If I could choose just one commercial endorsement as a reward for my tireless efforts as spokesperson for a generation of disenfranchised malcontents, I'd take the guitar strings. I'd return the unsolicited boxes of guitars delivered new to my front door from obsequious manufacturers eager to bask in the reflected glow of my unsullied good name. Similarly, desperate overtures from various amplifier firms, clothing outlets and sunglass manufacturers would go unheeded. Pleading, they circle round me like compliant moons, trapped forever in the gravity of my powerful charisma only to see their entreaties fall once again silent on my, admittedly already badly damaged, ears.
Just the strings thanks.
The ongoing purchase of guitar strings is a costly and tedious enterprise. It is also functions as a powerful reminder of one's status in the music world. Nothing reinforces feelings of inadequacy like paying retail prices for a packet of D'Addario 10 to 46's, scraping apologetically around in your wallet for that last 50 cents, while some smug teenager looks on across the counter of his Dad's music store. You think Eddie Van Halen's paying for his own strings? Yngwie Malmsteen? The pantheon of guitar shop heroes looks down from the manufacturer's posters on the walls, blithely following your travails with the self satisfied air of the fully endorsed. Just as the pimply reprobate finally accepts that a dork like you could actually play in a band, the whole flimsy edifice topples as you buy a couple of loose A strings "cos they're the ones that always break". Now openly smirking, he asks if you want "The cheap ones" while you blush visibly and kick yourself for not buying a lifetime's supply during that week five years ago when your uncertain visage last stared back from the cover of the local street press that sits in a neat pile on the corner of the counter.
The pain and the price is all too much for Doctor and me, with the result that we buy new strings once every French presidential cycle. Sure the old ones get a little worn, but it's nothing that some hot water and a packet of Steelo won't fix backstage before the gig. With Doctor set to break Tommy Emmanuel's long standing, Most Gigs Without A Broken String record somewhere during the NSW leg of our upcoming tour, the replenishment imperative weighs lighter than a sprinkling of dandruff on an elephant's shoulders. For my part, I've been working on a revolutionary process to transform woven dog hair collected painstakingly from my soiled bedsheets into functioning guitar strings. Sustained by an unshakeable optimism, I forge on sure in the knowledge that a breakthrough is now only days away.
Notwithstanding these developments, we decided last Monday to stock up on strings. I reassured Doctor that I knew a place where I'd get a 15% discount if the right guy was working that day. With his boys Harper and Zephyr in tow we trooped into the store, the nascent musicians quickly exhibiting their budding musical talents by smearing their greasy fingerprints over several violins, keyboards and bass guitars. A thunderstorm of concern crashed across my face as it quickly became apparent that my contact was rostered off and we loitered idly, momentarily thrown, before pretending to study some cheap effects pedals hermetically sealed in a glass display case. Then, before an assistant could so much as offer a "Can I help you?" we were gone, kids tucked under the arms and striding suspiciously towards the front door. We were chastened by our narrow escape but thankful for the opportunity to try again another day, hopefully one where my man could offer us the discount that artists of our stature were due. I returned alone the next day only to find him once again absent and, fearful that too many unconsummated visits would start to leave the impression that I was casing the joint, I paid top dollar for a couple of boxes of 10 to a pleasant sales assistant who remained steadfastly unaware of my priority customer status.
We celebrated our 14th anniversary during the week, a by now venerable tradition that brings us together in the spirit of congratulation and celebration. It falls on the 23rd of July, right in the middle of the two month period where my parents take their annual two month 4 wheel driving expedition holiday, and for that one night every year the normally quiet Cox household takes on the aspect of a Roman Bath House. Doug bought cheese and wine and Terry handled the beer while my dog Hamlet greeted them with all the warmth of a starving Doberman guarding Checkpoint Charlie on the Berlin Wall. For some unfathomable reason we decided to combine a rehearsal with the festivities and spent half an hour moping through some desultory attempts at our back catalogue before I was interrupted by the phone, affording us as good an excuse as any to pack it in and start our orgy of gluttony.
I wasn't happy with meal; I couldn't get the sweet potato and spinach tart to firm as I would have liked, but my guests had the good grace to pretend they enjoyed it. They were smacking lips and rubbing stomachs in feigned displays of satiation before I warned them that the only thing I hate more than a runny sweet potato and spinach tart is patronising dinner guests trying to reassure me of my culinary abilities. Still, even Terry, a card carrying carnivore and avid adherent to Sprachlict's 7 Day a week/3 meals a day Meat Only Diet, managed to clear most of his plate of the vegetarian slop.
After dinner we settled into the substance of the evening - an unapologetically nostalgic trawl back through the depths of my extensive archives. We laughed at old photos, cringed at self important interviews, cursed intransigent reviewers and counted every single laminate we'd ever collected from playing a support slot. Later we took it to the video player, wincing through a series of atonal live performances captured forever on the magic of VHS tape. We ended the night with a mandatory visit back to the oldest video still working - 2 nights at the Union hotel on Chapel St in Windsor where a static video camera mounted to the ceiling captured 4 equally static figures mounted to a small stage sometime in early 1989. The tape, in the process of highlighting that we should probably have been put down at birth, also offers a fascinating insight into our formative years. The first week's performance features us dressed in suits, slicked hair and shiny shoes. By the second week, scarred by the horror of show 7 days prior and resigned to a meagre audience, we rock up in shorts and runners, cynical and jaded well before our time.
We played the first 3 shows of our tour on the weekend. Thursday we were at the snow, always a dangerous gig due in no small part to Terry's aversion to altitude. The little pack-a-day guy really struggles for air above the snowline and we took no chances, packing a fully operational mountaineer's oxygen tank and Christopher Skase-issue face mask for the journey. At the Yahoo Bar in Shepparton I was surprised to find Dean, my Dad's financial adviser in the audience. I'm sure the first piece of advise he offers the old man at their next meeting will be to kick that bloodsucking leech of a son of yours out of the house once and for all. Geelong was a surprise - there were some people there! Travelling down the Geelong road and passing the burnt out hulks of the abandoned Taragos that had been before us filled our party with trepidation. A 25 minute drive around town in which we visited every venue except the right one was an ominous sign. If we couldn't find the gig how were hundreds of our loyal acolytes going to? Me, Doug and Doctor watched the footy while Terry and Dylan rebuilt the in-house PA from the ground up in time for us to soundcheck 38 seconds before the doors opened. We then repaired to the Pancake parlour for our 5th Geelong meal in a row at L. Ron Hubbard's 3 star -Michelin-standard eatery. Doug did not enjoy his spanakopita pancakes or the fact that they arrived 10 minutes after everyone else's meal. Terry fairly wolfed down his Tabriz while Doctor remained inscrutable under questioning and professed to find his meal most satisfactory. I had the cheese and potato pancake with cottage fries and struggled with 2 glasses of a clearly off DeBortoli at 8 Shiraz.
The 3 shows provided us with an opportunity to set a dubious new record of incompetence. For three nights running we managed to completely balls the financial settlement. At Falls Creek a stunningly drunk Terry managed to miscount the cash by $500 and followed up at Shepparton by exiting the building with a cheque made out to no one. It was with some relief that I noticed Doug head off in the direction of the publican's office in Geelong to do the business only to have him return $100 short of the figure he had been quoted. Post-show we headed back to Melbourne via Lincoln's - a red bearded extra from Heath Ledger's new Ned Kelly movie - who showed us 10 minutes of quality hospitality back at his pad in return for our signatures on his You Am I Victor Trumper Tour poster.