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Friday’s for funerals, Saturday’s for brides: Tex, Don and Charlie

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As an unreconstructed country boy, I love a stubby holder. So, last night at Adelaide’s premier live music pub, the Gov, my pace accelerated as I approached the merchandise table.

T-shirts. CDs. Vinyl. Yes, yes. What’s this? Coffee mugs. Fair enough, but where’s the stubby holders? Then I saw it. A linen rectangle. A Tex, Don and Charlie tea towel. Ah, my first ironic tea towel. I considered. I could, I guess, use it to dry my Wagga Wagga souvenir spoon (ironically purchased too).

Tex Perkins has a massive voice, an instrument of booming sonics and attack. Doubtless, others could tell me if it’s a baritone or bass, but I do know the timbre is entrancing. If human voices can possess a narrative then this one plots panther danger, underworld trickery and tropical heat. It reminds me of Captain Beefheart, and those monochrome images of Bikini Atoll or Maralinga nuclear blasts. When singing, he doesn’t adopt the central personas so much as become possessed by them.

Fittingly, we’re in a pub for these are pub tales, and my only regret is we’re not suspended on stools, in a wobbly circle, and nodding over beers at our sage raconteurs. The songs of Tex, Don and Charlie have incontestable gravity and lonely geographies. The music slinks through inner-city grime, but mostly slouches in the dust and dusk north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and owes a debt to the 1950’s and our cheerful beginnings of despair.

Don Walker sits at his keyboard, his silver mane flopping in time, while his voice is a diverse instrument. At its most intimate it absorbs and pacifies, but in the upper register, it can fall into Willie Nelson parody. His gifts are his words and his stories, and in these rests an unrushed economy, and a vernacular deep with hot tears, smiles and snug hearts. Beyond “Flame Trees” he wrote “Harry Was A Bad Bugger.” Don’s an icon.

Phantasms drift about the Gov, and I think of Tom Waits and his tunes, all swarthy menace and ragged swagger. I think of Bruce Dawe and his depictions of rural lives, wrecked. Spinifex and scrub. Lyrical and parched places; ferocious light, sky. There’s landscapes in the soundscape. I think of romping observation, but also agedness and its introspection, prowling upon me.

Into this evening, I imagined Charlie Owen’s guitars. Plaintive acoustic, spiralling lap steel, his elegiac electric. Barely speaking, but with boyish enthusiasm, he paints our stage. With splashes of surf, we move along his removed beach. As if to counter these sparse yarns, and our collective flouting down at the dread, his strings urge the joy of the quiet minutes.

I come away into the windy midnight troubled and exhilarated by cold grey Saturdays; brokenness; Tex’s denim jacket bouncing like a St Kilda uniform; the black and white tableau of a double bassist; mosquito nets; sharks at funerals; Elvis; deliciously tired and unfussy drumming; eulogies; paychecks and gratitude.

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Homecoming

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Like Gatsby preparing to again see Daisy, I’d imagined it vividly and often. However, our plane simply rose from the Heathrow runway, and ended our English adventure. Leaving became only a transaction, a mere connective between one life concluding and the old one, recommencing.

Returning to Australia after nearly thirty months is like being both troubled and delighted by the sudden, unmistakable scent of a forgotten friend. I ‘d missed our popular culture, and drifting through the in-flight entertainment during my 3am restlessness I discovered Billy Birmingham, the Twelfth Man, being interviewed by Adam Spencer.

Billy’s first success, I‘d forgotten, was co-writing 1983’s Australiana. How weirdly wonderful, as we rushed over the Tanami Desert, sleeping in the silently breathing below, to be stirred by those faintly pathetic puns- Well a few of the blokes decided to play some cricket. Boomer says, ‘Why doesn’t Wombat? Yeah, and let Tenterfield.’

I then watched Crowded House’s farewell concert from the Opera House. Could that have been a decade ago? I recall my sadness as we journeyed along the Grand Union Canal in a narrow boat, and I read in The Guardian of Paul Hester’s passing.

Through the 767’s window, the sun then burst up over the Western Plains. Not a stunning sunrise but as it’s my first Australian sunrise in nine hundred days, its poignancy makes me misty.

Which band could have served me other than Crowded House? Favourably compared to the Beatles with their fetching melodies, but manifestly local, they’re as effortless as a Sunday BBQ. When they performed, “Better Be Home Soon” I realised the golden corridor, my arrival, was close.

Scurrying about the Sydney airport shops, I beam at things unremarkable transformed by my excitement to native treasures. Powderfinger CDs. Steve Waugh’s autobiography. Boost Juice! Their realness is exhilarating. Within the terminal, the uncluttered spaces, affable colours and the brazen January light are deliciously Australian.

After the gloomy British currency, visiting an ATM makes me gawk at the crayfish-coloured banknotes. And everywhere, voices, our voices. Here, accents don’t crash like improper cymbals above a mortified English string section. I eavesdrop, and the chatter is as comforting as a Coopers.

Waiting with our hand luggage while my wife goes for a stroll, I fiddle with my Walkman radio, singularly ravenous for Australian sounds. My morning’s second musical epiphany occurs as Triple J plays Sarah Blasko’s version of Cold Chisel’s “Flame Trees.” Originally released as I began uni when life was inching beyond my dusty hometown, Kapunda.

I’d long appreciated the song’s jaded melancholia and evocations of happy hours and old friends. But the girl’s plaintive singing gives it an aching warmth. This is a welcome contracting of my planet back to the recognisable; a sensation not easily found in a confronting, often unknowable Europe. Having hugged me so tightly upon my homecoming, this song again sits in my heart.

It is fitting that Sydney was covered by cloud for when we land in Adelaide the unbounded sky is a cathedral. Walking across the tarmac, I take in the low, auburn hills and the thirsty plains and later, the idyllic drone of the cricket as we move through the empty afternoon streets of our screen-doored suburbs.

After months and hours of hungry longing, I am home.

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