On Tour Stories

It’s day three of this two week solo tour and everything starts to gain clarity.

It’s been a hectic start to the tour with three shows and around fifteen hours of driving. I’m feeling great emotionally, just tired and its starting to show in my daily routine, where every activity includes a little time for a power nap. So far I’ve napped before every show, napped roughly every three hours on the freeway, napped post-lunch, napped outside the library in Wagga (where I fell asleep in shade from the hot sun and woke to find bucketing hail). I’m getting remarkably good at closing my eyes, ticking off ten minutes and waking to a sense of peace. Think meditation but with a deeper dive than originally expected and occasional surfacing to find kids staring through the windows as I dribble down the steering wheel.

I wonder if this insistent napping is a sign of something below the surface, maybe a general life exhaustion borne not from burning the candle at both ends but from tossing the entire thing into the bonfire of running a small business and playing music and teaching part-time and also trying to be a creative being. But no, that couldn’t be it and introspection is for introverts, and I’m touring solo so I push all introspective tendencies to the background.

In normal life I don’t normally nap, although I often feel the urge. Tour life just allows me the freedom to succumb to it. Throw this into the mix of being an adult I guess.

I’ve come to realise that there’s a lot about touring that I love. Playing music is the main joy. Spreading music and practicing my live craft and experimenting with my songs in front of people. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, but even on the worst gigs I’m generally getting joy from it, even if it’s a post-show wry chuckle at what went wrong. Other touring loves include: exploring new places, eating out most nights of the week, delving into Australia’s thriving craft beer subculture (I’ve been tempted for a long time to do a ‘beers I’ve tasted’ list), listening to endless streams of driving music, and finding park benches to devour books and nap.

But more than anything, it’s the people that I enjoy. I’ve got a small but growing network of people I have itinerant relationships with. People whose lives I dip into, borrow some anecdotes and important facts from and then disappear into the night. Over time these chance encounters re-emerge, the ‘emotional neural pathways’ (yes, I’ve been reading ‘Incognito’) get revisited and the bonds get stronger. There are people who I met ten years ago in some band that no longer exists who see I’m coming to town and shoot me a message to catch up. There are people who hang around after the gig and offer me a place to stay and music recommendations. There are people who send me messages weeks after I’ve been to town to carry on conversations we never completed. There are many people who I meet in once off encounters and may never see again, but the stories stick with me.

Here’s a couple of anecdotes, borrowed from the ether. I’ve changed some details to save some reputations and possible make the stories more compelling, but at the heart of each is a kernel of truth spurred by a late night conversation.

“My parents only had me cause they didn’t want my sister to grow up alone.”

A mumble from the bar amidst a literal pile of beer glasses. It’s closing time and the bar staff have piled all the empties in one long sopping line along the edge of the bar in an attempt to make him see that they want to close and go home, but he sits with a well-nursed pint clasped between both hands and eyes off the couple of stragglers who totter out the front door as I roll the last of my cables and throw them into my Bunnings bag.

I hesitate to dive headfirst into a conversation which I assume will be a) laborious at this time of night when all I want to do is pack up, drive five minutes out of town and have a deep sleep in the nearby caravan park and b) rambling as his tongue is well greased by the copious beer I’ve seen him consuming throughout the night. But I’m a glutton for punishment and it’s been a quiet night and I haven’t talked to anyone beside bar staff and service station attendants in almost three days. So I pull up a bar stool, armed with the knowledge I can call the bar staff to attention if I want to bail on the conversation. You develop conversation deflection tools when you spend your life amidst people who either don’t take social cues or are just so excited by new conversational fodder that they’ll chew the ear off anything.

It’s worse than I expect, a winding backroad ramble through some sixty years of life experience, beginning somewhere in the early 90s with a dubious career as a festival promoter (“I brought Nirvana to Australia man, that first Big Day Out was all my idea”) then wandering backwards to birth in Malta and a long boat ride at age three to Australia. Everything is tinged with a vague sense of sadness, and I wonder if it’s retrospect that’s making him sad or if he’s carried self-worth issues through from an early age. His opening comments make me suspect deep-seated worries inflicted upon him by external forces, and I understand it because worries bloom in the fertile fields of man’s mind. Without the capacity to pull the electric pulses from another’s brain and turn them into language, we rely entirely on what the other tells us through word and body language to determine what they think. It’s a flawed system, for who truly says what they’re thinking? Surely every thought is encircled in a ring of protective language, the edges sanded down and smoothed out before it is thrown into the world and allowed to take root in the soil of someone else’s expectations. At best, we almost express what we honestly believe and then rely on the person to take it at face value. At worst we obfuscate our thoughts, and the recipient confuses them again in their interpretation and we disappear into an ontological blackhole where all participants nod in agreement and walk away confused.

We never actually discussed his relationship with his parents and his sister, but I start to see my ‘on tour’ role as less of an entertainer and more as an itinerant therapist (sure I’ll take your emotional baggage) and handyman (sure I’ll help you move the living room table).

She is an olive farmer. An award-winning olive farmer. I ask her, tongue in cheek, if she eats olives for every meal, and it turns out that yes, yes she does, and her recipe for Mediterranean scrambled eggs (think fluffy eggs interspersed with creamy fetta, halved cherry tomatoes and garlic olives on a floating bed of olive sourdough) is a neighbourhood hit.

Her farm produces some six hundred thousand jars of olives a year and I imagine some modern day ‘Plain of Jars’ scenario where down a back road in rural Victoria there exists vast fields covered in glass jars and the local village kids run barefoot, slipping in streams of olive oil and sneaking handfuls of puckered, salted olives into their mouths between replenishing the nation’s stock of stone fruit.

The reality is much more sanitary, an in-house bottling plant where all surface are sanitised multiple times a day and most of the process is automated. Imagine conveyor belts and hissing steam and vast quantities of freshly washed olives floating down stream to the olive pipping machine that gently punches each olive in the gut once, flicking the stone into an alternate life path where it leaves its fleshy covering to be soaked in brine and devoured amongst its own kind.

The olive stones disappear into bins and are then crushed and tilled back into the earth to create fodder for the next generation, but recently new experiments with olive stones abound, from potential use as car fuel, a replacement material for plastic and as a cleansing agent amongst industrial machines. Man’s ingenuity abounds and where once we discarded piled olive pits we now delight in second use cases, waste reduction and further chances to monetize our industries.

“I put Don Burrows in a mine” he claims proudly, assuming we have a knowledge of who Don Burrows is, and why we’d want him underground.

At first I assume it’s some word play on ‘burrow’ and ‘mine’ and underground semantics and maybe he’s functioning at some level of understanding much deeper than my own. But it turns out that Don Burrows is actually a renowned Australian jazz musician, and the mine was the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company.

As part of the mine’s centenary celebrations back in 1994, Don Burrows and his band Moment’s Notice (assumably named after the Coltrane album) were dropped two kilometers down a mine shaft to perform a show. The show was turned into a subsequent live concert which can be ordered via your local library’s VHS rental service.

Unfortunately all this information came to light months later via some internet sleuthing. In this current conversation he proclaims disbelief that we don’t know who Don Burrows is, and that we don’t know why he thought to put him down the mine in the first place. “How can you be an Australian musician and not know who Don Burrows is? If you don’t know your history how can you look to the future?” Relevant questions, but I’m a folk musician, and examining the careers of Australia’s mid-90s jazz clarinetists is not a current concern. Standing on the shoulders of giants, yes. Attempting to balance atop a revolving cast of the millions of musicians who have come before, not so much.

He storms off in a huff, muttering about youngsters who don’t know their heritage and I’m touched by the depth of human existence. For this man, one of the cornerstones of his life’s achievement is that time he put a jazz band down a coal mine, and I get it. It’s a beautiful concept. It’s newsworthy. It’s a memory that a select group of people will carry throughout their entire lives. It’s the kind of ludicrous idea that I’d probably put together myself and I imagine myself, fifty years in the future, beleaguering the next generation of young musicians who don’t understand their history and don’t appreciate the ludicrousity that is man’s imagination.

I gather these stories like blind mice gather grain. Haphazardly. Unplannedly. Totally-without-meaningfully. Some days the pickings are slim and some days I’m hickory dickory docking my way into fertile food stores and delighting in the flood of stories that I coat my body and mind in. I’ve started to journal the stories I’m told on the road for while the human imagination is a wild and wonderful thing, the human memory is remarkably suspect and I tend to forget more beautiful anecdotes than I remember.

I use these stories to springboard my own creativity: as song fodder, or anecdotal evidence, or even just as creative gristle to mentally chew over as I drive.

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