Out of the Far East the mysterious message issued: Need entertainment STOP Asian Australian Rules Championships STOP Fauves available? We were available. Each of us has cleared his diary for the next 20 years in the hope that unprecedented levels of availability will be the spark that reignites our smouldering career. It will be an availability-led recovery. We will be the tradesmen who can be there within the hour after the first two you called didn’t show. Disregarding the very real possibility that several more famous bands had already turned down the invitation, we RSVP’d with a resounding YES.
The 10th annual Asian Australian Rules Football championships took place in Bangkok on the 14th of July. The Championships are, unofficially, the world’s second largest sporting event after the Olympics. Watched by over 500 people, they draw expatriate footballers from all over South East Asia. Construction managers from Shanghai, mining engineers from Jakarta and diplomatic aides from Hong Kong come together in teams representing ten of the most vibrant countries in the region. The action takes place over one frenetic day. Sunburnt bodies collide in the withering heat in search of hard ball gets, one percenters and inside 50s. The championships are as much a test of a man’s stamina in the suffocating tropical humidity as a measure of footballing ability. By late afternoon one team would be crowned champion of Asia.
And then everyone would watch us play.
Our brief was to perform one of our trademark sets following the Grand Final: sixty minutes plus encore if prompted. Initially we wondered if we weren’t the victims of a cruel prank. It seemed improbable that someone living overseas would choose to get in touch with a band of only marginal renown within Australia and none whatsoever without. Much of the early correspondence we received, though enthusiastic, served only to reinforce our doubts. This excerpt from one email outlined the prospects of performing another show outside of the championships: Once The Fauves are really confirmed, The Rock Pub - is interested in organising 'something' but say you ain't rockin' enough. Roadhouse's manager couldn't find you on limewire, but he's gonna ask his musicians from Oz about The Fauves on 16th May. Mojo's manager from Berrick (sic) might have heard of you and wants more information. Sounded like most of the venues back in Australia. Nevertheless, as negotiations continued we dared to dream and determined that we should be ready just in case. Our passports, hitherto naked and embarrassed by a lack of stamps, were on the verge of their first airings since we last flashed them at a series of ambivalent New Zealand officials nearly a decade ago. We made that trip without Ted, then our front of house mixer. The inveterate maverick valued his outlaw status too highly and refused to submit to the rigorous identity checks required to acquire travel documents. Now he was about to become the embodiment of Le Carre’s, the Bass Player Who Came In From The Cold, dutifully organising passport photos and birth certificate searches so as to take his position on stage for that one steamy Bangkok night.
We spent the weeks leading up to the event starved of information. A bluff pessimism, cultivated as a defence against disappointment, convinced us that the trip would fall through. Each fruitless trip to collect the tickets from our Post Office box seemed to confirm the inevitable. At length it became apparent that we had an airline booking but the tickets had not yet been paid for. I undertook a series of trunk calls, placing myself in direct contact with our man in Bangkok. Finally, only hours before we were due to fly, we met his sister outside an art gallery in North Fitzroy and secured the wherewithal to embark on our international journey.
Ted has been my long time seating companion on aeroplanes. As we share surnames beginning with C, the computer, with a disinterested, non-partisan commitment to alphabetical seat allocation, inevitably places us along side one another. Ordinarily, this would have catastrophic results. We are lead singer and bass player, natural enemies on the wild savannahs of the music industry. Air travel, however, imposes a set of artificial restrictions. It is like placing the lion enclosure next to the antelopes at the zoo. In time the lion comes to understand that coveting the succulent flesh of its natural quarry is pointless. He still occasionally imagines his jaws around the hapless herbivore’s throat, but forgoes pointless pacing of the compound perimeter for a benign disregard of his skittish neighbour. Thus it is with Ted and I when flying. Certainly, I could kill the harmless bassist with a single swingeing blow, severing his jugular and tearing at his tough flesh with my sharp incisors. But what good would that do? An undercover air marshal would quickly be summoned from business class to restrain and place me under arrest. Ted’s twitching corpse would be stored aft in the galley until landfall and the other passengers would be put off their rapidly cooling meals. Far better to simply engage in some light small talk, take our customary quiz from the rear of the in-flight magazine and then settle back while Ted orders alcohol.
This he does with a curious mixture of solicitous politeness and firm insistence. Always gracious as the next glass is placed upon his tray table, he nevertheless brooks no attempt to stymie his endeavours. Generally of impeccable manners, he can, when denied alcohol, become astonishingly rude. Given that Malaysian Airlines is the national carrier of a predominantly Muslim country, alcohol service is not the centrepiece of their in-flight hospitality. A drinks trolley made one reluctant length of the aisle, before retreating to be stowed once more from sight. Thereafter, access to alcohol was by appointment only.
Ted made many appointments. He pressed the service light above his seat like a claustrophobic pressing the emergency button in a malfunctioning lift. Perhaps his continual orders were merely a thoughtful attempt to forestall deep vein thrombosis among the cabin staff by not allowing them to sit for more than five minutes at a time? Before long they began bringing him two drinks at a time. This simply encouraged him to drink twice as fast.
Doug and Doctor, ordinarily men of no small appetites themselves, eschewed the drinks trolley and settled into a strange semi-conscious trance. Like hibernating bears, they shut down all non-essential body functions for the long journey between Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. Exhibiting a complete mastery of bladder control - a legacy of their training as tantric sex instructors - neither of them left his seat to visit the lavatory for the whole nine hours. Doug in particular would come to rue this self-abnegation when he disembarked at sea level to find his ankles swollen like two mid-sized coconuts.
The short stopover in Malaysia enabled Ted to buy a couple of beers for breakfast in Cheers, recently voted the world’s best Long Distance Flight Stopover Theme Bar in The Travelling Bass Player. The large screen TVs and familiar multinational corporate logos helped inure us to the dangers of culture shock. Like a deep-sea diver pausing on ascent to avoid the bends, we needed time in an international twilight zone before exposure to the heady atmosphere of a foreign country. Despite the comforting surrounds, however, I was unable to relax. I am a long-term sufferer of Airport Anxiety Syndrome, which manifests itself as a crippling fear that somewhere a plane is leaving without us. I left Cheers and performed a reconnaissance of the airport in search of the departure gate for our flight to Bangkok. It soon became apparent that we would need to change terminals by travelling on an internal railway. I returned breathlessly to my companions, begging that they collect their possessions forthwith and follow me to the train’s departure point. They regarded me indifferently and returned to their drinks. Again I implored them to please finish up and accompany me to the train as the flight was boarding imminently. At length they reluctantly gathered themselves and together we fled for the adjacent terminal. Trembling, I sank into a chair near the departure gate. With only 45 minutes to spare it had been a close run thing.
We were met at Bangkok airport by Steve, our host, who graciously offered to transport us through the choking Bangkok traffic to our hotel. En route he committed a minor traffic infringement and was forced to bribe a member of the Thai police to avoid an inconvenient ticket. It was an early lesson that the steamroller of celebrity which typically smoothed our passage back home would encounter a more intractable set of obstacles in South East Asia. In Australia I would have leaned out of the window, flashed my greying teeth at the awestruck officer and handed him a signed copy of Nervous Flashlights. Here I cowered in the rear seat and assessed a nearby wall for its efficacy as an escape route should things turn ugly.
We found our apartments at the Ambassador entirely commodious. There were welcoming platters cling-wrapped with unidentified fruit awaiting us in our two double rooms. Downstairs the expansive lobby projected the faded majesty of a grand colonial hotel. Obliging bellhops in pith helmets staffed the entrances while visitors of many nationalities milled around Reception. We were eager to explore and, after dumping our bags, made our way directly onto the teeming streets. Doug and Doctor immediately embarked on an epic of t-shirt purchasing. In only seven days they each revolutionised their wardrobes, undertaking a fashion makeover of global proportions. Sporting companies, beer brands, clichéd Thai iconography – nothing was exempt from their ravening baht. I was less inclined to purchase immediately, prepared instead to bide my time in the hope of saving fifty cents later on. The hawkers, however, were insistent and I felt keenly my limitations with the language. How could I make them understand that I wasn’t interested in purchasing their cheap apparel but rather needed the address of the sweat shop in which it had been manufactured? I searched my phrasebook in vain for the words. My nascent career as an importer of cheap Fauves t-shirts withered right there on the hot Bangkok streets, lost in translation.
That evening we had an appointment at the Downunder Bar, a small outpost of Australian culture in Thailand. The proprietor was sponsoring the Championships and doubtless wished to meet the rakes upon whom he had blown somewhere in the region of $10,000. Stepping in off the street, we left behind the roadside food vendors, the pulsing traffic and thick night air for the air-conditioned familiarity of a western sports bar. This was the culture we had travelled 7000 kilometres to sample! Fat expatriates sat slouched at bar stools absently watching banks of TVs running 24 hour sports channels. Aussie beers on tap! A few decades of targeted annihilation followed by 150 years of wilful neglect may have made a serious dint Australia’s indigenous population but fair dinkum their boomerangs look great when used with a green and gold kangaroo. Crikey, this joint was as Aussie at it gets! Outside a group of Thai men gathered at the entrance to peer in at one of the screens showing a soccer match involving their national team. Inside it was whiter than the sheets at a Klan meeting. We met our sponsor, shook some hands, promised to return to celebrate after our performance on Saturday and fairly dived down the stairs back on to the street.
The following day we set off across town in search of a music store. Baggage restrictions had reduced our luggage to a minimum and Doctor, ever the team player, had decided to leave his guitars behind and simply purchase a budget model in Bangkok with the aid of a favourable exchange rate. We engaged two tuk tuk drivers to take us directly to the nearest vendor of musical instruments. Presently Doctor was seated in front of an amplifier; coaxing from its circuitry the inimitable sounds that have made him one of Australia’s most unimitated guitarists. A shop assistant hovered obsequiously. Behind him hovered Ted, always ready to expose a fellow guitarist’s limitations on the slightest encouragement. He settled onto a stool with the guitar and launched into a series of searing guitar shop scales and cover band pyrotechnics. Each of us was immensely impressed at the way he had made Doctor look a fool in front of the sales staff. Having listened to the instrument moan like a gastroenteric lover in Ted’s expert hands, Doctor wasted no time in telling me to get out the credit card and purchase the prized instrument on his behalf. Barely a week later as his fire died down in the chilly Australian evening, Doctor would eye his new purchase as kindling wasted. For the moment, however, we exercised our rapidly burgeoning talents at haggling and bought an identical guitar for Doug while we were at it.
At noon on Saturday a shuttle bus arrived at our hotel to escort us to football championships. A large sporting field at the Patana International School had been converted into two ovals, upon which matches were already underway. In keeping with our status we were escorted directly to the VIP bar, a covered area at the top of a small grandstand. The humidity was an enervating leech sucking the life force from our bodies and we settled into a dull lethargy. Ted, however, had barely settled into his lethargy before he realised that there was no beer and flew into a towering rage. Would that a few of the lesser teams meekly accepting defeat have been able to harness some of the unflagging drive of the bass player who now pushed his way angrily through the thronging crowds in search of someone with the authority to put chilled beer into his quivering hands.
The stage being assembled for our show was still a work in progress but had already reached impressive dimensions. From a platform mounted well off the ground, large spires of scaffolding reached a further 10 metres into the sky. At these lofty heights was strung an immense lighting show, 50 to 60 cellophane covered cans directed at the stage below. Though not lacking for ambition in its conception, there seemed to be several obstacles to its realisation. Several hammocks were strung beneath the stage hosting the dead weight of weary workers taking an afternoon nap. Heavy with ennui myself, I could hardly blame them, though their heavily sleeping forms seemed to make the chances of a 6pm kick off somewhat remote.
Large thunderheads began to build on the horizon as the afternoon progressed. The stage was uncovered and the scaffolding began to take on the appearance of well-arranged lightning rods. The prospects of electrocution grew in proportion with the volume of gathering storm clouds. A large flammable Fauves banner was strung across several off the trusses, ready for ignition as the first bolts of electricity issued down the long pylons. On the ovals, the footballers toiled on oblivious. After each 20-minute match the weary gladiators slung boots over shoulders and trudged towards a large marquee whence they procured refreshment. Blazing sunburn marked the delineation between jumper and exposed skin. An injured player was stretchered towards a first aid area, his neck secured fast in a large brace. Any vestigial urges to strip down and resume my long dead career had dissipated quickly under the baking sun. Never a brave player, I winced as large bodies crashed against one another, the competitive spirit undiminished by the questionable standard.
The Grand Final ended in a draw, necessitating overtime and a delay to our start. This was fortuitous, for the stage seemed nowhere near ready to host our performance. Microphones were still being fastened to stands and leads run out to the mixing desk as Bali and Hong Kong played out the dying moments of their frenzied contest. Doctor plugged in his borrowed keyboard only to realise that he could no longer remember his line to Nairobi Nights away from the comfortable familiarity of the miniature toy synthesiser we use in Australia.
The presentation immediately following the Grand Final was crippled by power outages. The MC barely had time to tap the microphone and say, “Is thing on?” before it would be off again. Ominously, the public address system had been in perfect working order until our 50,000-watt light show had been plugged in. The prospects for our show dimmed in time with the flickering electric current. In the short tropical twilight, footballers began making for the exit gate. “Have a good one fellas”, they waved cheerily, determined not to be around long enough to see whether their salutations bore fruit. The Thai PA team remained calm, cheerily undertaking various restorative measures, each of which inevitably failed. Finally, they secured a stable power supply and indicated that we could proceed. With a refreshing evening breeze rustling our hair, we mounted the giant stage and prepared to perform.
The nearest audience member was somewhere in the next suburb. They could have held the Grand Final on the unoccupied grass in front of the stage, so large was the area. In the middle distance several hundred footballers and support staff mingled in front of the small grandstand. Tired but happy, they drank to the success of the event, chatting amicably, propped on elbows while sprawled across the grassy expanse. They seemed not to have even regarded the four anonymous musicians ascending the strangely outsized stage a hundred metres away. This was not a hostile audience, merely an inadvertent one, like neighbours who overhear a party taking place several doors away. We picked up our instruments – I’ve had more response out of the walls of a rehearsal room. With a click of the sticks, a roll of the toms and a “Hello Bangkok” we were underway. Ten seconds later the power cut out again.
It seemed a long way to have flown to play for less than a minute. Mind you, we had accommodation paid in advance for a week and were only two days into our trip. Rarely can a band have profited so much from so little effort. It is a rare gig when the money is banked before the performance has even begun and it works like a strange sedative, largely removing the performance imperative and replacing it with a benign indifference. The PA operator made what must have been a galling decision – the light show would have to be unplugged. Given that its assembly had required at least 75% of his labour costs this can have been no easy decision. It was, however, clearly drawing more power than the archaic system could handle. In that 10 second opening alone we had blown all prospect of Thailand meeting its greenhouse emission targets for 2007.
After another thwarted attempt, a decision was made to bypass a crucial safety switch in an effort to forestall the problem. We might yet be engulfed in a major electrical firestorm, just so long as it didn’t occur before the encore. We returned sheepishly to the stage, a few ironic cheers reaching us on the breeze. This time the plucky system withstood the drain on its resources and we played on unimpeded. The power that now flowed unabated to the stage, however, seemed to have been borrowed from the audience, whose residual interest had died like the batteries in a cheap Asian toy. Fortunately their ambivalence helped bridge the cultural divide and it soon felt just like a gig back in Australia. Still, nineteen years have taught us a few tricks. Certain that our music would be unknown to the audience, we had taken the precaution of rehearsing two covers on the afternoon of our departure to Thailand. Bringing covers was like packing a guidebook, a way of helping tourists negotiate around our unfamiliar songs. On the way to the Eiffel Tower, the wide-eyed visitor passes numerous other lesser-known landmarks, certain of which he may be tempted to investigate. We closed our set on Khe Sanh. The crowd had done the footslogging and was now preparing to take photos from the observation deck. Suddenly they were upon us. The leaden legs of tired players found new life as they hauled themselves onto stage to dance arm in arm and share our microphones. The iconic Australian paean to restless wandering struck a chord with the small audience of expatriates so far from home. We now left the stage to roars of drunken approval, quickly followed by insistent demands for an encore. Employing two decades of professional cynicism we returned immediately and launched straight into the Angel’s Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again. Rarely have the words: No Way Get Fucked Fuck Off resonated with more effect. It was true - we would never see them again. The organisers of next year’s event would certainly not spend another $10,000 to bring us back to South East Asia to perform two recognisable songs. We milked the song like a Big Brother evictee making nightclub appearances before fading back into obscurity. Again the crowd bayed for more. There seemed no way of indicating that we had expended our reserves of popular material and that further encores would necessitate a return to our own catalogue. We made it known that the house music should be turned on: there was no more. Ironically, the audience had spent most of the set oblivious to our presence. Now they felt cheated that we had departed the stage so hastily. Our offer of two covers was like a restaurant discount after an unpleasant meal. They took the discount but would have preferred a decent feed.
The following afternoon we set out for the island of Koh Samui. Our good fortune knew no bounds. While waiting to perform at the championships, we met the one person at the event who had heard of us. His brother had once owned a venue on the outskirts of Sydney at which we had performed several times. More importantly he was now the owner of a beachfront resort on the popular tourist island. A quick phone call and we had a generous invitation us to stay at his pleasure. So long as our budget airline did not explode into flames en route we would soon be enjoying the sensual delights of southern Thai hospitality. We congratulated ourselves that our decision to spend two decades releasing commercially unviable music was finally paying off. Where were the million sellers, the teen idols and the chart toppers now as we spent our week long holiday in balmy Asian climes? We were installed in spartan yet comfortable cabins, seawater lapping at our doorsteps. In the following days the island became our bacchanalian pleasure ground. We toured its circumference on low-powered motorbikes, riding white-knuckled along service lanes and gravel verges of the roads in southern Thailand. We swam it’s warm waters with fluorescent white tans and spent an evening watching men and women of all ages smashing each others faces in at the Mai Thai Boxing stadium. Doug and I shared a jet ski, taking turns to pilot the skittish craft, passenger clinging to driver with arms locked tight around the midriff. It was a powerful and ironic postmodern artistic statement on the Australian Bogan abroad and we talked enthusiastically about reprising the show on various beaches this Australian summer. We bought fireworks from a friendly local convenience store and ignited them on the beach in front of our cabins. The night was filled with booming incendiaries and whooping laughter before a rogue rocket misfired, cavorted like a spitting cobra and turned on us.
On the morning that we were due to fly back to Bangkok I went to wake Ted only to find him struck down by a debilitating malaise. With the gulf of Thailand shimmering in the background, he leant on the edge of the swimming pool, groaning with despair. Ted’s effective involvement in the tour was over. He had consumed at least 200 standard drinks since leaving Australia and now his body had finally given out. His besieged liver could process no more alcohol – it was like trying to mop up a spilt drink with a saturated sponge. It was an awful scene to witness, our talisman a broken wreck, sagging into the miniature swimming pool like a deflated pool toy left out for the winter. Back in Bangkok he retired immediately to his bed, only rejoining us for dinner. It was with heavy hearts that we watched the bird, always a light eater, peck disinterestedly at his food before excusing himself to return to his room. We dropped in on him briefly as we headed out for the evening. Shirtless on the bed with a sports drink and a Matthew Reilly novel, he was strangely subdued as we made a futile attempt to have him join us. He was slipping in and out of delirium by now and could only smile weakly in thanks as we pressed into his hand one of the $15 packets of generic Viagra we had purchased from the chemist around the corner. It was not until we were well into our flight back to Australia that Ted realised he had left it, along with the waste paper bins full of empty Thai beer bottles, in the room at the hotel.
The whole trip felt like a bank error in our favour. Each day we checked the balance but the mistake remained undiscovered. At last our policy of passive aspiration had borne fruit – a one date international tour. With cameras hanging around our necks over ballooning, unfashionable shirts, we betrayed not the slightest hint of being anything more than just another four tourists among the millions who had travelled before us. All dreams of becoming rock stars died over fifteen years ago but that only makes each good time that music gives us all the sweeter. There was a moment there - all four of us crammed into the back of a tuk tuk meant for two - when, if the driver had made a simple error of judgement and rolled the rickety vehicle, leaving each of us at the mercy of the oncoming traffic, that even I, pale faced and trembling at the prospect of death, could have said, “Hey, there are worse ways to go”.