“You have a long beautiful neck”. I’m thrown. “Wow – that’s a sentence no one’s ever said to me before.” The nurse qualifies herself. “We had a lady in here the other day whose shoulders started here and skull started here.” The distance between her fingers is about the size of a fifty cent piece. “We had a hell of a time finding the right spot to inject. At least with you it should be much easier.” And so for the second time in about a week, my long beautiful neck slides into a metal cylinder. And it slides back out again. This is repeated several times. As the nurse puts it: “Think of yourself as a Paddle Pop stick sliding in and out of a donut.” Another analogy immediately comes to mind but I’m not surprised the nurse resisted it. The goal of all this Paddle Pop sliding is to locate my C6/7 vertebrae via the CT scanner. Once located, the spot will be marked, my neck injected with a local anaesthetic and then with cortisone. This will supposedly insulate the swollen nerve that has literally been a pain in the neck over the past couple of months. At least that’s the plan. But despite being the owner of such a long beautiful neck, the technicians are struggling to locate the right spot. It appears that the nurse spoke too soon. Eventually, after much whirring of machinery, my neck is marked and jabbed. Ouch! What an unpleasant sensation. Then comes the cortisone – pushed through a supersized syringe. His work done, the doctor leaves the room – without having ever said a word. Guess I’m just another neck. The nurse looks down at me. “You alright?” Actually – no. I feel nauseous. “No – not really.” She frowns. “You look pale. Just lay there for a while.” Great. So not only has my long beautiful neck not lived up to expectations, it would appear that I’m also a bit of a wuss – a woozy wuss at that. After a spell on the CT table, I’m moved to a nearby bench as the next neck arrives. The nurse keeps checking me. Eventually I feel well enough to get dressed. I’m allowed to go back out to the waiting room but they want to keep me around. I feel a bit better but very very out of it. After who knows how long, time now a very rubbery thing, I’m ushered back in to be examined by the doctor. “How are you?” Well what do you know – he can talk! “Out of it.” He frowns. “How’s your neck, arm and fingers? Better?” I shake my head. “Nope. Just the same. And my fingers are still numb”. Another frown. “Yes, well – sometimes it takes a while. Are you okay to leave?” I nod. Hoping I’m not a malpractice suit in the making, the doctor lets me leave. I go to the counter to pay, swaying slightly, unable to resist shutting my eyes. I can see concern on the receptionist’s face. Bill settled, I walk out into the rain. Already clad in a black Panama hat, I unfurl my umbrella. Despite the dimness of the day, I decide my wrap around sunnies are a good idea. Rather than take a taxi or Uber, I’m determined to get a bus. I sway in the rain, tunes blasting through my blue tooth headphones. Times bounces on and eventually so does a bus. I float onto it. Standing room only. Or in my case, swaying room. I’m given a fairly wide berth by the other passengers. I imagine I’m quite the sight – an old out of it weirdo in black hat and sunnies. Stuff em. I’m Keith Fucking Richards.
I have a fifteen-year-old son who, like many teenage boys, listens to rap (or as I call the current incarnation – ‘mumble rap’). These songs are of course littered with ‘F Bombs’, ‘MF Bombs’ and the ‘N word’ (“But Dad – it’s ok if they say it”). I hear these mumbled profanities through the bathroom door – that room being my son’s sanctuary. So you can imagine my shock when, one evening, I heard him singing along to a very different tune. “Almost heaven, West Virginia…” What the??? When questioned he claimed that this was his new favourite song and subsequently still enjoys belting out: “Country roads, take me home, to the place where I belong…”. Rather ironic for a city boy who has only ever known one home. Hearing your song again with such regularity has stirred my own memories of you. Three stand out. The first hails back to the mid seventies when I was in in a car that happened to be on a country road as your hit blared through the radio. We may have even been travelling through Colorado (where there actually are roads that can “take me back to the place where I was born…”). It felt like a significant moment. A few years later I laughed as your gormless nice guy character saw God (the hilarious cigar sucking George Burns). But the most mind blowing moment occurred in the early nineties. I just got off a plane at Denver airport. And there you were. The first person I see in Denver happens to be Mr. Denver himself. What. Are. The. Chances??? You were probably there to fly one of your own planes, as you loved to do. Of course this memory came rushing back when I heard about your crash years later. It seemed such a waste. So, wherever you may be now (heaven – or “almost heaven”), perhaps sitting with your friend George (laughing at how much funnier he is than the real God), I hope it warms your heart to know that, all these years later, your music still resonates with at least one teenage city slicker.
I am looking for a parking space on a rainy Wednesday. I see the church but there’s no spots nearby. I go further up the road, turn and see what looks like a space at the street’s end. I park and debate whether or not to bring an umbrella. It’s no longer raining but the grey blanket above looks ominous. I discover my collapsible umbrella fits almost neatly into my suit pocket. Better safe. I walk up the road and see a dark skinned man and his two boys. They are carrying a long black case – too big to fit into any suit pocket. Given their formal dress, I assume we are all headed to the same destination. Sure enough, they enter the church. I go in hesitantly, my first visit to a church in who knows how long. There are people already seated, with some milling around a woman. My friend Jackie. Last time I saw her, only a matter of weeks ago, we had one of our occasional Vietnamese lunches near our sometimes shared workplace. All was relatively right with the world then. Now it’s not. Her husband Bill is dead. Gone just over a month after diagnosis. A year younger than me. Bloody hell. I wait my turn to greet Jackie. We embrace. I express my condolences. She nods, smiling slightly, sadly. I can not begin to imagine how surreal this is for her. I then sit with some of her workmates and watch the church slowly fill. When Jackie takes her seat on the front pew, I notice her nine-year old son. I’ve met him briefly once or twice and have heard numerous stories about his sporting prowess. He seems fairly animated at the moment, perhaps a bit swept away by excitement. The service begins with “Amazing Grace”. If I were forced to nominate a favourite hymn – this would be it. I’m surprised to hear myself sing in a not too wayward baritone (or so I assume – some low register at any rate). Then the dark skinned man and his boys get up to do a welcome to country, revealing the object in the mysterious bag to be a didgeridoo. I feel slightly embarrassed, having assumed they were Indian on first sighting. Once welcomed, the eulogies begin. First Bill’s brother, revealing an interesting family history spent in a house on the harbour and a boy who became obsessed with sailing. Then of an inquisitive, witty and somewhat contrary young man who drifted through a number of careers but whose true passions lay in music and, of course, sailing. Jackie is up next. I’m impressed with how calm she seems as she delivers a beautiful and heartfelt account of a trans-continental love affair. Perhaps it’s her English stoicism coming to the fore. There are a few laughs as she recounts Bill’s somewhat mad scheme for them to sail from England to Australia in a rundown old tub that one seafarer denounced as a death trap. But such was Bill’s contrary determination that he breathed new life into the dodgy vessel and, despite needing considerable coaxing, Jackie accompanied him on the trip of a lifetime. Once back in Sydney, the boat remained their home for some time – a peculiarity I recall from when I first met her. She then tells of their joy at the arrival of their son and the transformation of her husband into a sports nut. Slides are projected of a father and son dressed in footy gear. This is now familiar territory, echoing my shared footy obsession with my own son. Perhaps this makes me especially vulnerable to what happens next. The nine-year old, who only minutes earlier had seemed fairly happy, is now sobbing loudly. I can feel a wave of helpless grief sweep through the room. Jackie, though still calm, cuts her eulogy short to attend to her heartbroken boy. As an interlude, there’s a musical performance – a double bass solo (my first at a funeral – or anywhere else). Somehow it seems to make sense, an unusual tribute to an unusual man. Then comes the final eulogy from a long time friend. It is full of warm and wry observations about a true individual. There’s another hymn but this time without my baritonal contribution. The service comes to a close with the pallbearers lifting the casket. I notice the son has changed into a blue Superman tee-shirt with ‘Dad’ below the symbol. I choke up. Music begins as the the procession slowly walks up the aisle. Deep toned bells. I think it must be some obscure musical piece – in keeping with the double bass solo. Then – guitar riffs. Oh – is it heavy metal? This is confirmed with the first screaming vocal. I smile. ACDC? Or Rose Tattoo? No matter. It’s a great send off for a true contrarian. (I discover later that it’s in fact ACDC’s “Hell’s Bell’s” – the son having chosen it to acknowledge his dad’s love for the iconic Aussie rockers. When the choice was put to the church minister, he replied, “Well, that’ll be a first”). I follow the procession outside and stand around until the hearse slowly pulls away. I then wait my turn to say good-bye to Jackie. As I approach, she puts out her hand. I’m thrown by this, assuming that we will embrace like we did earlier. I do so anyways, despite thinking perhaps she’s simply all hugged out and just wanted a bit of relief. I again offer condolences and say we’ll catch up at some stage. As I walk back to the car, I am heavy with grief. Though I never met him, I not only feel I now know Bill, I almost feel like I am Bill. Similar age, never locked into a particular job, fiercely individual and a devoted dad fairly late in life. That could have been me. Later that night I give my son a long, loving hug.
It’s time for evening drinks at the ANZ Promax conference. Being a freelance gun for hire, I have only been to a handful of Promaxs in my twenty-five plus years as a TV promo producer. But having worked for so many different channels in that time, I now know a number of people in the biz and enjoy the opportunity to catch up. I spot Dave, whose wry humour has amused ever since we both freelanced for TV1 (a channel sadly no longer with us). Dave landed himself an unusual gig a few years back and is responsible for promoting a couple of adult only channels. While a dream job for some, Dave admits it has its drawbacks – like rocking up on a Monday morning and being forced to watch a couple of crack whores go at it. I saunter towards him, guava and champagne cocktail in hand. He beams me a smile. “Well well, I haven’t seen you since you were kicked out of that Promax party in Wooloomooloo.” Ah yes – an episode that I am oddly proud of. It was well into the night and much alcohol had been consumed. I had entered my ‘dancing fool’ phase and was tearing up the dance floor. I was thirsty but wary of topping up my already soaring blood alcohol level. I needed water. But the bar was packed. No worries. I went to my bag and got out my water bottle. Empty. No worries. I went to the toilets and filled it up. I came out just as ACDC’s ‘Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll” started up. Rob, a long time colleague from SBS, was making a rare dance floor appearance. I’m not sure why this excited me but it did. So we were heading banging away like a couple of grey haired idiots. As the guitar solo built to a crescendo, something happened to me. Maybe I had suddenly been possessed by the mischievous spirit of Bon Scott. Who knows. But the excitement had peaked in me to such a point that I decided it was the perfect moment to place my water bottle in front of my crotch, squeeze it and cheer as the a stream of water arced up and splattered onto the dance floor. Rob and a few dance floor observers were amused by my spontaneous act of idiocy. But the Indian security guard who also saw it was not. I sensed this and rushed past him towards the toilets. “Yeah Yeah – I’ll take care of it.” I returned with an armful of toilet paper. I then got down on my hands and knees and wiped it up. I went back to the toilets to dispense of the dripping paper. I returned to the dance floor, ready to bop away again. But the security guard had other ideas. “You must leave now.” “What? Why? I cleaned it up.” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. You are too drunk. Come with me.” I shrugged. Probably time to get going anyway. So I grabbed my bag and was escorted from the premises to cheers from those by the dance floor. I am a legend.
It is approaching one a.m. on a cold Monday morning. Thanks to an unusual evening nap, I’m feeling relatively awake and ready for two hours of grown men trying to kick a ball into a net. Like most of the world, I’m cheering for the underdog but resigned that the favourite is likely to win – as they did twenty years ago. I also watched that victory in the early hours of a cold Monday morning in Sydney. But I’d seen a number of the proceeding matches all over the globe. Although I’d been in France in the lead up to the tournament, I was in Italy by the time it started. Rome was a ghost city as I walked out of the train station. When its citizens finally emerged, their mood was muted thanks to their nation’s unlikely draw with Chile. But later in a Venetian piazza, the small café crowd were jubilant after a decisive win. The streets of Amsterdam were draped in orange tissue paper and balloons. I found a not too crowded pub to witness the Netherlands battle Yugoslavia. I was amused to see the team names abbreviated on the screen as ‘NED’ vs ‘JOE’ – like two rednecks playing checkers. By the time of the semi-finals I was in Thailand, cheering for France in a Phuket sports bar. So, for me at least, 1998 really was the year of the World Cup.
The crowd is grooving. The musicians are swinging. They are the best soul men in the biz. Killer horns. Thumping bass. The original Funky Drummer. Never have I seen so much ego on one stage. They are the cream and they know it. Even so, they aren’t the main attraction. Despite being taken on a smooth ride to Funky Town, the crowd grows a little restless. It’s been over twenty minutes since the band hit the stage and still no sign of the main man. Until… “Ladies and Gentlemen – are you ready for the Godfather of Soul?” The crowd explodes. But this is just a tease – the start of a theatrical entrance that takes five minutes before, finally, James Brown takes the stage. He’s a short fella. But what he lacks in stature, he more than makes up in self belief and talent. The massive weight of ego already straining the stage has now more than doubled – thanks to the addition of the smallest man up there. He might be the other side of half a century but he’s still a Sex Machine. I am soon dripping in sweat, swept away by ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’. When James declares “I Feel Good”, I feel Great – beyond Great. With my soul about to burst, I realise that I am having a religious experience. I am in the presence of God. (Of course, in a matter of months, events will unfold that prove James Brown is not God but in fact a violent wife beater fleeing police while off his nut on horse tranquilisers…)
The nightly Bed Battle is in full swing. “Just go to bed – now!” “But I want to do something first.” “You can do whatever it is tomorrow.” Disappointed resignation. “All right.” Curiosity. “Tell me what it is so I can remind you.” A glimmer. “I want to measure myself in feet and inches.” This throws me. Not the usual delay tactic. I sigh. What the hell. I slide open the cabinet door guarding our pathetic tool collection. I grab the fluro orange tape measure. “Alright, stand up straight.” Not believing his luck, my son obliges. The yellow tongued tape stretches up his well toned teenage body. I press down on upright hair doing its best to extend the final figure. I pull the tape away and look to where my finger is pinching. 69 inches – 5’9’’. Wow. An impressive height for a fourteen-year-old. But then he’s always been a tall kid. And with his foot size now matching his age, we know that he’ll one day become, if not a giant, then certainly a man most people look up to. But the pressing question is – how close is he to my height? He passed his mother years ago. And in our recent head to head stand offs, I’m told that I still have an edge. But by how much? One way to find out. I hand the tape over and now it’s his turn to measure me. I’m suddenly nervous. I’ve always thought of myself as around 5’10” but it’s been decades since I’ve been measured in feet. Maybe I’ve shrunk. Well, I’m about to find out. My son pulls the tape away. He look at his finger. 70 inches – 5’10”. I am still taller. By one solitary inch. I am both relieved and trepidatious. The day I’ve dreaded is fast approaching – probably only weeks away. I will have to admit that my son has surpassed me. I will be somewhat diminished. And that will then continue as he grows taller and I slowly begin to shrink smaller. But until then – I will relish that last little inch.