Andrew Winton, David Hyams and Bernard Carney at the bar, Illawarra Folk Festival, 2012. Photo by Bill Quinn.
Last night a song came on the Saturday Night Forever Classic Hits and Memories Relive Show on the radio. And the song is a brilliant soundtrack to my current never-ending task of cleaning, packing, clearing, selling, and carting stuff to op shops, charity stores and the tip.
The song (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by The Beatles) I learnt via ABC Sing books in primary school and ABC Radio 2CN and 2CY back in the 1970s.
And from listening to Beatles records in the Dickson Library in Canberra after school.
I took the song in my head to a ‘Songs We Sang In School’ themed concert at Illawarra Folk Festival a few years ago, in answer to a callout from the organisers.
I’d worked up a bit of vaudeville to go with it, but the setting for the concert was an intimate affair up the hill in the Chapel.
At that time, the venue was just the chapel itself, not the awesome little elevated tent show it’s now become.
The small, subdued crowd didn’t really seem to suit the energy of what I’d planned, so I did a Dylan song instead.
However, I *did* mention to Bernard Carney in passing that I was planning to do the song before I changed plans. Bernard Carney, apart from his decades-long anthology of original music, has made a regular feature of his festival appearances in putting on all-singing, all-dancing, multi-muso, multi-instramental, multi-styles and genres Beatles Singalongs at festivals and gigs around Australia.
At my casual remark that I was minutely and momentarily stealing his thunder (i.e. not in the slightest), Bernard shot me one of his trademark sideways looks, twiddled his ‘tache, and said, “Why don’t you come along and sing it at The Beatles Singalong?”
Me. Mr Amateur Warbler Plus, who occasionally slid off notes like a slippery dip.
Singing with electrified accompaniment in front of ~400 people.
Feel the fear and don’t think twice, it’s alright. (Gratuitous Bob Dylan references are my jam and cream.)
“Oh, yeah. Alright. No big.” Translation: OH MY GAAAAWD!
Always up for a challenge, me. “That a (hu)man’s grasp should exceed [their] reach, or what’s a heaven for?”
Possibly vice versa. I never can recall.
Come the appointed night, with the thought of going on stage and singing with a backing band, I had so much adrenaline pumping through the veins, you could stick a cord into any orifice and light up a small city.
Ask Craig Dawson — he was sat next to me and had to ask permission to say something before I went up there.
I’m glad he did because he said, “Give it everything. Don’t hold back. Leave it all out there on the stage.”
I can scarcely remember getting more timely, salient, or sage advice. Thanks, Campusoid.
I strode out, barefoot and in shorts, bandages around my legs where the gumboots had bitten into my calves, plonked a bag on the stage, nodded to no less than Liz Frencham on bass, David Hyams on geet, and Bernard himself wielding his axe. 🎸 There were others.
I fluffed the first line because I was – still am – crap at singing lead with accompaniment, rarely if ever know when to come in. But I made up for lost ground, and when we hit the first chorus, I had props.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, life goes on, bra…” ♪♪♪
And every time I hit the word ‘bra’, I threw a St Vincent de Paul shop-bought bra out into the audience.
If I missed a note, or got a half-tone off or slurred a word, who cared? Everyone was tossing bras around the crowd. 💄
An enduring memory of that night came as I sang, “🎼🎵🎶 Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face!” And on every syllable stabbing a finger at Billy Folkus, the late, great, flawed but fabulous Bill Arnett.
Picture, if you wish, an Australian twin of Billy Connolly in the fifth or sixth row. Billy had one of the bras tied around his head like some large, hairy, pseudo-effeminate character from a Jane Austen novel.
I walked off stage to shrieks of laughter and gales of applause, cheering and clapping, and the knowledge that noone — not one single person — needed to know my name. Just that they had had a fun time and laughed lots and maybe had a story to tell.
It chrystallised everything that’s core to my being about performance and writing and speaking and radio and singing and living:
It’s not about me. It’s about you.
It’s about them. It’s about us.
I don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy old world and never aim to. That people can tell me stories as if anew that prominently featured me – but they didn’t know nor realise it was me – is a cause for great personal joy and satisfaction.
It’s the song, not the singer. Play the game, not the ball/song carrier.
Another enduring memory out of all of that was the amused, bemused and c-mused look on Bernard’s face as I bounced off stage and over to the bar to collect the bottle of wine I’d won as a runner-up prize in the Yarn Spinning Contest earlier that day.
I necked it in about 15 minutes flat, which only partially damped down the raging flames of heat and adrenaline. That provides something of a ‘call-back’ to the Billy Connolly reference. I highly recommend the book ‘Billy’ by Pamela Stephenson. (Please check for possible triggers before reading.) Pamela talks about how Billy could drink a stonkering amount of alcohol after a gig but stay high-functioning because of the counter-balance of adrenaline.
I know what that looks like, though mercifully, I’ve never been a slave to the drink. Also, if Billy Connolly is premier league, I’m Sunday park football. Not even in the same postcode.
Bernard Carney watched my exit, stage right, and with another of his trademark looks, leaned into his mic and wryly observed to the audience:
“I think we’ve reached a seminal moment in Beatles Singalongs!”
The next morning, as we were setting up in the Slacky Flat Bar for the day’s shows, one of the cleaners walked up to me swinging one of the bras around her fingers, and with an incredulous look on her face asked:
“What went on here last night?!”
That, my friends, is why I folk.