Most gigs take forever to arrive. They sit, static on the horizon, defying the rules of perspective. As time marches on and we’re dragged with it, the show remains unchanged, never closer. Until, all of a sudden, there it is in front of you, beside you, around you and behind you, vanishing into the distance before you had time to put your good shirt on. This diary is not going to be about gigs, its going to be about the bits in-between; the discoveries, musings and tribulations of traveling alone.
Every town between Victoria and Adelaide looks the same. Nhill, Kaniva, Keith, all built to service a rail line and sell a little diesel on the side. Grain silos, rest stops and bakeries punctuate the highway for seven hundred kilometres. Vincent the Van revs her two-litre engine and charges, radio blaring, into the headwind. I don’t bother watching the speedo, she’s a retired courier vehicle and I do most of the mechanical work myself so even on a downhill slope hitting ninety is a struggle. Outside of Horsham, I find myself explaining this to a highway patrolman who’s clocked me doing 118 in a 100 zone, “Not often you see one of these things going that fast” he tells his sidekick. I’m beaming like a footy dad on the sidelines “Thank you” I grin, giving Vincent a pat on the face.
I pull over just after dark, ducking down a backroad to find somewhere quiet. The van is hot and mosquitos keep me from opening the doors but I manage to get some sleep. When my alarm goes off the sun is up and I find myself in the middle of a golf course. Its under construction, but even so I get out of there before someone takes down my numberplate. Two and a half hours later I come flying down the hill into Adelaide. Festival season has given the city a joyful, buzzing tension, like static electricity. I perform with Naomi Keyte and the Yearlings in a ballroom at Ayres House. Our matinee show is more of a dress rehearsal but the evening session is beautiful with just enough soft bodies in the room to soak up the echo.
I sleep in a carpark and hit the road first thing in the morning. Past the hills the fields are green and fecund, alternating between open crop and greenhouse until, in an instant, the palate changes from a pastoral utopia to a Russell Drysdale painting. Wind gusts across ochre land, spinning dust into devils on both sides of the shimmering bitumen. At any time there might be half a dozen trundling over the parched pasture; rusty columns become animate. They march through fences and flocks of sheep stained brown like cotton wool in iodine until the wind leaves them and they stumble, fall flat for a moment, lift themselves again, drag their diffuse mass just a little further and collapse as if the dust itself is dying of thirst.
Then there are the ruins. Just a couple at first, stone farmhouses without roofs, bringing a lighter shade of brown to the country. With each passing kilometre I see another, and another. They look old, mid nineteenth century perhaps; small cottages and grand homesteads with servants quarters and stables all crumbling inward, some sprouting trees where their walls have sheltered saplings from the sun. Later, in the foyer of the Palace Hotel, someone will tell me about Goyder’s Line.
You can see it from the air; a sharp demarcation. Flying north over South Australia the foliage flips from mallee scrub to saltbush. In 1865 this line was blurred by strong trade winds over the Pacific. Warm water piled up against the Australian coast, clouds bloomed like popcorn in the troposphere and rain poured down on South Australia. Red brown dirt sank beneath a sea of green and pastoralists rushed north to exploit it. White people had negligible knowledge of the land and crippling colonial arrogance barred them from consulting its traditional custodians. This was an El Nina event, something unlikely to happen for another seven years, maybe more. Earlier that same year a man named George Goyder had ridden across the state on horseback, describing a line that separated the arable land from the arid. In the face of such verdant green his findings were ignored.
I don’t know where the money came from - bank loans from the colony’s coffers, old money from the Old Country, new money from New Gold Mountain. Rivers of it flowed into building a new world in the outback.
North of the line the farms started drying out within a year, growing brittle as the dust moved back in. Despite Goyder’s warning, faith remained. A theory popularised in the American Midwest had taken hold in Australia - rain follows the plow. With fortunes tied up in the brick and mortar of their new homesteads, families clung to the belief that their mere presence on the arid land could change the climate. It did’t, and one by one the homes were abandoned. Settlers walked away from entire towns, leaving them to the emus.
In my hotel bed, flicking through wikipedia pages on my laptop I find an article suggesting that climate change is threatening to move Goyder’s line further south. I Imagine driving through an abandoned Adelaide, the oaks and cyprus in the botanical gardens replaced by dust devils, marching over empty rose beds and down the dry river; rusty columns become animate.
The Palace Hotel looks as if it’s just flopped down on the corner after a night on the town. When I bash my way through the door, guitar in hand I see the elevator has fallen down the lift shaft and the public bar is full of tradies looking at me cock-eyed. Even in its poor shape the building is a sight to behold. Every panel on the wall is painted in blue, green and brown landscapes, all painted by one man. Aside from a few renaissance style nudes which were thrown up by the owner Mario, now deceased. Since Mario’s passing the hotel has been on the market. A casual four million and it could be yours.
I’ve forgotten my microphone in Castlemaine so I borrow the Karaoke set out of the storage cupboard and plug the guitar into my new Fender Pro Jr (courtesy of Echo Tone Guitars, Thornbury). My support act, James, busts out Khe San, Wonderwall and Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls among other hits. He was a bartender here up until Sunday. He’s young and red faced and so deep into his performance that I want to throw my knickers at him.
After the show I sit in the gaudy foyer with my friend Aimee. She grew up here with a horde of siblings and has moved back to work for the ABC. She’s sharp, funny and curious and she tells me about the recent changes in her home town which I put forward to you here, recycled, researched and rephrased.
On November 11th, 2016 a freak storm crashed down on Far Western and Central NSW. Tamworth and Bathurst got a lashing but Broken Hill bore the brunt. Tree branches and hailstones the size of golf balls made a mess of roofs leaving eighty percent of them in need of replacing. Over night, a town built on the mineral fever of the 19th century ushered in a new boom - the Roof Rush.
It’s a scene that plays out whenever a natural disaster strikes - contractors flood the afflicted area with muscle and tools and promises to fix what ails thee (for a nominal sum). We saw it with New Orleans and the Christchurch earthquake. Broken Hill was much the same - there’s gold in yonder misfortune.
Aimee tells me that when the roofers arrived, a sexual energy engulfed the town. Fresh blood oozed pheromones and the locals flocked to it like moths. For weeks the pubs were full of hopefuls dressed up in their very best with combed hair and fresh breath, one eye on the quarry and the other on the competition. A couple of years later and the effects are evident; the first generation of “roofer babies” has been welcomed into the world.
Another crowd has recently arrived in Broken Hill; after a series of delays, AGL announced they were commencing construction on 600 wind turbines outside of Silverton. Engineers, surveyors, labourers, drivers, controllers, technicians and fitters all blew into town under the poetic moniker “wind farmers”. There has been some trouble with integration, its not uncommon to hear locals complaining about the “bloody tradies on ice” and violence is common. But there are heart warming stories too; single dads meeting single mums and falling in love, collating their broods into an outback Brady Bunch. All under the one, newly renovated roof.
What I thought would be a half day drive to Dubbo takes me nearly ten hours. I arrive in time for soundcheck at the Old Bank Bar where the publican is an enthusiastic young man who makes me feel aggressively welcome. They beer me and feed me and give me directions to my room at the Castlereigh Hotel. The Old Bank is a front bar gig, death for a lyrically driven songwriter. Each failed attempt to engage the crowd takes one more ragged bite out of my will to live. Once its over, I sit down with a couple of friends and drink to forget. Soon my conversation is hijacked by the venue promotions man. He puts me in one of those headlock hugs that are common among hairy men. Through the beer foam in his moustache he promises the world; photos and clips of my performance up on his website, Dubbo-wide viewership, future opportunities. He asks when I’m starting. I tell him the show finished forty minutes ago.
Before I leave for the Castlereigh he tells me about living at the Palace Hotel when Mario was still alive. One night he came home paralytic, too far gone to get the key in the door. Mario busted him climbing over the second story verandah and sent him back downstairs. Apparently operating the hydraulic ladder on the back of his truck was a simpler task than using a barrel lock.
In my room at the Castlereigh I doze to the sound of a covers band thumping out Rosanna and other hits from the 70s, 80s, 90s and today. Outside the window, someone lets the the whole town know that Mindy is a bitch. I fall asleep hoping Mindy finds better friends.
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