal studios sat in on a later playback and gave us the definitive quote of the session:
“Damn that’s some badass shit – you went down the hill and then you came back up again”
And even though I am pretty sure he was referring to the general arrangement of the recorded version maybe in some way he uncannily referenced the writing process of the song. Where we did in fact, go down the hill and then come back up again. It was protracted and inefficient from my viewpoint, but ultimately rewarding. It’s not how I set out to write songs but I think you take ‘em where you find ‘em and that’s how we found this one.
And so anyway if you’ve read this far you probably could have listened to the song twice….why don’t you just pop over to Bandcamp and have a listen. Maybe even buy a copy?