Willie’s Bar and Grill
ROCKIN’ IN THE FREE WORLD
Few of the sins of the father
Are visited upon the son
Hearts have been hard
Hands have been clenched into fists too long
from ‘Forgotten Years’
How American. To be driving on a freeway, on Columbus Day, heading for Disneyland. And yet this is exactly where we find ourselves, gunning a minibus down the San Diego Freeway to Anaheim for the opening gig.
Barely a month after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Washington DC and Pennsylvania, Midnight Oil are back in the Land of the Free for our first major tour in over seven years. With us we have our road crew, stage gear, water tank and a swag of songs, ready to front up to a damaged nation with a dim, rookie president and a brand-new war.
I’m amazed and alarmed, in equal measure, at how instantly southern California’s contradictory charms come skidding back. On one hand, there are the warm, dry days and hazy, cotton-palm sunsets, the rugged majesty of the San Gabriel and Santa Monicamountains, and the neat shuttered haciendas draped with crimson bougainvillea. On the other, there’s the macadamised mayhem of an unconscionable burden of traffic, the defiant congregation of some of the world’s largest reflective surfaces, and the square-sided travesty of the disembowelled LA River.
A day or two before, curious to see LA with a fresh pair of eyes, and eternally optimistic for a decent view over the cement-rendered desert to the coast, I climb the stairs at the new Getty Center, where the waterfall in the Central Garden is just loud enough to drown out Interstate 405 below. The soaring travertine structures and the azalea maze are impressive, but I’m disappointed that smog has obliterated the south-western horizon, and so beat a retreat back to our Hollywood hotel by Metro cab.
My driver is a garrulous Russian-American. In the space of twenty minutes he’s told me his life story – ‘I am in America for twenty-seven years … I cry ven I come here ven I am age of seventeen.’ The cabbie is surprised to hear that I play in a band (‘Vere’s your big hair?’) and that we have babuska dolls in Australia. He says his favourite Australian group is Air Supply (whoah!), and as for singers, ‘the small bald one who used to sing with Michael Jackson’ (err…). As I leave, I tell him I like his London-style Metro cab. ‘You vanna buy it?’ he asks eagerly.
I walk into the stygian gloom of my ‘suite’ and turn on CNN, just in time to catch President George W. Bush adding his folksy contribution on how to raise kids in wartime. ‘I think it’s essential that all moms and dads and citizens tell their children we love them,’ he says. I come to the conclusion that someone’s been reading him passages from Jim Greenman’s best-selling family manual What Happened to the World? Helping Children Cope in Turbulent Times.
Switching off the box, I scan the outlook from the Juliet balcony. Across Sunset Boulevard, the infamous Whiskey, painted devil-red, is promoting the usual pantheon of bands – one a hard-rock/hip-hop five-piece from Memphis by the name of Saliva. Directly below me stand two chorisia trees, bearing both vicious thorns and beautiful orchid-like flowers, reminding me of the similar ‘drunk stick’ trees I once saw in the parks of Buenos Aires. A billboard above a garage opposite is advertising Junkyard Wars, a TV show in which monster contraptions are built from scrap, then demolished in a series of bloodcurdling battles against death-metal foes – a kind of interactive Mad Max 2. Out on the street, a police car with a loud hailer barks at an illegally parked car: ‘Move the Chevy before I get excited …’
Our party of guests staying at the Bel Age Hotel, dispersed over several floors and in rooms of various size and merit, include my travelling companions of over twenty-five years, songwriter/guitarist/keyboard player Jim Moginie, guitarist Martin Rotsey, singer Peter Garrett, and, since 1987, bassist/singer Bones Hillman (né Wayne Stevens). Absent with a note is our long-time manager Gary Morris, who finds he gets more work done by remaining tethered to his desk back home in coastal New South Wales.
Jim and I have been playing music together since our mid teens; it’s been a constant of our adult lives. Midnight Oil were born when a neighbour brandishing a flute, John Royle, introduced me to Jim. He and I were both in year nine, thoughattending different high schools (or ‘weapons of mass instruction’, to borrow from writer Frank Campbell). I’d get a lift to Jim’s place in Sydney’s north and haul my drum kit upstairs to the music room. We’d then plough fearlessly through any song we liked as well as trying our hand at writing our own tunes (well, how hard could it be?).
With first bass player Andrew ‘Bear’ James and Chris Hodgkinson (briefly) on rhythm guitar, and with a light show provided by the resourceful Craig Alexander, the nascent group played a few parties and harbour cruises, as well as a lunchtime concert at Jim’s school, where the headmaster stormed on to the stage and told us to ‘turn it down or get out’ – right in the middle of our seminal interpretation of the Beatles’ ‘I’m a Loser’.
As drumming and singing the lead vocal simultaneously was proving an arduous task, I advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Musicians Wanted’ section for a singer. Peter Garrett arrived in his old Peugeot 404. He easily got the gig, with his commanding presence, blond surfie hair and a quirky, falsetto reading of Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’. Also in Pete’s favour were his self-operated PA system (with white speaker boxes) and his attractive girlfriend – who was only ever referred to by her second name.
Farm, as we’d christened the group, soon faced the classic band dilemma: no gigs because we had no experience, and no experience because we had no gigs. The solution was obvious: we’d have to promote our own shows during the summer holidays. As soon as we could legally drive, Craig Alexander and I would head south to the Victorian border or up to the mid-north coast, advertising our upcoming shows in towns such as Tathra, Bermagui and Batemans Bay, after booking the local CWA hall or school of arts for the average outlay of twelve dollars.
With our equipment crammed into a convoy of old cars withdodgy brakes, and security courtesy of our beefy schoolmate Peter Edwards, we toured as ‘Top Sydney Rock Band: FARM’. We’d make enough to pay for fuel, food, posters and the hire of the halls, and sleep at the venues or on the beach. (I remember Pete making a pre-emptive strike against the tyranny of restricted beaches one night at Port Macquarie, in which a ‘No Camping’ sign was excavated and launched olympically into the dunes.)
With school mate Martin Rotsey in the band playing guitar, a new name drawn from a hat (Midnight Oil – suggested by Peter Watson, a temporary keyboard player), plus a dozen original songs that Jim and I had brought to rehearsals, we were now ready to attack the country’s beer-soaked pub scene with all guns ablazing.
Well, with a few left-over hungers from cracker night anyway. One of our regular gigs was at the Chatswood Charles Hotel, in a bar fitted out like a Wild West saloon. Early songs such as ‘Surfing with a Spoon’ and ‘Eye Contact’ were brought to a screaming halt by a long-serving barmaid, who’d unplug the band’s amplifiers and replace them with an electric heater when her feet got cold. I threw my first genuine ‘rock tantrum’ at this dive, storming off to our rehearsal garage at my house down by the railway line.
Undaunted by the power-pinching barmaid and other obstacles, the band went on to play an average of 170 shows a year from 1978 until 1982, by which time we were as road-tough as the bands that had gone before us – the Easybeats, the Loved Ones, the Masters Apprentices, Chain and AC/DC. Our story from this point on reads a little like the history of modern China: a Long March followed by a Great Leap Forward, with the Old Guard eventually being replaced by a New Order. The first blurred years of pubs, clubs and RSLs – scenes like the Civic Hotel, French’s, the Royal Antler Hotel, the Stage-Door Tavern and Selinas(which boasted the foulest changing-room graffiti ever committed to four walls and a ceiling), of thug-promoters, bullyboy bouncers and the Woolworths’ bomber, of noise and sweat and beer and brawls, of Holden Commodores reeking of road food farts and cigarette smoke, of irascible night-bell hotel proprietors and the deadly Hume Highway – those years could easily be the subject of another book on its own.
The year 1982 was a kind of make-or-break time for Midnight Oil. We were in England for the second year in a row, having already made our first overseas recording, Place Without a Postcard, with legendary producer Glyn Johns (of Beatles, Stones, Who, Eagles and Joan Armatrading fame), and were working with a young producer, Nick Launay, hoping for a record that would have as much impact as the live shows. When it came out, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 opened up a wider audience for the band in Australia, and an international cult following on which we could build.
Two years later we found ourselves in Japan, recording Red Sails in the Sunset at Tokyo’s JVC Victor Studios, followed by further bouts of relentless playing. Our breakthrough came with 1987’s Diesel and Dust, which was largely inspired by the Blackfella/Whitefella tour of Australian outback communities alongside the Warumpi Band, with fellow travellers Charlie McMahon on didj and Glad Reed on trombone (the subject of writer Andrew McMillan’s superb Strict Rules). That album, heralded by ‘The Dead Heart’ and driven by our ‘hit single’, ‘Beds Are Burning’, made the band well known around the world, particularly in North America and in Europe, though, typically, not so much in England, where we spent the most time.
Blue Sky Mining, Earth and Sun and Moon, Breathe, Redneck Wonderland and The Real Thing all followed, as well as a live album, a compilation album and stand-alone songs for special causes. Wecontinued touring, although less so in Europe and America, with our original line-up unchanged except for bass players: Peter Gifford replaced Andrew ‘Bear’ James in 1980, and was himself replaced by Bones Hillman in 1987. ‘Giffo’ eventually substituted the hammering of our rhythm section for the humming of a factory full of sewing machines, turning out huge quantities of the world’s smallest bikinis in subtropical Byron Bay (with ‘Urgent G-String Delivery’ written on the side of his mini-van).
Meanwhile, Peter Garrett became Australia’s most distinctive rock ’n’ roll voice, the nation’s best-known environmental spokesman, a Greenpeace International board member and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), as well as the father of three of the thirteen ‘Baby Oils’ (the children conceived in the highly charged intervals between tours). Gary Morris, the surfer, golfer and dreamer/scammer who saw the band at one of the early sweat-box shows – at the notorious Antler, our homebase pub on Sydney’s northern beaches – stood by the band through the best and the rest, as its manager, mauler and agent provocateur.
And Jim Moginie honed his skills to become the band’s musical director, key songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and studio guru, without whom very little in the way of Midnight Oil music would ever have been heard.
Los Angeles certainly looks, sounds and smells familiar, with its wattle, bottlebrush and gum trees lining the freeways, but now that the barbarians are at the gates, the wheels are really falling off Tinsel Town. Post–September 11, the happy pills aren’t working, the table-thumping televangelists are being taken seriously, the fearful are fleeing to Lake Tahoe, and the driving wounded arelooking shell-shocked and exposed, as if a golden horde of Mongols had just galloped through their Bircher-muesli breakfasts.
The US flag is everywhere, sold in its thousands by those guys at intersections who clean your windscreen whether you like it or not. It hangs from private verandahs and office windows, and it’s stuck to the bonnets and boots of countless Chevies, Hondas and Beemers. Some have been justly hoisted in sympathy and solidarity for the victims of ‘the Incident’ – ‘TIME TO PRAY’ urges one hotel’s flashing billboard, next to a massive flagpole from which the Stars and Stripes ripple splendidly. Elsewhere a blunter message is conveyed: ‘IT’S BUTT-KICKING TIME’ reads the slogan on a baseball cap clearly visible through the rear windscreen of a rusty Dodge. Another enterprising jingoist is selling t-shirts warning ‘DONT FUCK WITH US. WE FUCK BACK.’ (just the sort of succinct, coded statement the Oval Office would doubtless love to release).
Since our arrival four days ago, a succession of grave, heavily made-up senators and retired military figures with improbable names have been filing through the nation’s TV studios, offering up patriotic verse to newsmen such as Larry King, Lou Dobbs and Wolf Blitzer (a nom de guerre, surely). Fox News hired its own ‘lieutenant colonel’ – whose total military experience turned out to be forty-four days in a New Jersey boot camp. CNN’s ‘twenty-four/seven’ news-only channel regularly snares between 600 000 and 800 000 viewers, but since September 11 the network is finding treasure in tragedy, rating up to 3 million during peak periods. All the news networks offer blanket coverage of the unfolding ‘Operation Infinite Justice’, or ‘Enduring Freedom’, or ‘Operation Let’s Go Get ’Em’ – whatever they’re calling it.
If ratings are any indication, though, most Americans are about as interested in their devolving international conflict as they’ve traditionally been in the ballot box, remaining resolutely glued to sitcoms like Friends (which regularly pulls in over 30 million viewers). Perhaps they’ve just taken Lou Dobbs’s advice after some of CNN’s audience complained of ‘threat fatigue’ after so many war-related stories; ‘God created the remote control,’ said Dobbs, with such hubris he could only have been referring to Himself.
Top brass such as Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeam and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz regularly appear on all the channels, warning that there’s a 100-per-cent chance of further terrorist aggression (this is a country that’s extremely fond of statistics). As a result, Disneyland, an enduring symbol of the Great Satan if ever there was one, has become a high-security zone.
Today it’s virtually deserted, the much-loved old theme park looking less like a fun place for kids and more like Fort Mickey. As soon as our minibus breaches the military cordon, a uniformed posse of goons go to work on it, crawling underneath with flashlights, prodding inside the engine bay with bomb detectors, and dusting (presumably) for any trace of weapons-grade plutonium. Band members stand around contemplating the scene, wondering aloud why any terrorist hell-bent on getting even with Mickey and Donald (or ‘Fascist Mouse!’ and ‘Bourgeois Duck!’, as lighting tech Nick Elvin calls them) would arrive at their target disguised as an Australian rock band.
We’re soon dismissed, with instructions to ‘exit the facility’ and some bogus directions to the Downtown Disney Shopping and Entertainment Mall, which houses the venue for tonight’s gig. For the next half-hour we cruise the backlots of Anaheim, lost among the clean-livin’, God-fearin’, pre-Simpsons/South Park/Osbournes television families of our childhood. At one point I’m sure I see Fred McMurray from My Three Sons arriving home from work in his Woody wagon, hugging his perfect ’60s boys (a perilous proposition these days). Eventually we find ourselves back at theoriginal boom gates, only to promptly leave again with fresh directions.
This time we reach the venue within minutes.
The venue is the House of Blues (or ‘house of booze’, as tour manager Willie MacInnes calls it), one of a chain of theatres that have sprung up all over the USA. Founded by visionary Isaac Tigrett, who was also behind the Hard Rock Cafe franchise, and launched with celebrity investment from the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Aerosmith, Isaac Hayes and The Late Show with David Letterman’s Paul Shaffer, the HOB’s charter is to ‘teach history through art and music’. The original restaurant concept is now an empire that includes hotels, amphitheatres, a booking agency, a digital media company and a charitable foundation, all thematically bound together by Southern blues tradition and cuisine.
The HOB venues come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The one on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip (where our second gig will take place) looks, from the outside, like the kind of rusty tin shed full of redbacks that you see abandoned on the outskirts of any Australian country town – and so fits LA perfectly. Interestingly, the corrugated iron comes from an old cotton gin near ‘The Crossroads’, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, where bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have made his Faustian pact with the devil. The Chicago House of Blues is even more striking, as we discover later in the tour. I can’t decide whether it looks more like a huge Moreton Bay bug (perhaps inspired by the Big Prawn at Ballina, New South Wales) or the inner sole of a giant jogging shoe. Whichever one it is, being a band that’s played almost everywhere over the years – a women’s prison, an outbackschoolyard, a French bullring, a German U-boat factory and a flat-bed truck – we don’t even blink at the idea of performing inside a crustacean or a shoe.
Inside the big bivalve, it’s an eclectic potpourri of styles. The walls of this folk-art voodoo lounge are filled with a combination of patchwork curtains and native paintings by Southern artists in recycled timber frames, along with replicas of ‘communication’ quilts used by slaves in days gone by. Other notable features include furniture studded with old bottle tops, glass mosaic and fringes, plaster masks of great bluesmen and women – from Mississippi Fred McDowell to Johnny Winter – statues of deities from the Occident, the Orient and Africa, and pithy epigrams such as ‘In Blues We Trust’ and ‘Unity in Diversity’. It all perfectly describes the fabled underworld of bluesy rock ’n’ roll, and the fashionably eccentric characters and tortured souls that inhabit it. An old sign from a Barristers’ Gallery hanging over our dressing-room door sets the tone: ‘Adultresses, Whores, No Lien Dopes/Pushers.’
The HOB’s devilishly clever creators also remembered to put some of the budget aside for more prosaic considerations, such as good sound and lighting systems, hydraulic stages for easy load-ins and -outs, TV monitors of the performances throughout the venues, and good sightlines from every level. As a result, bands, crews and audiences usually seem to have a good time at these venues – which seem to work just as well when hosting an Alice Cooper concert as they do a ‘Gospel Brunch’.
The Anaheim HOB may also have an interesting facade, but since we enter through the loading dock, I can’t be sure. Unpacking their equipment are our ‘special guests’ for the tour, Will Hoge, a four-piece guitar band from ‘the New South’, whose music is steeped in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and Neil Young. Will, Tres, Brian, Kirk and road manager Ryan become good mates over the next six weeks, managing to play strong shows and have fun, despite the long drives. (To make ends meet, the band drives their own van, towing their gear in a U-Haul covered trailer.) They’ve got an album, Carousel, and have been out promoting it, supporting John Mellencamp and Rod Stewart, and generally being treated poorly by the headline acts’ road crews. I only hope they came away from our trip together with the sense of something gained, as the lot of an opening act – performing to near-empty rooms, warming up an often apathetic crowd, squeezing on to the lip of the stage, lugging their own equipment – can be a soul-destroying exercise in frustration.
We do our soundcheck, that ritual of checking levels, tones and effects for the monitors (what we hear on stage) and ‘the front-of-house’ (what the audience hears). Monitor tech Ben Shapiro performs his distinctive brand of vocal gymnastics as he adjusts the equalisers, speaking an arcane language that only other soundmen understand:
‘Ah yeah, one sssue, ay ay [tongue click, tongue click], ay ay, one sssue, yeah sue [tongue click]. Put three-quarter one five back to where it was … ssue … now pull it out two dB … yeah, ssue … Try a bit of 100 cycles back in … sssue …’
Drum tech Clem Ryan sets up the kit exactly the same way every night – which is comforting to know whenever we’ve missed the soundcheck and walk out cold on to an unfamiliar stage. Clem’s a drummer himself, a formidable golf opponent and a bush mechanic of percussion, fashioning replacement parts for drum kits that have been beaten into submission. He maintains and tunes my main kit and the stand-up ‘cocktail’ kit (a recent addition for acoustic songs, the mini drum set is dubbed ‘Little Bob’ by Bones). At the gigs, Clem soundchecks them when the band can’t make it, adjusts my microphone and monitor levels, and puts up with sweat, volume and much gnashing ofteeth on a nightly basis – as well as my occasional ‘spontaneous combustion’.
These meltdowns can be triggered by a number of things. Perhaps it’s a lack of oxygen, as was the case at a big-bill, multi-race concert we played at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, where the mile-high altitude wreaked havoc with the lungs of the Uitlanders. Or maybe illness is the culprit – like during the 1992 tour when tsunamis of tiredness from a prolonged bout of glandular fever made it a challenge to even pick up a pair of drumsticks. Sometimes it’s just that you’ve had a dog of a show, when nothing has gone smoothly, or – in the words of Bob Dylan – ‘Everything is broken’ …
When the best-laid plans go horribly, horribly wrong, the crew are the masters of keeping it light. Lighting tech Nick Elvin and former soundman James ‘Oysters’ Kilpatrick would occasionally drop everything and perform their infamous Theatre of Annoyance, a face-slapping, ear-pinching Shakespearean mini-opera meets the Three Stooges. Nick’s never been caught short for an apt rock ’n’ roll quote in any situation, emerging backstage after particularly hot shows with Bon Jovi’s ‘I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all!’, or mimicking heavy-metal singer clichés (my favourite is ‘Scoop up the butterfly, draw it to the heaving breast, then release …’).
On German tours, bets would be taken to see if anyone could last a single day without ‘mentioning the war’ – even a clicking of the heels would mean instant disqualification. Of course, Germany’s defeat in both of the twentieth century’s calamitous world wars has long been an Anglo/Aussie obsession (and Basil Fawlty didn’t help). So former production manager Michael Lippold’s riposte to the unrepentant laundry frau who lost our stage clothes during our ’92 European tour should have come as no surprise: ‘Two–nil,’ he said.
Bones, likewise, never fails to see the amusing side of any gaffe or disaster, defusing many a potentially explosive situation by turning it into a joke, awarding a nickname or breaking into song. But even Bones, on stage tonight in Disneyland wearing a t-shirt with ‘The Bass Player’ printed on the front, can’t understand why the front few rows of the audience have dissolved into fits of mirth, until after the gig it was pointed out that his bass strap and a fold in his shirt had obscured some of the letters – leaving ‘The ass layer’ written boldly across his chest.
Willie’s Bar and Grill
” … a terrific read. Hirst writes with some genuine flair and tempers his sharp eye for detail with a seen-it-all-before rock veteran cool. He is also insightful enough to recognise the not-yet-spoiled delights that lurk just off the USA’s smog-choked, SUV-clogged interstates. Think Bill Bryson rewriting Almost Famous.” Rolling Stone
Part tour diary, part war commentary, part history brush-up and cultural junket, Willie’s Bar and Grill charts legendary Australian band Midnight Oil’s progress through North America shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the US. Rob Hirst, the band’s drummer/songwriter, relates his version of life on the road in an alternately serious, light-hearted but always entertaining, fashion, introducing the group’s American tour manager, Willie, as well as the band members and the often bizarre characters they meet.
Get on the bus and take the trip.
“Hirst’s strengths are his satirical tone, critical eye and marvellous sense of humour … (this) marvellous book is a view of rock music as corporatised and the music of the almost-old. But it is also a work that gives a clear-eyed view of America on the road.” The Age
“A true rock ‘n’ roll odyssey.” NW
“Required reading for Oils fans and anyone interested in what’s involve din taking a rock show on the road.” Voyeur
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Rob Hirst was born in Camden, New South Wales. As a founder member of the internationally successful Midnight Oil, over the last twenty-five years he has co-written the words and melodies for many of the group’s best-known songs, including ‘Beds Are Burning’, ‘The Dead Heart’, ‘Short Memory’, ‘The Power and the Passion’, ‘Forgotten Years’, ‘King of the Mountain’ and many others. His singing, songwriting, drumming and guitar can also be heard on three Ghostwriters albums, plus the latest CD, HANOI, …
Willie’s Bar and Grill