Leichhardt, Sydney, 1984
Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney, January 2017
Was it the slow, plaintive acoustic guitar intro that made me choose it? Or the rousing brass section that kicks in about halfway through?
Or is it the fact you appear in the music video? There you are at 1:52, just as the instrumental bridge starts. Standing, screen centre, throwing back a beer – Fosters, I think. It’s 1984, the Sydney Mod revival’s fizzling out, and you’re mixing with your Sixties-dressing mates and some old blokes at the Leichhardt Hotel. It was a fitting location for the video, as The Saints had a Sunday afternoon residency there, as I recall. Only, I never went along. Didn’t want to cramp your style. Back then, I was useful for mending your snazzy suits and taping TV shows for you to watch later, but not cool enough to see bands with you.
So, ghost ships they’re sailing on empty seas
And the light that is in the darkness
It does not shine on me.
Even before you died, when I’d watch that video, I’d pause-rewind-play-pause; proud, yet envious you had such a claim to fame. “That’s my big brother in the clip! The one sinking the beer,” I’d brag in Facebook music lovers’ groups (without mentioning how ominous that beer can was).
I never told you about that.
Even before you died, when I’d be driving, and one of ‘our songs’ came on schmaltzy radio station 2CH, I’d crank it up, sing along and think of you. I’d flash back to moments in our childhood – just the good times – imagining you in the passenger seat, singing too.
I never told you about that, either.
When it came to planning your funeral (as forensic cleaners scrubbed the corner just inside the front door of your flat, where you’d been found), there was the matter of choosing three songs to sum up you and your life. Just three songs! So, I asked you to help me choose. You never went in for that woo-woo stuff, but I like to think you replied. Something like:
“Nick Cave’s The Ship Song to begin – I met him once, you know! Elvis Presley’s Always On My Mind for the slideshow – who doesn’t love The King? And Ghost Ships, of course, for the recessional – that middle bit’ll stir ‘em up!”
*** *** ***
It’s only in your absence that the song has more meaning. You loved chasing ‘ghost ships’, especially those shipwrecks along America’s Pacific Northwest coast. In the Nineties, when you lived in Oregon (before your drinking took hold, forcing us further apart), I spent a Christmas with you. One cold, wet January day, we bussed to the wild, windy coast, and were blown off balance by relentless gusts as we trudged along the sand, singing Richard Clapton’s Deep Water – missing our home on the other side of those waves. It was as close as I’d let myself feel to you. I photographed you standing next to the barely-there bow of an old wreck, grinning and shivering. Who knew those photos would end up in the Order of Service for your funeral 20 years later?
Like an old man I run to find the shore
And the light that was in your eyes
Honey, it doesn’t shine there anymore.
*** *** ***
Then one hot, dry January day, I watched the hearse crawl past the parked cars, heading for the front of the chapel, carrying you to your last ‘gig’.
“There you are, buddy,” I sighed, stunned-numb with grief and disbelief, my brain struggling to process what my senses were feeding it: No, I wouldn’t see you stepping out of the car. Yes, that was sweat beading at my chest, right about where my heart’s beats increased, inside my vintage purple frock. What if I fuck up the eulogy? What if the slideshow crashes? What if they hate the music?
Later, your ex joked gently that she thought you might have preferred the Hank Williams toe-tapper, Jambalaya, to send you off to the crematorium: Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh… I laughed, imagining it – and you laughing, too – wishing I’d added some levity to the playlist.
That evening though, one of your old Mod mates messaged me on Facebook:
“I lost my composure when Ghost Ships played. Your brother and I sang and laughed, argued and debated, dreamt, and were going to change the world, with that song as a soundtrack. Singer Chris Bailey spoke to both of us back then… We were kindred spirits but lost touch, and for that I grieve. But I can tell you this: I’ll never forget him. He was unique.”
So, wait until tomorrow and darlin’ then we’ll see
You know, I don’t know about tomorrow …
© Virginia Muzik
Stereo Story #594
Many more Grieving Stories