Interview with my good self by my buddies from the Sunny Coast, Ben McGregor and Sean Trethaway
So Monday I drove to Cologne. It’s a long weekend but I didn’t know that til Friday. And when I found out is exactly when I figured Monday night’s gig was gonna be either a low-show or no-show – like, nobody would show up.
It’s a four-hour drive – like the distance to my sister’s house back home – and as I’m driving I’m thinking to myself, like, I’ve never been to a town named after a scent, or vice versa. This is the kind of bullshit that occurs to you when confined alone to the insides of a small, swiftly moving room.
I did live in Brisbane a while, a town named after a toilet flush, but nothing so elegant nor sociable as Cologne. I kept picturing the whole town inside a square-bottomed bottle with a perfect wedge seal on top and insides the colour of Listerine with a huge head of George Clooney smiling right next to it like a middle-distant sun.
I left early…..10am. Plenty of time.
I arrived late. An hour late for sound check. The favourite occupation of every German who has a car is to spend their off-days stuck in 20km-long traffic jams. This is annoying for people like myself who choose to go to work on public holidays.
I didn’t get stuck in a 20km-long traffic jam. I saw the blinking billboard in plenty of time “Warning 20 KM Traffic Jam ahead!” and took the side roads. I only had 60km to go, but one-third of that distance was currently a parking lot full of disgruntled and indecisive people who regretted that they had not heeded the warnings and also taken the side roads.
If I hadn’t taken the detour – they are plainly marked out at every exit and are an invaluable asset to my career as a touring musician – I would have been three or four hours late for sound check and maybe even missed the gig altogether which, on reflection, would not have been a total loss.
So I get to Cologne and park outside the address of the place I’m supposed to play. Except it ain’t open. None of the doors open. I try all the buzzers. Nothing. I had thought I was supposed to be playing at some church and this didn’t even look like a church, it looked like a once abandoned building that had been converted by the city into cheap office space for community organisations.
I tried a few more doors. Nothing and no one.
I wondered if they’d given up waiting for me and had gone on a late lunch.
Then I wondered if I had the right address. There were posters for my event in the windows, after all. Then I went up and read the posters. They said the event I was playing at was at some other location.
No sweat, I figured, they never fall far from the tree in these here parts.
And sure enough the church where I was supposed to play, and do my sound check, was just around the corner. To get there by car I would have to drive one kilometer down, up and around, zigzagging my way through questionably pedestrian zones. I never know if I’m allowed to drive any place until I get a fine in the mail.
If I’d just walked and carried my guitars with me it was about a 200 meter walk. That’s what the Sat Nav said. But I’d fallen for that once before and it turned out to be a royal pain-in-the-ass. So I jumped in the car and wove my around to the church. Sure enough it was in a one-way street and there was no way to get there from where I ended up except by describing ever larger circles around the unnavigable sector of inner-city Cologne.
I did a few ups and backs and arounds and eventually found a car park outside a cafe, about 80 meters from the Church. This NEVER happens. My luck was in.
I walked up to the front of the church and tried the main door. Massive things, fourteen feet tall. Nothing. locked. I tried the side door, again massive and again locked. I tried the third and fourth doors. Also locked. I walked around the side and tried the big door there. Locked.
I kept walking around and finally found a door slightly ajar and snuck inside.
Inside the church was magnificent and almost cold. Outside it had been blistering the whole day, but in there with God baby, it was positively comfortable.
The main dude greeted me, called me by name, and I figured I’d found the right place. In the middle of the front of the church, below the altars and what appeared to be a slab for sacrificing virgins, there was a big rug on the floor with a microphone and stage monitors set up.
“this must be the place,” I told my host.
“Welcome Herr Fogarty,” he said.
Herr is Mister, in German. I never get used to it.
“Paul is the name,” I said.
We set up, I tuned my guitars, plugged in and proceeded with sound check. Before they turned my volume on I strummed a few chords and sang unplugged. It was a gorgeous sound, a lake of aural possibilities.
I said to the sound guys “I may not need the PA.”
They laughed. Yeah right.
We did the sound check and nothing they or I did would reduce the reverb in the room. I figured maybe later if a couple hundred people come in their bodies will damped the reverb cos it was already making me feel sea-sick.
We tried this, tried that. The dudes had no clue.
After a couple of minutes, no more, I realised I was kicking a dead horse. I thought “fuck it, I’ll wait for the crowd to come in. If that don’t damped the reverb and echo in the room, I’ll just unplug and walk up and down the aisles, between the pews, and play without PA.”
I told the sound guys of my plan. They guffawed and dismissed me.
So the next act got up and did their sound check while I went to the middle of the pews and listened. It was ridiculous. The wash of echoes and natural reverb in the room killed everything they did. The electronic piano sounded okay, but the whole effect of piano, vocals and guitar was like a collision of watercolours that turn quickly into a grey mush.
The next guy got up and did his sound check and the same thing happened. Total mush of amplified reverberations. Made me feel like I was on an acid trip.
I even said that when the audience did come in and sit down and it was my turn to play. I played the first couple chords on guitar through the PA and said “Oh, my god, it’s like an acid trip in here….” and I unplugged my guitar, and walked over to the seated people, only 30 of them, and played my stuff unplugged.
The looks of relief on their faces were not lost on me. I too had suffered through the motion-sickness of the first act…. how it seemed so pointless, fighting against the room like that with a PA system.
Thankfully they all sat up close to the front and it was kind of cool playing a little intimate concert of five songs and leaving the PA and the microphone sit all impotent on the great rug.
I played and sang “I Got Nothing” … a song about third world poverty, about the haves and have-nots, and I sang a song about my daughter “every civilised man is born naked, terrified and wild…” and I played my lap slide guitar over the PA and played with the reverb on it. That’s the only one I did through the PA. Then I went unplugged again, went over and actually sat in the pews and I played “Hummin’bird” on the six-string ukulele. Then I grabbed my standard guitar and finished up with “Jesus Knows”….
The crowd, small as it was, seemed to be in some kind of shock the whole time. I wasn’t sure what it was. Probably everything. The endlessness of the Reverb in the room, Not using the PA, coming so close, singing right in their faces (and at one point very softly directly into one young woman’s ear), (I also sang “All my little ducklings” in German, to a baby girl, maybe 18 months old – the daughter of one of the other singers), talking about the acid trip, singing about Jesus “How on earth, can he save me?” I wasn’t sure why they seemed so surprised and I didn’t care that much. I just figured “maybe I won’t play any more churches…”
The unplugged sound, however, was to die for…
So I finished up and went to the back of the room and lay down on a pew and went to sleep and let the reverb from the final two acts wash over me like a Tibetan singing-bowl massage. When it was all over I was relaxed, a little sea sick, but ready to drive four hours home again.
There are two Germanys. I’m not talking east and west, either. They were allegedly reunited a quarter century ago. I’m also not talking about the old and the young Germany – the ticking time bomb due to explode in about another 25 years when the last of the boomers is unable to look after themselves.
I’m talking about the heretofore unacknowledged two Germanys. There is the pedestrian, the perambulant Germany in which one is free to roam the hillsides, the forests, the valleys, the fields in peace and relative tranquility where one often meets with the environment-friend, the bio-disposer, the bird watcher, the walking stick trekker, the cyclist even. Everything is slow, neat, low-impact. People have patience. They smile and say “Guten Morgen” or “Gruss Gott”. They let their dogs wander through flower stands and piss on tree trunks.
Then there is the other Germany. The one that happens only inside of automobiles.
People are vicious, brutal, impatient. They are bullies and brutes. They hassle you, worry you this way and that. They urge you, jeer at you to make some manouvre that would risk not only your life but theirs as well. If it were possible they would make you disappear, disintegrate.
Truth be known you are not their problem.
They are their own problem but because you are in front of them they bounce their frustrations off of you.
They are unable to figure things out. How the world works. How the laws of physics operate. They don’t understand that driving at ever faster speeds will only ever get you to the ass of the next car ahead, and then the next and the next. And at every stress-filled union there exist the seeds of both tragedy and traffic jam. They don’t understand that driving at ever faster speeds requires ever more space to operate in in which unforeseen situations are unable to occur. They do not account or accommodate anyone or anything else that is not them.
If you are not actually them you are therefore part of the problem.
It is a singular way to view the world and in fact it excludes the world.
In truth it is a way of ensuring that since everyone and everything who isn’t you is somehow wrong then you must be therefore somehow infallible, supra-heroic, preternatural, godlike.
But it is when the two Germanys meet, when they coalesce, in a matter of seconds, of microseconds, that one begins to feel deeply ill at ease.
Because the calm mountain trekkers, the spaced-out flower-pickers, the dog huggers are one and the same as the car-driving maniacs. Only in the act of opening or closing the door of a parked car is there any semblance of balance, of sanity, of sense while they morph from one extreme to its polar opposite.
Our dog, BarnBoy, never rears away from nobody or no thing. That’s cos he’s never taken a whipping himself. I’ve thrown a few shoes at him, the bastard, but most of the time he’s a good boy, Cootchie coo.
There’s many people in this neighbourhood who are terrified of BarnBoy, or me, or both. Not sure what’s going on.
BarnBoy, of course, has his fanclub of mostly impressionable 12-15 year old girls. They think he’s adoooooooorable, with his huge wet eyes and his desert-brown fur, and his Rayban sunglasses. And there’s also young dudes, about the same age, who think BarnBoy is the bees-knees… like a superhero. He can catch sticks, balls, shake hands, sit on command, pee and poo on command, and has a vocabulary of somewhere between 50 and 1000 words (when he feels in the mood) in two languages.
But there are just as many people who over-react the opposite way when they see BarnBoy and me walking down the street.
They pull their children away violently and gasp and shriek in horror. They pull their hands up to protect their faces. They twist and shuffle awkwardly, they clutch their handbags (?) and in the opinion of both BarnBoy and me, they are just asking for trouble.
I immediately call out: “Dracula!!! Back!!! Back Dracula, you BLOOD SUCKING GHOUL!!!” (referring to BarnBoy, natch).
BarnBoy goes like “WTF?”, rolls his eyes at me, and then starts lazily sniffing someone’s ass and/or genitalia. People get embarrassed by this cos they think they must be unclean if a dog is sniffing their privates.
But a dog can smell the mere idea of urine. Their sense of smell is 2000 times more powerful than your sense of smell. It is infinity times more powerful than mine, cos I don’t got a sense of smell.
But me and BarnBoy, we know this whole overblown scenario, this over-acting, is just a pathetic little power game. We know it. And I tell you what, it’s a lonely game if only one person plays. The dramaqueens think you will not only fall for it, hook, line and sinker, but thereafter profusely apologise and maybe even shoot your dog in front of them so they can rest assured that the world can return to being a safe place.
But Me and BarnBoy just stand there, watching the histrionics, the bad acting, we imitate the gasps, we mirror the shrieks, we pretend to get all faint and dizzy…. and then we laugh our heads off.
BarnBoy looks at them like: “Get a grip for God’s sake…. I’m the one who should be terrified….”
And he’s right. Because dogs are not our evil oppressors. No dog ever started up a human farm and tortured, beat and starved humans. No dog ever stubbed his cigarette out on a human a hundred times. No dog ever tied a human to a stake in the ground in the sweltering sun and neglected to give them water, food or shade until they died.
Not a single one.
I had a neighbour who whenever I’d meet her out in the street, in the car park, at the shops, wherever, she’d bail me up and we’d start talking about small stuff. Regular stuff. The stuff everyone’s life is full of.
How the kids don’t care, how the olds forget stuff, how the city sent out an overblown bill, how her boss is an asshole, how milk nowadays is this and bread nowadays is that.
I say we’d talk but I never got much of a word in. It was not what any sane human being would call a “conversation”. There was no to-ing and fro-ing, no banter between, no tête-à-tête.
She carried her world on her shoulders like a gigantic, cumbersome sack and she was the tiny, brave ant keeping it from hitting ground.
Then one day, after years had gone by, I told her I was gonna move house.
This threw her. She’d never enquired as to my life and it’s goings on.
“Where you going?”
“Europe,” I said.
She leaned so far back she almost fell over.
“Whaaaaa???” she gasped.
“Exactly,” I said.
“What about your job?” she said. Then she stood silent, contemplating. “Say, what is it that you do for work?” she offered.
“I write songs and play concerts, gigs, I teach some guitar, do some mentoring of young people and old, I sing and play harmonica, piano, and I’m teaching myself bass and lap slide guitar…” I said.
Her eyes widened with the realisation that she didn’t know me at all. In all those months over all those chance meetings I had learned so much about her burdened plight and she’d never once so much as pivoted on one foot and forfeited service.
Meanwhile my mother had died, my long time girlfriend had left me, a couple of my old colleagues from track and field days had died of steroid-related conditions, and all manner of other events had come and gone without so much as a peep from me. I would have shared some of the news with this woman but she’d never left enough space for me to share my little stories. She was down there, whirling around and around in her own quicksand pulling me closer to her, like a tree branch, and I’d been trying to stand my ground, to offer what I could, but I never had felt the space or the urge to say “Listen, I know you are going down but I have my stories too….”
I’d tried a couple of times early on but she just started to get distracted within 20 seconds, 10 seconds, she’d have to rifle through her purse, and she’d start yawning, you know, the way people do, so I stopped fooling myself that she wanted a conversation.
She just wanted someone to save her from her life. I couldn’t save her. It was life. Everyone has their cumbersome sack, I knew, and just because you talk about it all day every day don’t make it any greater or more troubling or unfair than anyone else’s cumbersome sack.
All of my relationships were like that. Me listening and listening and listening while they poured out their hearts, their fears and worries and troubles. I figured it is what you did, you listened. You offered advice. Sometimes my advice was so brilliant it startled me and I can remember thinking “I should do this shit for a living…”
I could never talk about anything I wanted to talk about because in relationship I ever had the other person was ill-equipped to really listen.
I had one single and very high expectation of a listener.
That expectation was that they, the listener, actually listen.
This was beyond the capabilities of all of them. But it wasn’t just them, it was most people.
We would be out some place, a coffee shop, a restaurant, wherever, and while my partner was taking a breath, perhaps eating salad or sipping chai tea, I would gaze around, take in the surroundings, and notice that at every other table people were talking at the empty vessels sitting across from them. The talkers at each table talked. The listeners did not listen, no. They yawned, they fidgeted, they rifled through their bags and wallets and purses, they played with telephones, they perused menus, did anything it seemed than actually listen.
The air was full of unheard speeches. Soliloquies. And I realised what it was that not only drew me to writing songs and stories but kept me at it. There was inside me an age old drive to be heard. Not to be yawned at or fended off with distractive devices. But to be actually, truly heard.
I took the dogs out twice today cos the missus had a migraine. The dogs don’t like me taking them for a whole lot of reasons. For one thing I do not react to their tail-shaking, tongue lapping, toenail skating, adrenalin pumping excitement at our house prior to the walk.
I pick up the collars and leads near the front door and all hell breaks loose. It’s like Elvis came back and won the Olympics in our home town. BarnBoy and the One-Eyed-Hungarian-Street-Dog immediately start skating around on the slippery fake-wood floors trying to go every direction at the same time, slipping in instamatic pools of their own saliva, careening sideways around the end of the living room table, running in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote, and acting like they’ve been locked up in some damp suburban dungeon for a decade while the neighbours thought it weird how they heard occasional howls every night for six-thousand-two-hundred-and-five nights straight but never thought to report it to anyone.
That’s the kind of hell breaking loose I’m talking about.
They don’t like me walking them because I don’t give a shit how excited they are. I’m still not gonna move any faster, still not gonna bring their preferred vision of the immediate future – aka: walking outside in the fresh air – to them any faster no matter how excitable and downright pushy they get.
It’s like with the pushy drivers who loom large in your rear vision mirror every time you step in the car. Their sudden aggressive appearance does not make me speed up. In fact, just the opposite. I’m so determined not to be forced into an accident that all their persistence does is make me go in slow motion. Same with the dogs. They get excitable? I chill. They pant and make low whistling noises like whales on heat? I lean right back and let them go at it.
“Knock yourselves out,” I say. “I got all day.”
Meanwhile their lower sphincter muscles are growing more and more taut by the minute. “I know you need to go poo-poos,” I tell them. “But you can just Goddam wait til I’m good and ready…”
I put on my shoes. I check my hair, choose a hat, wrap a scarf around my throat against the chilly winds, I slip inside my winter coat because it is too big to put on like other coats. This coat you got to slip inside it. Pull it around and over you. It’s a mother of a thing.
Finally I’m ready and I affix the dogs to their collars and leash. BarnBoy don’t need a leash. He gets insulted if you try and force one on him. He takes it personal. He gives you a look like: “Really? Do we have to do this, really?”
So I take them up to the farmlands above town. We take the car cos I can’t be bothered walking through the suburban streets up to the fields. If you walk your dog through the suburban streets you got no excuse, you got to pick up the dog poo. And these dogs are reverse gourmets. They can shit anything you like on command in any color. They do appetizers, they do starters, mains, after-dinner mints. They do dry, wet, heavy, diet, vegan, surrealist, Dali, minimalist, conservative and the never-ending story.
They won’t make poo poo any old place like a normal mammal though. They are like golfing pros. Like they are on tour every day. Everything’s got to be just so. The wind direction and strength have to be accounted for, the lay of the land, the angle to the pin, the moisture of the green, the lean of the grass blades themselves. They got to choose the right club. Everything got to click.
And if it they ain’t buggerizing around looking for a place to take a dump they are busy craning their necks around for their long lost soul mates – aka: other dogs.
That’s how they act every time they spot another dog. It’s like: “Could it be! Oh MY GOD! I can’t believe it! It’s HER/HIM!!!! Oh sweet everloving Jesus let me off this leash so I can rush into her/his arms/paws so we can live happily ever after!”
Sometimes I let ’em go, but sometimes I’m like “Nah!”
Today was one of those latter type days. It was pissing cold rain. I got a sore throat anyways. Everywhere we walked was slimy, sticky mud. It’s not normal mud in Germany. It’s like a kind of dessert. It sticks to everything with some kind of bizarre suctional force. You can’t get it off. Ever.
Today I suddenly wondered if 25,000 years of dog-rearing here in middle Europe had triggered a massive yet unremarked biochemical reaction between the naturally occurring top soil and the droppings of eight thousand generations of domesticated wolves and their variants. Like just maybe the mud is already 40 percent dog shit. That’s how it feels, how it sounds as you labour through it.
The dogs are plastered with it after 30 minutes even though on this day they never went into the thick of it. We stuck to the gravel path but they still got covered in thick, gooey, beige slime.
It must drug us, then attack while we lay unconscious on the ground. We must lose time while it has its way and then we return all groggy and disorientated to the awaiting microvan.
I wonder how ancient people lived in Germany with all this mud before gravel was invented, before tar and bitumen and concrete. It must have driven them mad.
So today I didn’t let the dogs race excitedly after their soul mates. I kept them close. I only need one leash to do this. The One-Eyed-Hungarian-Street-Dog remains on the leash because sometimes when you let her off she just don’t come back. She runs across the fields like a driven Julie Andrews and doesn’t know when enough is enough. BarnBoy don’t need a leash because he is easy to hypnotize with a stick or a tennis ball. He is addicted to catching stuff. Nothing ever distracts him from a game of catch. His ears could catch fire and he wouldn’t even flinch. You throw a stick over the rim of an active volcano and he will for sure go get it. This is how I distracted him today from racing across the wind and rain-swept fields above town when he suddenly spotted his soulmate down the track a ways. They clapped eyes on each other and then stared at each other from 50 paces, full of lust and longing, passion and joie de vivre and the desperate need to continue the species. Their ears stood at erection, their tongues flailed, their eyebrows arched.
“Oh my God!” BarnBoy seemed to say. “AT LAST I’VE FOUND HER! AFTER ALL THESE YEARS OF SEARCHING! OH PLEASE LET ME GO TO HER!”
And then I picked up a stick that just happened to be lying on the ground, held it up in front of BarnBoy’s nose and said in an excitable childlike voice: “Look BarnBoy! Where’s the stick Barney Boy?” And it was like his soulmate never even existed.
After you’ve frequented enough bars and hang-out joints you begin to realise they serve no useful purpose whatsoever.
They are not necessary.
They all have the black-top bar or bars that separate your money from their money and upon which they dump the alcoholic drinks you have just purchased in their own semi-circular alcohol footprints – all the better to slide them with and all the better to prove to you how worthless the stuff and the people drinking it are. If they could they would just pour it out on the surface of the bar and leave it for you to slurp up with your undisciplined lips. Saves on collecting, washing and stacking glasses for one thing.
All bars and hang-out joints are dimly lit for if anything ruins the illusion of physical attraction it is the overhead lightbulb of truth.
The toilets are always out back through a half-hinged door which opens out noisily, creakily to an unevenly tiled floor from which there branch exactly four further doors. Two of these are toilet doors. The other two will forever more remain mysterious and full of dark intent.
The men’s and women’s toilets are generally posted with confusing symbols, pictures, heiroglyphs, movie star profiles, foreign nouns or lithographs denoting to no one in particular which is which.
The toilets themselves are beyond the scope of this story. Suffice it to say they operate by their own rules and laws of design and hygiene, rules and laws that would make Mad Max shudder.
In my preferred world all bars and hang-out joints would be closed down and banned from ever reopening.
These dark and vacuous dens only exist because people in the general community cannot abide the thought of inviting people around to their place – to chat, to mingle, to sip a few drinks, to share biases, hatreds and fears and perhaps to laugh until dawn.
To invite people to your house or apartment means to take a chance. Many chances. And also do some work cleaning up both before and after. But think how much nicer the world would be if everyone spent an hour cleaning up their place every Wednesday through Saturday in the expectation of having someone over.
Even after all the bars and hang out joints have been closed down there still needs to be a central corralling area. I’m envisioning a gigantic glass dome, a kind of geodesic dating dome built in the middle of downtown, just with one single very large meeting and perusal room or lounge so everyone who is in the mood for taking someone back to their place can get to know them during a few minutes of small talk and can then head off unimpeded for a singularly individuated evening of intense focus and sharpened communication skills.
The great glass dome would have perhaps 300 seats scattered around, none of which is comfortable enough to sit in for any longer than, say, ten minutes. There is only one set of entry doors and a separate set of exit doors and you can only migrate in that general direction, from entrance to exit. You are not permitted to exit through the entry door and vice versa. Perhaps we will install travelators, like at the airport, just to keep people moving.
In the great dome all clique and exclusive groups, all similar-minded ensembles would be instantly exposed because there wouldn’t just be one set of, for example, hipsters or bikers or punks or mods or homies.
You would see them everywhere. Like herds of sheep all descendant from the same magazine cover or advertising spread.