I was meant to be completing the first year of a commerce degree at Swinburne, but in reality I was on a musical and literary journey, listening to the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival and reading the works of Mark Twain. A few months in, having not lifted a pen for the entire semester and facing expulsion, I spun a fanciful story to the course authorities who took the bait and granted me deferral for the remainder of 1991. I was a free man.
Soon after I moved to the Gold Coast with a school mate nicknamed The Mighty Weasel, a computer genius who, after hanging with the likes of Julian Assange, was now working for the Federal Cops helping to bust computer hackers. On the day of our departure from Melbourne, the Fed Cops actually gave us a lift to the airport. I can still see the look of despair on Mum’s face when two gun-clad hot shots in suits arrived to pick me up. I bolted from the veranda with my oversized suit case, not even stopping to kiss Mum goodbye. At the tender age of 18 I was repressing all things emotional – I think it had something to do with that girl I had not seen since the last day of Year 12. I could not muster up the courage to call her.
About this time the roaring voice of John Fogerty was replaced by Dylan. I still loved Creedence but over the next twelve months I would acquire 30 odd Dylan albums and listen to them religiously. This of course was the era of the walkman and a Dylan cassette was always playing in mine.
We lived with The Mighty Weasel’s grandma in a high rise apartment at the Monaco Tower in Surfers Paradise. It overlooked the Nerang River, was just a short walk to the beachfront, but more importantly was only a five minute bus ride to Jupiters Casino – where we quickly gambled away every last cent of our money.
Eventually we commenced work at a newly built restaurant in Broadbeach called Choices. It was owned by the business tycoon Reuben Pelerman who also owned the Brisbane Bears Football Club. During training, I vividly recall a white limousine pulling up to the entrance and Reuben stepping out in shorts and sandals. He quietly addressed the group, muttering something along the lines of ‘the customer is always right’. I lasted about two more days then split for the bush.
I ended up working on the cotton fields just outside of Goondiwindi. We were staying at an old hospital that had been converted to a homestead, right on the McIntyre River. We had to rise at 3am in order to finish early and escape the soaring afternoon heat. We played rugby in the late arvos where I distinctly remember being called ‘Giuseppe’ for the first and only time in my life. I thought I was Peter Daicos and was dodging and weaving, even running backwards to avoid the merciless tacklers. After a while Mick, an indigenous teammate of mine, yelled ‘The worst thing you can do in this game is run backwards’ along with a few other choice words. It was a steep learning curve.
After those rugby games we played music on an old cassette deck whilst going about our chores. It did not take long for me to realise that country music was the preferred genre amongst the cotton chippers. Waylon and Willie in particular were revered. I managed to get my Creedence tape a run on several occasions which was well received by the lads. But I wasn’t quite sure how Dylan would go down.
One evening Mick pulled out an old Conway Twitty tape. I laughed. Twitty looked like an Oompa Loompa with a quiff, like a corny televangelist with the highest forehead known to humankind.
I read the track listing and recognised the song It’s Only Make Believe – it had been covered by Cold Chisel on their Barking Spiders Live album. More 50s progression/Doo-Wop than country I thought, but Mick assured me this guy was the high priest of country music.
We ventured over to the common room and slotted the tape into the old cassette deck. The opening song was Hello Darlin’. The first two lines Twitty seems to be speaking rather than singing:
Nice to see you
but then he launches into the third line, stretching out the vowels:
It’s beeen aaah looong tiiime!
and suddenly the song comes alive.
I look at Mick’s face – he is transfigured and feels every inch of Twitty’s pain. He sings along with every word. It’s a song about running into an old flame. A girl you never got over. The twang of the steel guitars sounds like a chorus of demons. Twitty becomes a receptor to a higher spirit, a great melodious spirit, and he is tapping in, transmitting the result to the listener.
Later I ask Mick if I can borrow the tape, and for one night only it replaces Dylan in my walkman. I lie under the Goondiwindi stars and press play. As Conway sings his lament, I am dreaming of that girl from Year 12 who is a thousand miles away.
© Damian Balassone
Damian’s poems have appeared in a variety of Australian and international publications and have been broadcast on ABC Radio. His second collection of poetry, Daniel Yammacoona, is published by Ginninderra Press and is available for purchase at Readings bookstores. Damian is also a regular contributor to our partner site The Footy Almanac.