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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

1969

That voice. That voice was the last thing on my mind. I had come to see the sky shake with shimmering sounds. I had arrived to watch free spirits set music alight with fresh life and defiance. It was 1969. It was the week that saved my life. We had come, most of us, following Vienna and Harrison, like cans rattling behind a honeymoon car. Harrison and Vienna had just been married, of course, but this made little difference to the way any of us looked at them. V&H, H&V—these two letters were all we had to hear. They were welcome refreshment in an era of dried-up heroes.

The water was the colour of old coins, but we drank it anyway. I carried around a large tartan thermos, obsessed with the dictatorial vacuum that sat just inside its skin. I was the Hot Water Man. We poured the water on tea and dirt and hash and lived for its beckon-curl of steam. Harrison carried a battered chalice with him everywhere and called it the Holy Grail. Vienna would sit in his lap and they would drink from it together, laughing at the seriousness of the world.

I was there—as much as I was anywhere—with a girl named Felicity, who wore straw bracelets and made love with alarming severity. We appeared together, though we never acknowledged this as anything more. It was, after all, a time in the world where you could be just two people in a sea of thousands more. That day, we held hands within a circle of parked vans and she was mostly in light and I was mostly in shadow and our brains were slowly baking from some tablet we had taken; I could feel my thoughts growing in a warm yeast bulge.

“I’m out of the tin,” I said. “My bread has grown over the edge. Whatever hits the air is a crust.”

“What do you mean?” Felicity squeezed my hand with what I can only describe as affection.

“I mean, how do we know what’s going to be the crust? When you’re kneading it, it’s all the same. No one knows what’s going to be on the inside or the outside.”

I had gained the attention of most of the group. When I latched onto a thought, I found it hard to let go.

Vienna revolved her head, waving a gleam of purple-black hair. Her neck was made of thin tendons; I imagined tiny monks pulling on them like bell-ropes. “What you’re saying, then,” she started, “is that some of us end up on the outside, and we get burnt.”

Harrison laid his golden arms along Vienna’s, mirroring her body. “We’re the ones on the outside,” he said. “Everyone else … they can’t see that they’re the bread because they are the bread.” He smiled, white overbite closing like a gate. “We’re the crust, man.”

Everyone listening mumbled in agreement. I nodded. Felicity ran her fingers through my patchy beard. I am the Hot Water Man.

Later, we set up out camp under the stars. In the distance, away somewhere over the fields, building sounds drifted in. The hammer of industry was annoying to some, but to me, it just meant the stage was setting. I knew scaffolding was sprouting from the earth, sparse and black.

Someone produced a box guitar, and others gathered around the campfire to sing. I left them with their sparks and fumbling dusk chords and walked away from the circle of cars. I followed the construction sounds across two entire fields, hands in pockets, bare feet slipping through hoof-pocked grass. I came to a ridge and could sense the buzzed edge of light beyond. It was a steep climb, and I was out of breath before I reached the top. I peered down on the flare-spots of floodlights below; there were two of them, like the ones you’d see at old movie premieres, hoisted onto swivel mounts, faces full moon round. They lit up the figures of workers, clambering slowly about the skeleton of a stage, as now just an outline waiting to be filled in.

They built it at night, I supposed, to evade the Queensland summer heat and the inevitable afternoon storms. The festival was only two days away, and already I wondered where I would be standing when it started. I thought, for a moment, of what it would feel like to stand on that stage, looking out at thousands of close-packed people, controlling—from a tiny movement, one note at a time—how they lived their lives. I knew where the speakers would be, beside the stage, skyscraper stacked. If you played that stage, you owned those towers of sound.

The workers probably didn’t care. It was just another job for them. They wouldn’t be there when the first note seared the air and entered peoples’ souls. I took a cigarette from my pocket and lit it, its end glowing orange. From the stage, I was nothing but another light in the star-scattered blackness.

When I returned to the camp, Felicity was lying on the lap of a man I hadn’t seen before. He had wide mutton-chops and a knitted hat with earflaps. Felicity peered at me through one open eye, the moistness of her retina shimmering in the light from the fire. Still holding my gaze, she shuffled her head further into the lap of the mutton-chop man. Her hair collected like sand in the creases around his crotch. I tried not to notice her smile.

Someone still played the guitar. Its tone was lost in the fire and in the echoless walls of the sky. I didn’t see the point in playing an instrument when you couldn’t appreciate it. I heard a voice cut clearly above it all: “Rupert, Rupert! Where’s that hot water, man?” Laughing. “Where’s that Hot Water Man?”

It was, of course, Harrison, shaking his tree-vine fringe. Even kneeling still, his whole body was a theatre. He wore a purple cape that fanned out either side of his bare chest, and faded corduroys fastened with a velvet rope. He looked ready—as ever—to spring into any number of actions. He held the Holy Grail our in front of him.

“We found some cocoa, Hot Water Man.”

I waved my hands forlornly at my belt. I’d left my thermos in my rucksack in the back of someone’s car. I should have retrieved it earlier. “I don’t have it on me,” I said.

Harrison’s features fell. His face could always convey such a painful portrait of whatever he desired you to feel.

“I’ll go and find it,” I said, I domestic concession I would have granted few others.

“Alright, man,” replied Harrison, stretching out each syllable. “Then we shall sup at the angel’s table, forgetting our sins and desires.” He raised his arms and his cape swung wide apart, revealing his chest as a virgin-white screen. It was clear that he was trying to quote some great dead poet, but I had a stronger feeling most things Harrison said came shrink-wrapped and original from some place deep inside his head.

*

When I woke up, the first thing I noticed was a nerve behind my knee twitching uncontrollably, as if a fish had swum its way down behind my thigh overnight and become stranded, flapping, at the joint. The sun was already high and my mouth tasted like I’d been sucking on small change. I couldn’t remember anything of the night before. A few limbs lay in my peripheral vision. I thought for a moment of a civil war battleground: souls lain to waste on flourishing grass.

I rolled over to see if Felicity was anywhere nearby, but she was nowhere to be seen. I shouldn’t have cared, but I did. I wondered if her and the mutton-chop man were together somewhere. I decided I needed a cup of tea. I reached absent-mindedly at my belt, but only grasped empty loops. A vague memory came back to me: Harrison’s bright white chest. Chocolate drop nipples. Then his head, perimeter-scribbled with hair, then his face, frantically composing itself like water calming after a thrown stone. I tried to sit up, to clear my thoughts, but my body was like Gulliver’s, with all those tiny people holding me down. I had to find Harrison, and my thermos.

It amazed me, when I thought about the space we occupied out here. Around our camp, around the sprawling blessed-out bodies I stepped gingerly over, were acres of fields, with acres more beyond. Back in Brisbane everything was only ever a street corner away. Anywhere you wanted to get to you could measure in street blocks. Out here, there were looser boundaries, and it excited me to think that you could miss your destination. I saw myself—and, for some reason, Felicity—living in a country house, with the fields bumbling away out the window just so, in such a way that we’d never get sick of the view. The lack of schedule was what I craved, I think. And not being my father, dead for so long behind a desk that they had to roll him out on his chair.

I saw the side door on one of the vans roll open, and heard a crackly static coming from inside. I peered in, my eyes still stuck out in the sunlight. Two forms eventually peeled themselves from the interior walls. Harrison and Vienna sat—unusually for them—without touching.

Harrison busied himself with a portable radio, twirling the tuner with one hand and holding a broken aerial with the other. He contorted his body this way and that, as if conducting radio waves through his own body. Vienna watched him, but not with any apparent interest. She wore nothing but what looked like a ripped-up tablecloth, draped off one shoulder and fastened around her waist like a toga. Her arms bent back behind her, forcing the fabric further down across her breasts, one of which was neatly exposed, like in a sculpture. She smiled when she saw me, beckoning me in with a restless riff of her fingers. Her nipple was like Harrison’s the night before—a perfect russet circle.

She must have seen me looking; she looked down at her draping dress and smiled.

“We’re all friends here, Rupert. Nothing you haven’t seen, I’m sure.” She looked over at Harrison, whose face conveyed a secret only they understood.

“We are all indeed friends,” I said, swaying my weight against the doorframe, trying to remain within the boundaries of whatever private joke they were sharing.

Vienna reached her hand behind her, under one of the large cushions that littered the floor. “I wonder, Hot Water Man, whether you were looking for this?” Her hand appeared from under the cushion holding my thermos. She turned it in her fingers and laughed, deep and gravely like a smoker’s laugh, although I’d never seen her smoke.

“How did you …” I began, but realised this was exactly what they expected me to say.

Harrison’s Holy Grail was lying next to Vienna. She picked it up and poured some in some steaming liquid from the thermos. “We got some fresh tea,” she said. “Thought you wouldn’t mind.” She handed me the Grail and I took it greedily from her. The scent of strong tea brought back memories of a shameful bourgeois former life, still at school, taking breakfast in bed, enjoying a meal between crisp white sheets. I gulped the hot liquid down.

“We had a good time last night, Hot Water Man,” said Harrison, his mouth giving me its best mysterious grin.

“I don’t remember much,” I said, scanning my memory for some clue as to what had happened. All I could manage were orange flickers of firelight against the black-blue sky.

“Harrison’s been filling me in,” said Vienna. “Sounds very exciting.” She tilted her head back so her dark hair fell away from her shoulders. Her collarbone rose from her skin like a musical notation.

My memories were a locked door that my brain kept fruitlessly charging. “What happened, Harrison?” I asked. “What did we do?”

Harrison turned to me, and although I knew it was just the sunlight seeping through the van’s door, his eyes seemed to gleam with their own internal spark. “Well, my good friend …” he began, but then he stopped, his face falling blank. For one inexplicable moment he showed no sign of emotion. He was concentrating, jaw frozen shut, eyes fixed dead ahead.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Harrison cocked his head toward the small radio. His other hand gripped the aerial stock-still. The static was gone. Discrete sounds—music—now filled the inside of the van. “Yes. Yes. This is it.” Harrison’s mouth slowly tugged itself upward, his face spreading out. “This is what I want.” He looked at Vienna, then at me. “Can you hear this?” he said. “Can you hear it?”

Vienna seemed to understand the importance of the situation. She hunched her body towards Harrison, gathering her wrap of material up around her shoulders. She began to smile as well.

“I knew it!” said Harrison. “I knew he’d come back!”

“This is it,” whispered Vienna, her head bobbing with excitement. “Listen!” She reached up and took my hand, drawing me into the van and onto the large cushions.

“Close the door, Rupert,” said Harrison, “for God’s sake!” His face pealed with energy, even though his body held the same rigid position: radio cradled in one hand, antennae angled up with the other.

I reached back and rolled the side panel of the van closed, sealing us in near-darkness. I was about to ask them what was going on, but as I settled on the cushions, I began to hear the music properly. It was old, like something from a gramophone: the popcorn crackle of an early recording. First, guitar: an old cheap steel-string, finger-picked. The playing was bluesy, but sloppy; notes buzzed against the worn fretboard, strings twanged loosely from the neck. The song had a twelve-bar feel, but the weight was slightly out of place. I could hear a confused backbeat too, a deep arrhythmic thump—a foot on an old-fashioned beatboard. Then a voice.

And such a voice.

That was the moment it all made sense. As the voice began, the clumsy guitar and the water-hiss recording and the unbalanced boot-stomp, they all made sense. The voice was old, but it growled strong, with a power that seemed unnatural in its earthiness. But even through the tinny radio speaker, the voice was beautiful. It was a man’s voice: a voice with not just a soul but a pulse-bearing heart and glorious life. In an instant it soared; the guitar stopped and you could feel the man leaning back, shaking loose his lungs. As the guitar returned, I knew this man was doing it all. He was singing, and playing guitar, and keeping time, and recording, because only one person in complete private abandonment and complete control could have made these sounds.

We sat there, the three of us, in a dark airless van listening to a song only a handful of minutes long, not daring to move or make a sound. People talk of transcendental moments with their bright lights and tunnels, and they can talk all they want. What you really had to do—I discovered—was to listen.

*

When I emerged from the van, the sun had swung itself around in the sky, flipping the shadows to opposite ends of our camp. A whole day had passed by without me. I had fallen asleep again. I’d woken up in the van among a pile of cushions, my neck stretched and sweaty, Harrison’s radio playing out a soundtrack of pure static. The warmth and the soft sandalwood scent of Vienna’s perfume must have lulled me off. Her and Harrison, as usual, were nowhere to be seen.

My head balloon-swelled with blank memories. My brain felt heavy and muddled inside my skull. I shook my head violently, as if this would help. God only knew what substances I had inside me. I hadn’t bothered to tally up what I’d taken since leaving Brisbane. Mushrooms most nights, acid without question, dope like a brother breath. Felicity had made hash cookies on our last night alone, planning for them to last the whole festival, but we’d eaten them all by the time we’d arrived, bodies melted to the backseat of some strangers’ station wagon. Someone had shouted Samford Valley! and we’d fallen out, onto the grass, like long-distance swimmers come to shore.

I vowed then to concentrate more on staying with it, for this week was supposed to be about the music, and if my brain wasn’t around to enjoy it, then what was the point? The music from the van, though—that I could remember. That voice. I had to ask Harrison who the voice belonged to. For some reason, this question hadn’t occurred to me in the van. He’d taken my thermos again, too. Realising I hadn’t eaten all day, I helped myself to a sandwich I found, left on the ground on a paper plate. The skin of the bread had hardened in the air, but the rest of it was alright. I ate it—the sting of proper mustard and thick corned beef—and it left me satisfied.

Some people were standing in a rough circle in a field away to my left, playing a game of Frisbee. I decided that a good bit of healthy exercise was exactly what my sluggish body needed. As I walked over, I noticed a girl I hadn’t seen here before. She stood, with the sun behind her, hands on hips, watching, with a look of childish impatience on her face. She seemed to be treating the game quite seriously, and seemed genuinely perplexed when someone laughed and dived to the ground on purpose after catching the Frisbee, as most people seemed to be doing. Her hair was long, its blonde tips resting comfortably on her outthrust elbows. She wore, quite simply, a yellow woollen vest and bead-trimmed skirt. The sun wallowed in her glowing edges—under her brown-lined arms, across her hips, down her calves to her bare feet.

I entered the circle, placing myself between the yellow-vested girl and an older man with a balding head and a habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet like a tennis player awaiting a serve. The Frisbee went around the group in a haphazard manner, crisscrossing the grass in a line that traced, for me, a house with crooked windows.

I stole as many glimpses as I could of the yellow-vested girl. Her eyes stared attentively ahead; her body swayed as if in a gentle breeze and she never seemed to blink. I became enraptured with her through my rationed sideways glances. Every time I turned, almost imperceptibly, to see some other part of her, I would prepare something to say, but when I actually looked, my throat would clog up, my lips numb as if frozen. I would swing my head back the other way in compensation—so she wouldn’t think I was just looking at her—and the balding man would be smiling at me. Eventually, I smiled back.

“Isn’t this great?” he said. He had a West Coast American accent and quite bad teeth.

I nodded at him.

“I mean, getting together like this. In Brisbane of all places!”

He pronounced it Brisbayne, a tonic peccadillo I hadn’t—until now—realised I hated so much. It wasn’t even as if Samford was Brisbane, at least not to me. I looked at his sweaty pink forehead, his pupils refocusing rapidly as they flitted between my eyes, and decided I didn’t like this man.

“Bob Jefferson, anyhow!” he shouted. This seemed to be a form of introduction, because he stuck out his hand at me. I shook it, and he held on for far too long. “Met Vienna and Harrison at Newport last year,” he told me. “That was a festival, pal—The Tull, Led Zep, Sly and the freaking Family Stone! They said if I was ever in the neighbourhood …” He spun around suddenly to catch the Frisbee. He laughed and threw it back across the circle with a peculiar flicking motion of his wrist. As he turned, I noticed he had fashioned his remaining hair into fat dreadlocks, letting them dance at the nape of his neck like stockings filled with newspaper.

“Woah-ho!” he said, for some reason, turning back to me. “I’ll tell you, Brisbayne is a great little town. When Harrison and Vienna said they came from this little place, I’d never even heard of it, you dig? But I looked it up, and I thought, why not? Am I right?”

I had no idea if Bob Jefferson was right or not. But he obviously had no idea he was at least ten years older than anyone else in the circle. I smiled quickly and turned back to see the yellow-vested girl. She was gone. I looked around like the whole circle. She’d disappeared. Fucking Bob Jefferson.

“So, how far is the Opera House from here?” asked Bob.

“Didn’t you hear?” I said. “It burnt down.”

Bob’s corn-fed cheeks fell and I stormed away from the Frisbee circle.

*

My feet guided me back to the hill I had stood on the night before, watching the stage go up. I needed to see something solid, something that meant progress. As I walked, the heat made my skin buzz under my shirt. Whatever drugs I’d been on seemed to be wearing off enough to let reality settle its ugly arms around me. My encounter with Bob Jefferson kept playing out in my head like a bad stage play. Did I deserve all this, really? Why hadn’t I turned to my right instead of my left and smiled at the yellow-vested girl? She could be here now, naked and ravishing, body pressed up against tree bark, her officious sunshine face looking down as I bury myself in the soft impossibilities of her body. Instead, I’m standing in an abandoned cattle paddock in the middle of a Queensland summer with a ragged, dashed-up memory. Even the festival stage, as it came into view, looked awful in the harsh sunlight. What had seemed so majestic and full of promise the night before was now just sad: a metal shell constructed by people with no care for what was to go on within it.

And where were Vienna and Harrison? Who were they, really? Two symmetrical hippies with their mysterious faux-wisdom and affected worldliness. Did this give them a right to keep taking my thermos? I thought of the inscription engraved on its metal base: For wherever you go in the world. Something came to me then as I stood in that field—an uncharacteristic pang of longing to be back home, to be safe within the depressing fibro layers of my inheritance-funded walls. The house I will own in one year, thanks to my dead father’s executions, his great financial forget-me-not conducted from beyond the spiritual ether. The front door that reminds me of him, every time I open it. But now I missed it. I could easily hitch a lift back into town, I thought, and find my way from there.

It was then I noticed a smudge of colour further down the hill, towards the stage. Not yellow, as I had briefly hoped, but a deep maroon. It was a shade I knew well: Felicity’s favourite flannel shirt. She wore it only to comfort herself, and hardly ever in public. I stumbled towards her, down the slope. The flannel shirt really was truly ratty. It had developed new holes since I had seen it last (Felicity sleeping blissfully on a couch on my front porch, me watching her, brain-baked, marvelling at the symmetry of her breath) and had moved one further stage towards becoming just a random collection of threads.

She was sitting in the grass, a large straw hat protecting her neck from the sun. Her hands tapped against her thighs. As I got closer, I realised she was singing, an aimless hum, but quite obtusely lovely. As I drew alongside her, I realised I could think of nothing to say. As if simply regarding her as part of the scenery, I came out with, “So this is where it’s all going to happen.”

Felicity spun around, and I noticed her eyes were red-veined. “I suppose it is,” she said, looking at me briefly before returning her gaze to the empty stage.

I sat down beside her. “I didn’t realise you could sing.”

“It’d be good if I could.”

“I thought it sounded nice.”

We sat in silence for some time then. I tried to watch the shadows move in the field below us. Finally, I asked her, “What made you come out here?”

“I had a nasty moment,” she said, “with myself. My body got too hot, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

“When?”

Felicity smoothed down the front or her dress. “This morning. I was sitting in a camp chair reading this book and the sun suddenly made me hot, like it had crept inside me, and I couldn’t get comfortable.”

“Like sunburn.”

“No, well, sunburn’s from the outside. This was inside me. I had to move, and every way felt hot and difficult except this way, and I stopped here, and it’s fine now. It’s not hot any more. I think I’m meant to be sitting here.”

I looked away from her and back down to the stage, feeling something in her words. I thought I knew the heat she was talking about: an inexplicable uncomfortableness. Somewhere in the folds of the stage’s shadows, heat made shapes ripple.

“I started singing,” said Felicity, “—sort of singing, more like halfway singing. It made things feel better.”

I looked at her. “I think we’ve been putting too much into our bodies. Too much in too short a time, that’s all it is.”

“Maybe,” she said, “but I’ve never felt like this before.”

I watched Felicity’s face collapse into vulnerability. The parts of her that made her seem so confident—her strident kohl-ringed eyes, her raucous mouth—shrank away and left her as she really was: nineteen years old, miles from anything she knew.

She cleared her throat uncertainly. “I mean, two years ago, I was sitting in a classroom in a maths test, just willing the sky to come through the window and take me away. And now here I am. But it’s … just …” She let out a little moan.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Sometimes things just don’t fell right.”

She shook her head, as if willing her attitude to harden. “It is probably just the drugs,” she said, but I could tell this as the furthest thought from her mind.

Then came something I’ll never forget. A lone figure, cut from shadow, stalked itself across the stage below us, wrapped in winter layers, covered but for two brown hands, one holding a guitar case as battered and invisible as its owner, the other tracing silent circles in the air. It was more than a sunspot in our eyes: it was a real person stuck out in silhouette against the bleached wood of the stage floor. An entrancing anomaly. I leant forward and shaded my eyes so as to get a better look, and could sense Felicity doing the same. The man—for surely it was a man—simply crossed the stage slowly and disappeared into the wings. It was only an experience of perhaps ten seconds, but while we watched him, the time commanded by my mind was certainly hours.

Some time passed before I said, in my infinite bemused wisdom, “That was … strange.”

Felicity moved closer to me, without saying a word, and put her head on my shoulder. “I think,” she began, “that we were supposed to see him.”

I adjusted my arm behind her body. “Meant to see that man?”

Felicity nodded.

“He was probably just some roadie,” I told her, knowing, as I did, that neither of us believed it.

“This is what I came here for.”

“Do you think?”

“This wasn’t just for me. You were drawn here too, weren’t you, Rupert.”

I nodded. Normally I would have thrown off this sort of talk, but something made me believe her, something I couldn’t quite place. Something about the way the figure walked, in an old-fashioned way. I said nothing. I put my arm around Felicity’s shoulder, and we just sat there, feeling the afternoon draw in around us. I heard a voice in my head, singing, rising above the sound of a beaten-down steel-string, a boot clomping out the beat. No static, no other interference. Just pure.

2 comments:

Catherine said...

lovely.

CJM said...

This is brilliant. I love a good '69.