Touring encourages the accountant in me, a job to which I am vastly more suited than that of rock star. Accountancy professionals have a reputation for just the kind of stolid reliability around which my personality is fashioned. They have little to live up to beyond an aptitude for numbers and a working knowledge of tax law. I believe it not unreasonable to hope that I could in time acquire the faint renown of being known as 'quite interesting…for an accountant'. Contrastingly even my most energised and extroverted social performances look wan and insipid next to the Dionysian hedonism of my rock antecedents. It is but a short road to becoming known as a dull rock star.
While few musicians have ever had to weigh their passion to create music against the irresistible allure of a desk in a suburban accounting firm, the two careers have more in common than many people realise. Just a passing glance at one of the CPA ads on television makes obvious the adrenaline-charged thrills associated with this exciting career path. It is surely a short trip from cocaine-fuelled backstage sex parties to the daredevil restructuring of stalled businesses; the bungy jump of asset protection and the net-free tightrope walk of tax minimisation.
It is at this stage of my development a conceit to call myself an accountant: bookkeeper being the more accurate description. I have none of the elite training of a qualified Certified Practicing Accountant nor the nerve, élan and sangfroid that characterises the very best of the breed. I do have, however, a set of very neat and well-maintained spreadsheets on my computer, each dealing with a specific arm of the Fauves' organisation. While light on for shelf companies, offshore investments and stock portfolios we do have a cheque book, a petty cash tin and my Visa card, each of which may be called to the front line at any moment. Every quarter we submit a Business Activity Statement based on the figures I have assiduously compiled. Annually we visit a real accountant who completes a return, regretfully informing the tax commissioner that yet another year has passed by without us having anything to add to the exchequer. It is little wonder that, over the course of 16 years, I have never composed anything remotely approaching a hit song. I've been too busy doing the books.
And that brings me back to touring. There is nothing like a few days on the road to quicken the pulse of an under worked bookkeeper, grown soft from re-organising his collection of old bank statements. As I reach into a collection of gold coins to release the luggage trolleys at the airport I am reminded that this is what we train for; this is why we do it. All the long nights balancing columns and rows finally pay off out in the field where even one unrecorded expense may throw a whole weekend's worth of numbers into chaos. During the weeks of inactivity at home my duties rarely extend to more than a check of our quarterly royalty reports for errors. This is a less than onerous undertaking; the small, single digit sums rendering even the use of a calculator an unnecessary extravagance.
Once amidst the maelstrom of accounting on the front line, however, that calculator becomes an indispensable tool. Rare is the show where I haven't sat motivating everyone backstage by deftly working out how many paying customers we need to cover our expenses. This is the part of my job that piques the interests of my band mates who, to a man, love knowing how much playing in a failed rock band is costing them. Occasionally I take a liberty or two, exaggerating the depths of penury to which we are in danger of sinking. Often this takes the form of a simple joke. As we exchange our final high fives before taking the stage to a half-empty room I will remind everyone gravely that we needed 600 payers just to cover our costs. Then, backstage after an error-ridden show and 212 heads, I relieve the maudlin gloom by revealing that the real break-even figure was in fact only 378. "You got us there', they laugh, gently chagrined at their gullibility yet relieved to realise that playing the gig only cost them $600 each.
With typical modesty I'm understating the immense importance of my financial savvy to our operation. It is moving to see the respect that I have won from my colleagues through my hard working endeavours. Even when they forget to invite me to dine with them they miss me before too long, always calling me just in time to come and pay the restaurant bill. In the unlikely event that they have alternate means of settling the account they are inevitably thoughtful enough to summon me down from the hotel room upon their return, offering me warm salutations while I reach in to pay the taxi fare.
It would be disingenuous to aver that this warm sense of fulfilment is all that keeps me at my books. In truth I take great pleasure in exerting an iron discipline over my band mates; a martinet with a whip fashioned from purse strings. Dangling the promise of hard currency before their slavering cupidity, I pull them into line like a tantric sex guru reining in a premature ejaculation. A small command post in the limbic centre of my brain assures me that I must control the lives of everyone around me. Thankfully I could not have been presented with more compliant subjects; unreliable rakes who avoid responsibility like a minister in a Howard government. Moreover, I still have the $20,000 I have skimmed from the accounts in the last 3 years as reward for my dedication.
Early in 2004 the Victorian government generously sponsored us with a Contemporary Music Touring Grant. Our submission to the evaluation panel outlined a tour of visionary breadth, a marauding knees-up across 20 regional centres throughout the state; a proposal of no little ambition. The thrill at receiving this generous injection of capital into our bankrupt treasury was tempered by the realisation that now we would actually have to visit these shit holes. Many of the towns under consideration appear perfectly benign in flat profile on a wall map, but take on an altogether more confronting aspect upon the addition of a third dimension.
The tour offered little consolation from a bookkeeping perspective, given that we were dealing with the sort of numbers that could have been handled by a Neolithic child marking notches into a bone. Where once we had rampaged through the provinces, sacking towns like Visigoths through the Roman Empire, we now found ourselves sacked, completing a tour that ensured we could never again play outside of a 10km metropolitan radius. Town after town pulled up its drawbridge at our approach, locked its gates or hastily consulted the Israeli government on the efficacy of constructing a security wall around its perimeter. At those centres misguided enough to vouchsafe us entry we discovered a remarkable proportion of the population asleep, hiding or 'away on business'. Like a creeping pestilence we met our target audience barricaded within their homes. We often found ourselves reduced to walking the streets crying, 'bring out your dead' in a pitiful endeavour to find a crowd. This tactic proved especially successful around nursing homes and hospitals and much time was given over to providing our exanimis audience with free transport to the show.
A tour that had more low points than the Mariana Trench reached its nadir in Nth Western Victoria. We couldn't have returned to Mildura in circumstances further removed from those of our last visit. Back then we had made the 600 km journey in a small regional jet, compliments of a profligate promoter. The flat wastes through which we now laboured by road then looked like a pretty Persian rug, occasionally glimpsed accidentally through a window while attempting to catch the eye of a hostess to order another drink. Using borrowed equipment freighted at the support band's expense, and buttressed by a guarantee constituting many thousands of dollars, we blithely ran through the motions before an audience numbering not more than 75. Early the next morning Mildura was once more a mere doll's house miniature through an aircraft window. Soon we banked and were gone, making for Melbourne and a connecting flight onto Hobart where we would play that night for even more money to even fewer people. It was an innocent, carefree world that afforded large sums of money and generous hospitality to a band that remained stalled before an intercom at the gates to mainstream success. It was a Belle époque waiting for the assassination of its Archduke Ferdinand. It was a world that could not last.
Desperate to make good the grandiose promises of the tour proposal we were reduced to offering our services at a greatly discounted rate. This proved to be the only way we could secure enough shows to fulfil our commitments. Few of those responsible for handling our enquiries had ever heard of us and they were unprepared to offer us anything beyond their standard cover band deal. In Mildura, for instance, this comprised $500 plus accommodation and a free meal. Can I do justice to the hobbling levels of humiliation involved in accepting such an engagement? After 16 years battling fruitlessly to convert the major cities of Australia to our cause, we were now making a round trip of some 1300 kilometres to play at an Irish Pub in a town where everything that our band is, was and might one day be remains steadfastly anonymous. In the weeks leading up to the show the publican became increasingly hostile, issuing almost daily requests of a carping, petty nature. These interrogations focussed primarily on ascertaining the amount of our $500 stipend that we were prepared to spend on promoting the show. Assured repeatedly that this figure would be precisely zero, he became ever more insistent that we at least mobilise a phalanx of local media to the crusade. It was becoming clear that this clueless buffoon actually believed that he was doing us a favour in allowing us onto the miserable stage of his laughable nightclub.
A proud history of mercenary undertakings has meant that we long ago stopped believing that every show must be an un-defiled, neo-religious experience. Down the years we have gone through the motions for money more time than a Kings Cross hooker. But while prostitution occasionally encroaches into the job description, laying prone through the whole sweaty, grunting travesty only watch the John walk out the door without paying is another thing entirely. The years have bleached most of the artistic airs and pretensions from our ossified psyches, but what little pride is remaining to us burnt like the reflux of a meal of hydrochloric acid at the level of prostration to which we had descended.
As we approached the outskirts of the Jewel of the Sunraysia a large storm broke, reducing our progress significantly. In prolonging the near interminable journey the heavens seemed to be offering us one last chance to cash our chips and leave. We passed a car resting on its roof in a patch of mallee scrub. Poor weather notwithstanding, people were still desperate to get out.
We located O'Malleys at the centre of Mildura's bustling entertainment quarter. It seemed that the government had won its battle with the concerned residents of North Western Victoria over the siting of its controversial toxic waste dump. As to the ethics of locating it square in the middle of a theme Pub in the heart of a thriving country town I remain uncommitted. Inside, the proprietor had obviously warmed to the Irish motif. The walls hung heavy with the spirit of Erin; prints of old Guinness advertisements; maps detailing the patchwork counties of the Emerald Isle; reminders to remove work boots, singlets and cover up exposed tattoos. Set back from the main drinking saloon, a small library spoke eloquently of the literary tradition so cherished by the Irish people, all the while mocking the afternoon clientele, few of whom looked as though they could read. It could have been a Dublin tavern in the age of Modernist literature and I half expected to see James Joyce leaning on the bar and peering at us through his crude wire spectacles before skolling a Wild Turkey and Coke and grappling with the security staff. Indeed Joyce could have spared himself about 580 pages had he set Ulysses' in Mildura rather than Dublin. Once Bloom had risen, performed his groundbreaking literary ablutions and repaired to the pub, there would have been little left to document beyond the desultory progress of the 300 late model Holdens interminably trawling the main thoroughfare outside.
The PA earmarked for amplifying our missionary efforts to convert the infidel languished in a state of disrepair. Electric wires spilled from its insides like viscera from a wounded soldier. Doubtless this was not to be the first night the plucky sound system would labour in vain to show a struggling band's unpopular music to its best advantage. It was mired in a doomed campaign, peering every night across the No Man's Land of an empty dance floor at an implacable enemy it could never defeat. Sound check apparently a remote prospect, we decamped to the bistro.
At table we ordered a bottle of a house wine with a nose like floor cleaner. Having had our palates cleansed in a refreshing bath of ammonia and sulphur dioxide, we dispensed with fiscal prudence and ordered big; next selecting an early picked Pine O Cleen. The contract promised a free meal, although it was only upon revisiting the document that I noticed the prefix 'Barium'. This repast promised to be but a fleeting visitor to our digestive system and I cursed that I had not latterly swallowed some Ratsak, the better that that I might take advantage of the meal's purgative properties.
Having dined, we squeezed in a quick trip down to Casualty before returning to wait impatiently while patrons began making their way inside. The burgeoning audience was a mixed blessing. The more disposable income thrown heedlessly across the bar of the hotel, the smaller our $500 fee would begin to look in the eyes of a sceptical publican. As a consequence the nervous trip into the back office for settlement might be that little less awkward. Ironically though, a room of paying customers threatened to bring our unpopularity into even starker relief.
A little dissembling can sometimes explain away an empty room out in the provinces, where just one 21st birthday party or football presentation night is enough to divert many potential punters. Indeed many is the embarrassed licensee who has actually apologised to us at the end of a bad night, explaining resignedly that there was a lot on in town that evening. An unresponsive audience, however, is an unequivocal visual and aural reconnaissance of a band's failure. It's for this reason that we often prefer to play before no one. In this way it remains just possible to fool ourselves that the show is an aberration, that we are guileless victims of circumstance and that there might still be a room somewhere on earth where our musical presence is not yet universally abhorred.
It is the old utilitarian approach to showbiz - the greatest good for the greatest number. With no one in attendance it is quite possible that as few as five people -namely the publican and us - will be disappointed with the night. Once a crowd occupies the room the number of disappointed people starts to rise alarmingly. When all it would take to help some decent, hardworking Australians enjoy their evening is a few top 40 covers, a couple of old classics and Kenny Roger's 'The Gambler' we have to go and ruin everything by sticking defiantly to our despised originals.
O'Malley's quite obviously had a base crowd. The publican would easily cover his risk from door takings alone. Serenely unaware that their night was about to be hijacked, the smiling punters continued filing onto the premises, the reassuring backbeat of familiar pop tunes greeting them like an obsequious air steward. We, however, were about to take their domestic jet and plough it straight into the side of a building. Even as the arriving guests looked benignly on the equipment covering the stage, there was nothing in the unremarkable collection of amplifiers, guitars and drums to foretell of the entertainment atrocity that was about to befall them.
Unarmed combat with a disco is a scrap from which few bands emerge victorious. Most of us hide our insecurities in a swaddling cloak of the familiar and the banal hit parade is like a thumb to the mouth of an uncertain infant. The DJ, irrespective of his platitudinous greetings earlier in the night, is ever the enemy. Lost in the delusion of his self-importance, he believes his imprimatur stamped on the music simply by having selected the order in which the songs play. Affronted at having to hand over any of his time to the band, he always saves his most popular song for just before you go on. By this time the dance floor will have started to fill and the jarring intrusion of unfamiliar live music is roundly resented. People who have spent the evening assaying their prospects from the safety of the room's perimeter finally embark on a tentative foray just as the disco stops. Those not alert enough to quickly vacate the floor are left shuffling awkwardly to unfamiliar music, looking like victims of a gas attack unable to find their masks in time. They quickly skulk from the floor, seeking refuge once more in the darkened recesses of the room. The empty space in front of the band now stands as an open invitation to the show-off. On comes the comedy dancer whose sole purpose is to take the piss. Gyrating wildly and with no discernable coordination to the music he seeks only a few fatuous laughs from his friends at your expense.
This unsavoury prospect ushered in a tense waiting game. The top 40 tunes called an insistent reveille but self-consciousness born of sobriety ensured the dance floor remained empty. The clock edged towards show time, daring us to start before people began dancing. We hastily fashioned a batch of songs into a set list, culling tracks like drunk men with shot guns cull kangaroos: just for the sport of it. This set was so stripped of adornments it would be entering the room in a silk posing pouch. I wrote copies in triplicate and deftly tore the single sheet into quarters. It was important that our trip to Mildura, in all its futility, at least leave the shallowest possible environmental footprint. I congratulated myself on the parsimony exhibited in getting 4 set lists from one piece of paper. We made our final visits to the toilet, re-charged our drinks and turned towards the stage. The dance floor was full.
Hearts heavy with resignation, we filed towards the stage, dreading the inevitable like schoolchildren queuing for an inoculation. The music continued its pulsing beat long after we had shouldered our instruments and given every indication that we were ready to proceed. Disconcertingly there did not seem to be anyone at hand with the wherewithal to ensure its cessation. If there indeed existed such a person he was loathe to exercise his prerogative mid-song and we were forced to remain standing stupidly while the music droned on unabated. Angered at the inconvenience, we began testing instruments in opposition to the pulsating rhythm of the disco, immediately putting the crowd offside. At length the music faded and gave way to a brief silence, punctuated only by the buzzing from our poorly earthed instruments. The pop music of a generation; recorded, mixed and mastered for many hundreds of thousands of dollars using the best of 21st century technology had stepped grudgingly aside for the obscure musical meanderings of Melbourne 4 piece, The Fauves. A couple of stray hits on a poorly tuned snare drum called the audience to attention. A little last minute fiddling with levels prolonged the awkwardness. A crackling lead betrayed a long-term intermittent fault long un-remedied over many years. We made eye contact with one another. Ready? For God's sake get on with it. 1,2,3,4. Rock and roll.
The largish crowd malingered mutinously around the edge of the dance floor, impatiently glaring across its empty expanse as we set to work. The opening number, Finest Choice, was a masterpiece of ironic hyperbole - even seasoned analysts left to speculate upon the abstruse thought process behind this oblique selection. Neither this song nor those that followed met with the slightest recognition. The deflating realisation that our endeavours were bringing nothing of value to the lives of anyone involved was only amplified by the knowledge their exercise had required a drive of over 600 km. It was as pointless as a compass without a needle. In an enlightened world the publican and I would have met like the captains at 5.30 on the last day of a meandering test and agreed to call the whole thing off. In our world we play to the last clause of the contract: the arsenic-bitter end. We trudged on grimly, convicted felons pleading clemency before a room of unmerciful judges. Drunken idiots made requests for songs by other bands or asked for birthday felicitations to be broadcast over the microphone. It stung to be humiliated before these half wits, to be reckoned a failure by an audience for whom life's trophy cabinet could only ever be a dusty box lying long forgotten in a garden shed. The best might one day manage a halting walk out onto the great savannah of human achievement, blinking momentarily in the overwhelming light before scurrying furtively back into the consuming blankness of the surrounding jungles. The worst could hope for nothing beyond the sort of advances in facial reconstruction and grooming technology that might facilitate the funnelling of their genes into the propagation of more of their worthless ilk. We cut a couple more songs, bringing the set to an underwhelming culmination. The first noise from the audience in over half an hour was the sound of dancers issuing joyously back onto the floor.
Another set followed after an improbably short break. For many people this second visitation was like surviving a heart attack only to have the ambulance crash into a lamppost out the front of the hospital. Our set was already so pared back that losing more songs was like performing liposuction on a catwalk model. Somehow though we managed it, leaving but a skeleton crew of material to keep the set operational. Though no less an unwelcome intrusion than the first, we conducted this set in an altogether more assured manner. The hand wringing, forelock -tugging apologia of our earlier efforts now gave way to a caustic, barely-concealed contempt. The predictable silences in between songs met with our subtle derision, manifested in a series of snide quips, asides and cultural references. It felt important to travel some way towards redressing the balance; to bolster our pride by manufacturing a false sense of superiority. We engaged the enemy on ground where he was at a natural disadvantage - in this case anywhere not bounded by a wire enclosure, a feeding trough and a shit-streaked concrete floor. We hit the last note of our final song and departed.
Drills performed hundreds of times previously ensured that the stage was cleared and our gear stowed in the car outside before the last sound wave had reached the back wall. In the car park a technical assistant proffered a business card, an optimistic invitation to call next time we were in town. The rest of us stifled some intemperate guffaws while Ted, ever diplomatic, took the card without demur. He was happy to distract the friendly tradesman with some cheery converse; all the while backing slowly towards safety like a park ranger who has disturbed a resting lion. Neatly extricated from danger, Ted immediately put the card to good use, tearing a neat section from it for use as a filter in his marijuana cigarette.
Humans draw succour from the smallest consolations. As we pulled the Tarago out into the street the mere fact that O'Malley's was now at a 180-degree angle to our direction of travel was cause for much giddy celebration. A curious euphoria coursed through our party. The mallee night was balmy and back at the motel we undressed and swam nude in the motel pool, notionally out of bounds after 10 pm. Conscientiously working hard not to wake nearby guests, our pink, fleshy bodies wobbled spectrally under fluorescent light as we tip toed across the lawn encircling the pool. These are always the best hours on the road, when the day's work is done and its humbling travails at an end. A few beers extorted from a sympathetic barperson; some hot water over the signature motel Harris tea bag; a functioning if noisy air conditioner with which to assuage the room's cloying humidity. Presently our meagre supply of endorphins was exhausted and we retired to our beds, 2 to a room. I read briefly, my heavy lidded eyes giving the page a watery, swimming pool quality. Before killing the light I looked over at Ted for assent. The patron saint of Australian bass players sat upright in bed, by now quite possibly asleep, yet still clasping a can of beer in one hand and a dog-eared airport thriller in the other. For the first time that day I remembered why music is my life.