A misdirected royalty statement arrives in our post office box once every 3 months; a poignant totem of abandonment, like tumbleweed blowing through an old ghost town. It comes addressed to Backyard Productions, the consortium responsible for the movie Bigger Than Tina. Having watched their movie sink like an oil-seeking drill into barren ground, the chastened producers must have packed up and decided to save the rental fee on a post office box. The blind motives of bureaucracy, however, rarely make account for the nomadic tendencies of the artistic Diaspora. Once every quarter a sales update slides out of a printer and is folded neatly into an envelope. Armed only with a half-guessed at address, it's mission is one from which it must never return. However, at some point in recent history, return it obviously did. The unthinkable having happened, it was time to cast around for someone else tainted with the stench of the film's failure. Backyard's mail was promptly redirected to us.
It's not as if we don't get enough legitimate mail bearing bad tidings. We have a failed career of our own thank you very much, one whose tragic dimensions are rendered concisely in the crisp pages and sober accounting of our own royalty statements. They are Paul Keating's 'beautiful set of numbers' after failed plastic surgery, multiple amputations and a 15 year battle with drug and alcohol addiction. The recording of six albums has afforded us plenty of scope to dash not only our own, but many other's, ill-conceived expectations. The books are not balanced. Stored at the top of Pisa's leaning tower, they would have the venerable landmark horizontal within hours.
Thus, the last thing we need is the detritus of someone else's commercial ruin inadvertently reminding us of our own. Bigger Than Tina, in all its commercial guises, earned $23.39 in the period January to March 2003, leaving an unrecouped debt of $34, 069.76. Viewed positively, the debt will balanced within 1457 quarters - roughly 364 years. Approached from a negative perspective, however, that is a very long time.
The advent of royalty statement season got us thinking about the crucial business relationships that underpin our struggling career. When an invitation arrived to meet the new managing director of our publishing company for drinks and snacks we knew we could not refuse. It was time again to present a confident, cohesive face to the world, to make ourselves up with the determination of clowns painting on a smiling face. With shoulders pushed back and chins held high, we would walk into that room like impostors into a masquerade ball. With just enough sangfroid maybe they'd think it was Powderfinger behind those masks.
I set out on the sinuous journey towards Melbourne, snaking through the suburbs as I collected my colleagues on the way. We took brief pause at Doug's while waiting for Terry to ready himself. The wait was worth it. He arrived at the front door after the perilous 3 metre journey across a windy landing with not a hair out of place. I've noticed the first signs of a mid-life crisis taking hold in Ted these past few weeks, most immediately manifest in his updated wardrobe. A navy turtleneck jumper with leather epaulettes gave him the look of a raffish old sea captain, his salt and pepper beard grown thick to warm against frigid ocean winds. Below the belt line, new jeans hung from his lean waist with just the right amount of 'fuck you' insouciance. Initially I was unable to reconcile the clean new denims with the army disposal motif of Ted's upper mast. And then the genius struck me. It was the 'sea dog on shore leave' look, dispensing with the navy-issue strides and letting the belt out a couple of buckle holes. A couple of relaxing drinks with the petty officers and a friendly meal - unwinding - but always with one ear cocked for trouble back on deck.
We left Doug's and cut across town, weaving Doctor's family station wagon through the light traffic. On the way Doctor produced an old cassette from a dusty pile in the glove box and the car soon shook to the sounds of Ultravox's greatest hits. I can trace Doctor's love for the band back to a similar tape that he carried on a trans-Australian journey we made as civilians some 17 years ago. In his own understated way, Doctor was retracing the fading footsteps of his past. Looking across to the rapt figure sitting transfixed in the passenger seat, I saw eyes glistening with tears reflected in the traffic's oncoming lights. Muted complaints began issuing from the rear seats. I silenced them with one peremptory command and the music took centre stage once more.
Ted saw a gap in the conversation and rushed to plug it, detailing at length his somewhat sketchy knowledge of the personnel constituting the Ultravox line-up. Beginning confidently with Midge Ure, he quickly stumbled, referring to the drummer as Warren Oates - the B- movie actor much alluded to in the music of Dave Graney - before amending this to Warren Cann. Without access to the kind of resources that could verify this bold proclamation, we took him somewhat uneasily at his word and averred that, if correct, his knowledge of obscure rhythmatists in rock history was indeed highly impressive.
We quickly reached our destination, Bar Phoenix on Flinders St. Phoenix has risen - much like it's mythical namesake - from the ashes of old Melbourne, to take its place in the phalanx of ultra-hip bars and nightspots that now form a front line in the city's assault on our cultural sensibilities. Dotted around the once tired and under-utilised CBD, these ultra-hip icons trumpet a city marching unassailed towards a shining future. And in six months when they fall and break an ultra hip they'll have a quick ultra hip replacement and there, just like before, will be another ultra-hip destination for the bright, brilliant and beautiful who deserve so much more out of a night spot then the rest of us.
We walked uneasily to the entrance, expecting at any moment a firm hand in the chest and the look of studied pity that would confirm our unworthiness. The front door, however, remained unattended. Offering silent thanks for our luck, we drew a collective breath and pushed on into the small establishment, lit modishly low and humming with an understated cool.
It was like fin de siecle Montmartre in there. Impossibly talented prodigies lounged over well-appointed furniture, regarding us with a carefully affected Gallic indifference that belied their station as dead shit office lackeys from Bayswater and overdressed secretaries waiting for the 6.58 back to Pakenham. Where was the Toulouse-Lautrec that could document this charged milieu before it burnt out, incinerating itself in a supernova-heat, dying fast and young, like all the great movements? I cursed the fact that my only artistic credentials lay in playing in an unsuccessful band named after some painters that no one in Australia has ever heard of, and resolved to come back in the next life smarter, more beautiful, talented, engaging, charismatic, rich, politically connected, with a better haircut and greater ability as a DJ, a graphic designer, IT consultant and 3-star Michelin chef.
We moved out of the Latin Quarter, crossed the Seine and followed the carpeted stairs up to a room marked 'Private Function'. It was time to cross the Rubicon. How we'd got from 19th Century France to Ancient Rome in the course of a couple of footfalls was a mystery that I could not afford to stop and ponder. We tarried a while longer while the metaphorical waters muddied and grew dark. Standing now on the banks of the Styx we waited for Charon to ferry our miserable souls across into Hades. Finding him apparently otherwise engaged, we attached ourselves to a waiter carrying a tray of canapés and followed behind into the room.
That the room was filled with important people was obvious. One could smell success in the rich leather of expensive jackets and see the creativity in the ruddy tans of those only recently returned from an early European summer. Few faces were immediately recognisable to me, a sure sign that I was out of my depth amongst this stellar congregation of over achievers. The ranks of fellow musicians were sparse at best, consisting primarily of a like-minded fraternity desperately scouring the smooth vertical rock face of their career's hastening descent for the hint of a braking toe hold.
We entered into some small talk so diminutive that a gang of sub atomic particles could have pushed it around. A background hum of grinding teeth quickly struck up as we worked hard against excruciating awkwardness and social ineptitude. I shifted my feet so much on the plush carpet that the static electricity turned me into a Van de Graaff generator, sparks shooting embarrassingly from the top of my head. At least fifteen conversations alone were left stillborn on the topic of what we had been doing lately. "Not much", "Very little" and "I dunno" are not the kind of phrases that engender follow up questions. People made excuses: the bar, the toilets and the other side of the room became increasingly popular destinations.
In times of hardship we retreat into familiarity, seeking refuge in that which we find comforting. Trays of finger food circulating the room offered asylum to those unable to breach the borders of polite conversation while the bar afforded permanent resident status to the otherwise disenfranchised. First out were the sushi rolls. I grabbed two as the waiter went past before hastily reconstituting myself across the room as someone else, adopting a different facial expression with which to mask my previous identity. Finding that this ruse afforded me an encore season of unfettered access to the rolls, I continued to place myself at intervals around the room, each time contriving my body and face into a new deportment.
I found the constant movement served a second purpose: I was never in one place long enough to be dragged into conversation. Eat and move was my mantra and I adhered to it assiduously. I was Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains - impossible to engage; a trail of emptied serving vessels the only evidence of my recent presence. With a gaze firmly affixed on the circulating waiting staff, I remained impervious to the dreaded eye contact that threatened to pull me in its tractor beam towards unwanted dialogue. When I sensed a vaguely familiar personage gravitating in my direction I simply refocussed my stare and strode off once more after the food.
By now the others were each trapped in varying degrees of uncomfortable converse. A tray of deep fried mushrooms moved past and I followed it like a French pig hunting a truffle. Having circumnavigated the room once, the waiter left the tray on the bar and I fell on the unattended bounty with relish, shovelling the crispy crumbed fungal material into my gaping maw with undignified haste. Big eggy pieces of frittata were next and then another plate of the rolls.
At length the procession of trays ceased and we made preparations to leave. I initiated a series of complex hand gestures and facial twitches designed to signal my intentions, a semaphore that consisted primarily of waving the car keys and then making purposefully for the front door. We emerged into the cool night air each affecting a degree of self-satisfaction. A few free drinks, several rounds in the ring with the finger food and the barest minimum of awkward social intercourse - it hasn't been such a bad evening after all. A certain air of self-delusion was required in this undertaking, however, for as an exercise in networking, the evening had been a total failure.
Remarkably, a consensus emerged to the effect that we had not yet eaten our fill and we bypassed the car park in search of further victuals. This search culminated at a non-descript, late-night Japanese sushi house, lit 10 or 20 candelas too brightly perhaps, but promising hearty sustenance and prompt service. The service was in fact so fast that several fundamental planks of relativity were violated, with the result that our meals were on the table before we ordered them. Having only ordered out of politeness to begin with, I proceeded to suffer the ignominy of receiving the worst meal; five or six leaden pieces of tempura that seemed to have been fried in several coats of old shoe leather. A flat white that could have been the dishwater used to wash the sushi knives rounded out a decidedly underwhelming culinary experience. With the kind of disingenuousness before social convention that I pride myself on, I left a tip and we faced once more the chill evening air.
Back at Doug's we waited while Ted went next door in search of his new Led Zeppelin DVD. Few divergences of taste between Terry and I are so sharply delineated as in our respective assessments of the legendary four piece. While acknowledging that several of rock's greatest riffs reside unchallenged in the LZ canon, I believe the band's greatest contribution to popular music lies in what it represents beyond the 3 instruments and a voice that define its sound. For me Zeppelin function most effectively as a parody of themselves, an endless fount of hyperbolic excess and self-indulgent bombast, a source of rich, ironic humour. For Terry, however, they are just the best band ever: nothing more, nothing less. This pure, unabiding form of idolatry reaches its apotheosis in John Bonham's drumming, a hall of mirrors in which Ted can quite happily lose himself for hours. A simple kick drum sound, a pattern on the ride cymbal or a strafing run around the kit can be the basis on which Ted will judge an entire Led Zeppelin album. It's not so much about the songs, or even particularly the music. It's about Bonzo.
I sat back ready to laugh; to snigger at impossible bulges in tight jeans, violin bows drawn across guitar necks and pointless jams that lead like wheel ruts off an outback track, to nowhere in particular. I found the laughs I was looking for but they were nothing next to my surprised joy as we watched the documentary evidence of a commitment to rock in its purest of forms. This was music unvetted, unedited and undefiled by the hands of celebrity producers, avaricious A&R men and the glorified accountants of the record company boardroom. Music allowed to succeed or fail on it's own merits, the good with the bad, the sublime and the truly ridiculous. Here was the biggest band in the world at the time without the cynical marketing and the corporate taint of foul contrivance that putrefies modern music. It is the failures, the flaws and the frailty of human ambition as much as the spine tingling moments of awe that make rock the most interesting of all the musical forms. Half way into the 20 minute drum solo that constitutes the bulk of Moby Dick I looked over at Ted, momentarily a teenage boy again at Peter Cleaver's Music in Frankston, weeping openly with spiritual joy, and, at last, I understood.