Drugs and music. Seems they have always been partners. Like a rocky marriage, for some, I guess it must be like, “can’t live with you, can’t live without you.”
I’ve seen careers de-railed and lives shattered by drugs. I’ve also seen amazing players and writers who maintain that their work has been enhanced by them. But plenty more of the former than the latter.
I’ve never done drugs. No, that’s not true. I have had two joints in my entire life. The first was when I was at the University of Queensland, watching a band called Heart & Soul at a concert in the refectory. I had the joint and then went outside and threw up. My friends reckon it had something to do with the twelve beers I’d had before, but no, I blame the dope. Thereafter I was wary, let’s just put it that way.
Several years later, I was living the life of a full-time touring musician in the band Felix. We were in Townsville playing a six-week stint at the Mandarin Club. The Mandarin wasn’t exactly a high-end venue, it was a night club where we played six nights a week from 8pm to 3am. On Mondays and Tuesdays, if things were quiet, the gig might wrap up at midnight. The club was located in the dicier end of town, down near the railway yards.
Back in those days, the late 1970s, the bands on the circuit would all stay in the designated “band” house, supplied by the venue owner. I can’t remember the name of the guy who owned the Mandarin, but he was a Chinese fellow and he had interests in a few businesses around the town. We never saw him at the club, he left the running of the place to a manager named Henry.
On our first Monday, we met Henry at the venue, he gave us the key to the band house, and we headed off in our vehicles to move in. We didn’t have the money for a truck at that stage, so we travelled in our keyboard player Dave’s Kombi, and my ancient Valiant. The first thing we noticed as we dragged our bags towards the front stairs of the old timber two-level joint, was, there were none – stairs, that is. They were in a pile below the front door. But there was a rope hanging down from the door, which was apparently the expected method of entry. Fortunately, there was a back set of stairs, even though they shook from side to side as you went up or down. They were fast heading in the same direction as the front stairs.
We opened the back door to a place that stank to high heaven and was an absolute pig sty. It was unliveable as is, that’s for sure. Slightly pissed off, I decided to head back to the venue in town to tell the manager we could not stay in a shithole like that. We didn’t have time to muck around, as we had to head back to the club anyway to set up. But we had an ace up our sleeves, as it turned out.
Dave was a pom, although he had been living in Australia for a long time. Just before we were about to head north to Townsville after a stint on the Gold Coast, Dave announced that he had a slight problem. His Mum was coming over from England for a visit, and he couldn’t just abandon her in Brisbane while he headed off for six weeks.
“So, what’s the problem exactly?” I asked him.
“Well, she’ll have to come with us,” said Dave.
“Seriously? Your Mum is going to come on the road with us?” we responded collectively.
“I just can’t think of what else to do. I can’t just leave her behind the day she arrives from the UK,” Dave shrugged. “She’ll be no trouble, really.”
So Mrs Johnson, a diminutive little Englishwoman, threw her bag in the Kombi and that was it, she was coming on the road with a rock & roll band. As I was about to head off back to the Mandarin Club to give the manager a piece of my mind, Mrs J stepped up.
“Look, don’t you worry boys, I’ve seen lots of places much worse than this. Why don’t you all just head back to town and set up your equipment, and I’ll deal with this.” She quickly ushered us out the back door with the broom she had located, and we headed back to the club. I was still feeling mightily unhappy about the state of the house.
We strode into the venue and straight up to Henry.
“Mate,” I said, “that house is a disgrace. It’s unliveable. For starters, it doesn’t even have stairs!”
“Really?” he answered quizzically, “I thought that’s how you blokes liked it?”
“What do you mean, ‘you blokes’?”
“Musicians,” he said seriously, “I thought that’s how you all live.”
“You’re kidding, right? Just because we are musicians, you think we enjoy the concept of living in a filthy shithole?” I was angry, but reasonably contained, after all, this was the guy who would be paying us for the next six weeks.
“Well, the last blokes didn’t mind. The place was spotless when they moved in, and the front stairs were there. But that’s how they left it, so we assumed that’s how you blokes lived and there was no point getting it all cleaned up.”
Well, the penny sort of dropped. We knew who the previous band was, and quite frankly they had a reputation as being a bunch of grubs, not only in terms of personal hygiene, but also just as human beings. They had gotten a lot of people, venues and other musicians, off-side.
Anyway, the conversation continued along the lines of me assuring him that we all came from good homes and we weren’t used to living in filth, and Henry good-naturedly apologising, and promising to arrange for someone to come by tomorrow to help clean the house. All good, we moved on and set up our equipment.
We arrived back at the house a couple of hours later, and we weren’t sure we had the right address. Mrs J had completely transformed the place, it literally shone it was so clean. She had remade beds with clean sheets, she had banged a few nails into the back stairs so the wobble wasn’t so bad.
“And I’ve cooked dinner for you boys, so you just relax now,” she said, putting the final touches to the magnificent smelling food emanating from the sparkling kitchen. And that’s how things were for the next six weeks, Mrs J would clean up after us, she would cook for us every night – frankly, she was amazing. And she turned a blind eye to some of the after-hours activities.
“Don’t you worry about that boys, you just carry on as if I wasn’t here,” she smiled. And we sort of got used to the missing front stairs. It became a bit of a game for us to try to swing up to the front door on the rope. Hilarious.
Anyway, back to the point of the story, which was my second encounter with dope. Felix had a routine, where we would rehearse in the club every second day, working on the intricate arrangements for some of the songs we were writing at the time. Rehearsals became pretty intense.
One day I was hanging out with a local musician listening to some new music he had introduced me to. I had an hour to kill before meeting the rest of the band at the club for rehearsal. We were talking all things music, when suddenly he produced a joint from his pocket.
“You want to smoke?” he asked.
“Aah, no thanks,” I replied, still being very gun-shy following my first experience with Mary Jane.
“Come on, man, give it a try,” he cajoled, “you know it makes the music amazing.”
Now I was pretty much in awe of this guy. He was one of the finest guitar players I had ever come across. For mine, I considered myself to be a songwriter before a guitar player, and I knew my limitations, which I only really started to address many years later. So I was a bit intimidated. And I gave in.
Being stone cold sober, I had no problem with the throwing up thing. I didn’t really notice all that much to begin with, I think partly because I had never been a smoker of cigarettes, so the physical act of smoking was foreign to me. I grew up in a household with a mother who never smoked, and a father who smoked a minimum of sixty a day, sometimes eighty.
Because he was a radio celebrity, my Dad used to get his cigarettes for free. All the big ciggie companies would just provide him with whatever he liked, on the hope or expectation that if Russ Tyson smoked Rothman’s, or Craven A, or Peter Stuyvesant, it must be the cool brand. Getting them gratis, he just smoked all the time.
I can’t say his smoking really bothered me, I wasn’t vehemently anti-smoking as a kid, but it just didn’t appeal to me, and my Mum must have known something, because way back then, in the 1960s, she would say to me and my brother, “don’t start smoking, I don’t think it could be good for you, all that smoke going into your lungs.” Smart woman my Mum.
So I never took it up. I think I tried it once and almost threw up then as well. Eventually, my Dad must have realised how bad it was for your health – maybe the first true research was coming out around that time – but in 1968 I think it was, at the age of 48, he went cold turkey after a serious bet with one of his fellow announcers, and never touched a cigarette again.
Anyway, I left my musician friend feeling pretty happy, and I headed off to rehearsal with the band. I still wasn’t feeling anything particularly trippy. The band kicked into gear under my direction – and things very quickly fell apart. I blew every song. I stuffed up every arrangement. I missed verses, left out middle-eights, I played like shit.
My band mates just stopped and looked at me. Noel, our drummer, always one to call a spade a spade, stood up from behind his kit.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he said, “you are messing up everything. You never do that, these are your songs, man! Are you sick or something?”
I can’t remember if I told them the truth or not. I think I did, but I’m not sure. I apologised and we cancelled the rest of the rehearsal, and I went back to the house and slept.
And that was the last time I ever smoked dope. It scared the crap out of me, the fact that I totally lost the plot and blew every song just told me that dope was not for me. It didn’t enhance anything, it just created a monstrous problem. I could never, ever trust myself to play music properly if I chanced trying it again. So I never have, and never will.
I have absolutely nothing against people who smoke weed. I have plenty of friends who smoke it regularly. There is no doubt that there is a strong case for the legalisation of marijuana, and the medical benefits are being slowly accepted around the world. For many musicians, dope doesn’t seem to affect their performance. It never ceases to amaze me how some of the greats like Eric Clapton could actually play while being so totally wasted. His level of addiction went way beyond cannabis of course, and that is a whole different frightening world that is completely foreign to my way of thinking.
I have witnessed plenty of scary things with musicians I know who have wasted their talent, indeed wasted their lives, on the harder stuff. Thankfully in my inner circle of players it hasn’t been an issue. But I’ve seen marriages wrecked, kids abandoned, and fortunes lost thanks to the demons disguised as drugs.
It can be really funny though, seeing the effect of dope on some performers. Incredibly, the two guys I have spent most time in bands with, John Barr (JB), and Dave “Mash” Parnell, have never taken any form of drug, or even smoked a joint, in their lives. Like me, they both like a beer on a hot day, and post recording sessions or gigs, good red wines or whiskeys have been consumed in copious quantities. Plenty of folks could be down on that, but the three of us have never been drunk on stage.
In the very early days of Rough Red, we were playing a gig at the Irish bar in Brisbane that we would ultimately be banned from (that’s another story). This was just prior to our first European tour, so Peter Hudson was still our drummer, and Mashy was doing sound.
After the first set, Huddo, Peter Harvey our keys player, and front man John Fegan decided to head out to a nearby alley and try some new dope that Pete had brought along. Apparently, it was pretty strong stuff. When they came back in for the second set, they were looking very happy.
We kicked off into the first song, and within a minute or so, I was looking across at JB who also wore a frowned expression. We both looked at Harv, and mouthed to each other, “is he all of a sudden twice as loud as he was in the first set?” We both looked out front to Mashy at the mixing desk with our eyebrows raised. He got what we were on about straight away, and nodded. Yep, Harv’s on-stage volume had gone through the roof.
All of a sudden, Huddo started throwing in some interesting stuff, sort of Billy Cobham (the great jazz drummer) fills in between my simple mandolin lines. Okay, that’s different, and Huddo could get away with that stuff, he was a great player (still is). The only problem was, Huddo’s rhythms had obviously pushed John Fegan into a new stratosphere, and he started wailing like a banshee – out of tune, and out of time.
JB and I looked at each other, then at Mashy, who was shaking his head (not in a good way), and then back to observe our dope-laden band mates, who were all grooving away thinking the band was sounding amazing, when in reality, it sounded like dog poo. The set went through some very strange phases, but somehow, we managed to get to the end of it.
I can’t remember which one of them said it, but they were collectively nodding away, agreeing that we had just played the best ever in our short history together. Very, very funny. Fortunately, that was a very rare occurrence with The Reds.
I mentioned earlier about never being drunk on stage. That’s also not quite true. Certainly in Rough Red, the twentysevens, my solo shows, or any other important gigs, I rarely had (or have) a drink before going on stage. Maybe a quick beer, or a settling whiskey, but never drunk. I told you in a previous blog about the drink-spiking incident.
But there was another time I played drunk on stage, and I have absolutely no excuses. It was early 1980s, and Felix had imploded. I joined the touring band of a couple of Brisbane friends trading as Moscos & Stone who had tasted success with a few radio hits, but that eventually petered out after a couple of years. So I landed a day job selling advertising for a Brisbane newspaper. It was a crappy job, but it paid the bills.
I had been there for a short while when my old mate JB called me with an offer to join a hard-working covers band he was playing in, called Person to Person (named after an Average White Band song). They had a residency playing six nights a week at a huge BBQ/restaurant place called The Barn, and the band’s guitarist was leaving. JB had put forward my name to the guy who was the undisputed leader of the band, Barry Howarth.
I did an audition and got the gig and settled into a routine of working both the day job, and playing every night from Monday through to Saturday. After a few months, the gig was scaled back to four nights a week, which became a bit more manageable. Person to Person was a covers band in every respect. We wore uniforms and played all the current radio hits. Barry ruled with an iron fist.
He was a strange fellow, very highly strung, and during the day ran his own printing business with his wife. It was a fairly demanding job from what I recall, and Barry always seemed to be under the pump. He smoked heavily, but he was fiercely anti-drinking. He had very strict rules about drugs and alcohol in the band. He was fine with you having a drink, but made it very clear that if you turned up drunk, or under the influence of drugs, you faced the sack.
I remember one night he called a band meeting after the gig, and accused JB and Howie our drummer, another delightful human being, of passing drugs to each other on stage before we kicked off. Howie, like JB, had never touched drugs in his life. Such was Barry’s paranoia.
After a few more months, I had become increasingly disillusioned with the newspaper job, and was approached by an old friend about returning to my previous day time work in the property industry. I had worked in property all during the 70s, up until going full time into music with Felix. I jumped at the opportunity.
Came my final day at the newspaper, a Friday, and a few of the lads I worked with decided to take me out for a few drinks to wish me well. They were a lively bunch, and a few drinks turned into several drinks. I was having a grand old time, before one of them said, “so you don’t have a gig tonight?”
Oh shit, yes, I did have a gig that night. I don’t think I forgot, it just sort of got pushed to the back of my mind with the exhilaration of leaving the lousy day job. But I was well primed by the time I left for The Barn. Luckily, I could walk there in about a half an hour, and all my gear was already on stage and guitars locked up in secure storerooms. I figured by the time I got there I would have sobered up.
Not so. JB and Howie picked up pretty quickly that I was under the weather, I just had to stay out of Barry’s way before going on stage. Somehow I managed to do that, and got through the first set. I stumbled over a few things which earned me an admonishing look or two from Barry, but nothing too serious. During the break I got into a conversation with some friends, again avoiding speaking with the boss.
We started the next set, and about third song in, Barry (who never wrote set lists, he just called out the next song) announced we would play this Beatles medley. Now, this was probably the most complicated thing we did. It involved multiple song and key changes during the piece which probably went for about ten to twelve minutes. Not only that, I had to sing a couple of the tunes, which I rarely did in this band. Barry sang probably 95% of the stuff we played.
It didn’t go well. I stumbled over chords, forgot lyrics, missed key changes, and ended prematurely. Barry was fuming over on his side of the stage. There was no avoiding what was coming at the end of the set. Sure enough, as we finished the last song and put down our instruments, Barry stormed over towards me, slumped on the front of the stage. I had only one chance here, not a very good chance, but it was all I could think of at the time.
As Barry was about to launch into me, I went on the front foot.
“Geez, I’m so sick, I’m really sorry Barry, I’m just really crook. I must have picked up a bug. I didn’t want to come near you in case I spread the germs. But I didn’t realise how sick I am. I’m really, really sorry about the screw-ups, I’ll soldier on and get the job done.”
Fully expecting a “don’t you bull-shit me, you’re drunk,” I couldn’t believe it when Barry’s demeanour changed instantly, and he said, “that’s okay mate, sorry to hear that. Just take it easy and we’ll get through it.”
Talk about lucky. Somehow, I got out of jail. JB and Howie were amazed at how I had avoided Barry’s wrath and likely sacking, but sometimes, the cards just fall the right way. And I can honestly say, that is very definitely the last time I have ever performed drunk.
There is no denying that some of the greatest songwriters – or indeed, artists, poets, authors – lay claim to the fact that drugs helped them reach new creative heights. The Beatles, for example, were clearly under the influence of LSD during the Sgt Pepper’s period. Ginsberg, Kerouac, William S Burroughs all produced their finest works during times of extensive drug use.
And time and time again over the years, I have had it said to me by others, “try this stuff man, it really makes the music amazing.”
Whenever that happens, I always remember the words of a great musician and one of my mentors, drummer Peter Miles, who played in legendary Brisbane band The Coloured Balls in the late 60s, early 70s. He was regarded as the go-to drummer in Brisbane back then, influencing a whole generation of players. Peter went back to the UK and to this day, is still one of the most in-demand players in the blues and jazz scene over there. He has never touched drugs in his life.
Whenever someone would make the comment about drugs making the music amazing, Peter’s response would be, “music is already amazing, it doesn’t need any help.”
And although that became my life-long mantra also, it didn’t stop me writing the song “Stoned Again”, a few days after throwing up in a garden bed outside the refectory at the University of Queensland.
(“Stoned Again” was originally performed by Gentle Art, Rough Red did a version of it, and it also appears on my GREEN SIDE UP album.)
A SPIKED DRINK AND THE ARRIVAL OF CHRIS BAILEY
I never met Chris Bailey. We came from different times and different places musically. But he made a lasting impression on me….
It was late 1976, and my then Brisbane-based band was Gentle Art. We had a pretty good profile around town. We had come second in Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds a few years before (although I can’t claim any credit for that – it was the 6 months I was actually out of the band plying my trade in a rock&roll group called Spike, before returning to reform Gentle Art). So we had a following. We played a strange mix of what you would call Americana these days, mixed in with the blues and a healthy dose of funk. Three-part harmonies, a jazz saxophone player. They were my early songs, and influences came from far and wide. We had played support gigs for Billy Joel, The Average White Band, Black Sabbath, and Canned Heat – so, we could play alright.
One night we were the headline band on a three-act bill, playing at Brisbane’s historic and soon-to-be-demolished-in-the-middle-of-the-night venue Cloudland. The other two bands were an unheard-of outfit from New Zealand called Mother Goose, playing their first ever show in Australia, and a fledgling full-on rock group from the tough south-western suburbs called The Saints. Mother Goose were a theatrical, costumed band of very good musicians, playing intricate time signatures and bizarre comedic songs.
With Gentle Art’s original fusion of funk and blues, it was a very strange and very diverse bill. The gig was a Friday night, and late afternoon before the show, I met a few mates at a drinking establishment in the city called the Moon Bar and had a few beers. I say a “few”, because when I knew I had a gig to play, I was always very circumspect and sensible with the amount of alcohol I consumed. I reckon I had five beers, probably right at the limit of what was acceptable. I got picked up by Mick our roadie, and we headed to the gig. On the way there, I started to feel very light-headed.
“Are you okay?” asked Mick, sensing my discomfort.
“I’m not sure,” I answered, “I feel a bit strange.”
The strangeness accelerated, and by the time we arrived at Cloudland, I could barely walk properly. I felt like I was on some weird trip as I watched Mother Goose, who absolutely floored the audience with their show.
Then The Saints took to the stage. The singer was this sort of pudgy guy with attitude, spitting out words to a slightly disinterested audience. I walked past the front of the stage at one point and Chris Bailey leant down and snarled in my face. They approached their music-making with an aggressive, fast and loose approach that the world soon came to adopt as punk music.
My bandmates were pretty unhappy with me, thinking I was simply drunk. I can’t even remember trying to defend myself, it was all I could do to try to get my head into some sort of order and focus on my guitar. Anyway, we took to the stage, and I remember starting the first song in the wrong key. Halfway through the set, I played this solo and it turned into a ten-minute screeching, howling wall of feedback that I must have thought sounded pretty good, but in reality sounded like rubbish.
It was no surprise that both The Saints and Mother Goose blew us off the stage that night, but the reality is I made it pretty easy for them. Post-gig, my bandmates were very pissed off with me, but I was still in a very weird place, and it wasn’t until I faced them a few days later that I told them what I think happened.
I’m almost certain someone spiked my drink that evening at the Moon Bar. I know I would never put a show in jeopardy by sabotaging myself like that. To feel the way I did after five beers – and I’m talking Queensland size 7 oz beers, not pints or midis – it just doesn’t correspond with that small amount of alcohol. The fact that the weirdness kept increasing as the night went on just adds weight to my theory I reckon. At the Moon Bar that night was a guy renowned for dealing in uppers and downers and party drugs for office workers in the city. He was a smart-arse, and although I would never be able to prove it, I’m pretty sure he was the cause of my demise.
Ironically, within a few months, The Saints went on to have a global hit with their song I’m Stranded, credited with virtually kick-starting the British punk revolution. And Mother Goose quickly became one of the biggest bands in the country. So maybe we didn’t stand a chance anyway!
But the thing I do remember through my haze, was the reception The Saints got. They started with a whimper, the crowd virtually ignoring them, but after a couple of songs, they couldn’t take their eyes off this hypnotic front man daring them to take notice. Chris Bailey had arrived…