Sydney, February 1979
I was a young newspaper reporter for The Age, based in Melbourne. Late in 1978 I was sent north to work in their Sydney bureau, which seemed like a foreign posting. I headed up the Hume Highway with all my belongings, including an absurdly large pair of speakers, squeezed into a VW Beetle. I didn’t know Sydney, which is why I made my entrance to the CBD driving up Pitt Street the wrong way – the first of many times I blessed my Victorian licence-plates. I could point to them to explain any driving sins. After a few weeks in a Pitt Street hotel I moved into a share-house in Darlinghurst: the other residents, none of whom had full-time jobs, liked me because I had a record player, records, and those huge speakers. Kings Cross was down the road; call-girls waited on the corner. I wasn’t in Melbourne any more.
I worked the dog-shift in the Age office, finishing past midnight. When I wasn’t working I rode around on my bicycle. But because I was young and keen, everything seemed like a possible story or something to photograph. So I went to Katoomba to meet the world expert on the Yeti, the local version of the Abominable Snowman; covered a Pop Art parade in the Domain; then, one rainy summer afternoon, spent several hours in a very ordinary hotel room with Tiny Tim, the ukelele-strumming American singer and entertainer whom I’d watched on Laugh In on TV in the 1960s. He was in Sydney to perform a ‘marathon medley’ show at Luna Park, sponsored by artist Martin Sharp, who regarded the man born Herbert Buckingham Khaury in New York 47 years earlier as an old-style, hard-working trouper and walking encyclopaedia of popular songs. There was no minder, no publicist standing by; just me and Tiny Tim – a huge man with hennaed hair and stubble visible under the pancake make-up.
He was wearing a satin clown suit with big black pom-poms, and his schtick was well-rehearsed, but he was also engaging. I felt some sympathy for a singer who’d allowed himself to be pigeon-holed under ‘E’ for eccentrics. The room was strewn with sheet-music (My Prayer, I Can’t Get Started, I Go Crazy and many more): he’d been learning lyrics for his show. He was happy to be photographed. We continued chatting as I focused and clicked while he switched poses: reclining on the bed with music and ukelele; then sitting by the window, gazing out at the rain, far from home. When I left, I thanked him for his time. “Oh no,” he replied. “Nice to have someone to talk to.”
Back in Darlinghurst, I told Wendy, the den-mother of the share-house, how I’d spent the afternoon. She was impressed. “Tiny Tim? You should have asked him around for dinner.” I suspect he might have accepted. Later that week I dropped in on his late-night show at Luna Park. It was wonderful. He was a showman, a crooner, a vaudevillian moving effortlessly from one old song to another. Only occasionally did he flick the switch to ‘Tulips’ falsetto. Heading home back over the Harbour Bridge in a taxi, it seemed to me I had the most marvellous job imaginable. I was being paid to get out and meet people I’d once watched on TV.
Five years later, back in Melbourne, I caught up with Tiny Tim again in another hotel room, even less grand than the previous one. He was in town for some inauspicious club dates. This time the travelling troubadour wore a light-blue brocade jacket over baggy brown trousers and a pair of incongruous running shoes. He was polite and helpful, but clearly had no memory of our previous meeting. He was fretting about the absence of a Bible in his room. I concluded my Age story: “Part freak, part philosopher, his true self remains elusive.” The buzz I’d experienced in Sydney was now gone. It seemed he was moving in ever-diminishing circles. Telling the same stories; playing the same tunes. And I wondered if it was the same for me.
I walked back to the Age office, slowly, playing in my head one of the songs he’d been learning in 1979: My Prayer, which – having been composed in 1926, with lyrics added much later – was older than any of us. When the twilight is gone, and no songbirds are singing… I was going through a Platters phase: my vinyl copy of Best Of The Platters was scuffed from repeat plays, which made me glad I’d copied it on a cassette, which I cranked up loud in the car (now an old Renault). One morning I let myself be a few minutes late for work, having stayed in the car after parking it so I could hear lead-singer Tony Williams hit the high note ending My Prayer, which had been a smash hit in 1956. I could never hope to hit a note like that – or the one ending Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. But perhaps I had a future as one of the back-up guys, crooning the whoo-whoos while making the smooth moves. Being part of a group, not a solo singer spending too much time alone in hotel rooms, looking for a Bible. Maybe, later, I could be Gladys Knight’s first white Pip.
In 1984, though, I just put work on hold and held my breath as Tony Williams shot for the stars: … at the end of m-y-y-y prayer.
© Alan Attwood. Alan was Editor of The Big Issue from 2006-2016. After a lifetime of listening, he is belatedly trying to play music. (So far, very badly.) His debut Stereo Story, about Blackhawk by Emmylou Harris, was based on reporting from Las Vegas.
Alan will be part of our Stereo Stories gig at the Newport Folk Festival in Melbourne on Saturday 2 July. Midday. Newport Bowls Club. Hope to see you there!