“The Aerial Maps are surely headed for that esteemed space occupied by Australia’s finest – those whose music IS Australia.”
– Drum Media, Sydney
“The Aerial Maps are poised to become one of the most valuable bands in the country.”
– Inpress, Melbourne
“There is no other Aussie act quite like The Aerial Maps.”
– Jeff Jenkins, MAG
After a hiatus of six or so years, The Aerial Maps are making a return to the live arena, bringing our blend of story and song to life once more. After a fair bit of tumult and lots of changes for the Maps, the epic Brisbane band Halfway has invited us to support them on their album launch tour, and Adam Gibson has decided that it is indeed time to reignite things … to once again take audiences on long lyrical journeys across the land, through small forgotten towns, past desert landscapes, empty beaches and into the great distance of Australia and beyond.
With 2018 marking the 10th anniversary of the release of our debut album, ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’, and following the loss of our much-loved comrade Simon Holmes last year, Adam felt the time was right to now re-spark the Maps after two albums with offshoot band, The Ark-Ark Birds. In essence, we wish to offer a new view, a different take, a path to something truly unique, live onstage, beginning with two shows with Halfway in August and September, in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
First gig, the Triffid in Brisbane on August 11. (With Halfway and Leichhardt)
Second gig, the Sly Fox in Sydney on August 17. (With Halfway and Hoolahan).
Third gig is a “solo” affair, featuring Adam Gibson, Alannah Russack and Peter Fenton at the fantastic Merri Creek Tavern, in Melbourne.
Forth gig, the Spotted Mallard in Brisbane on September 15. (With Halfway, Cold Irons Bound, Harley Young).
Full dates are here:
Saturday, August 11
The Triffid, Brisbane
Halfway with special guests The Aerial Maps, plus Leichhardt
Friday, August 17
The Sly Fox, Sydney
Halfway, with special guests The Aerial Maps, plus Hoolahan
Friday, September 14
The Merri Creek Tavern, Melbourne
Adam Gibson – (The Aerial Maps, solo)
Alannah Russack (Hummingbirds, solo)
Peter Fenton (Crow, solo)
Saturday, September 15
The Spotted Mallard, Melbourne
Halfway, with special guests The Aerial Maps, plus Cold Irons Bound, Harley Young
By Adam Gibson
Eleven years ago, I flew back home to Australia from an icy stay in Europe. For eight months I had barely seen a pure beam of sunlight as I lived in a tiny apartment on Rue de Sevres in Paris then relocated to a sprawling home beside a tidal bay in Northern Ireland, an hour south of Belfast. The purpose of that overall trip was the intention to write a novel. An earlier novel manuscript called “Blinding Sunlight” had been shortlisted for the Australian/Vogel Award and had attracted interest from various publishers. For one reason or another, it didn’t get over the line but I was subsequently encouraged by a major publisher to “write another novel and we’ll see how that goes.” And thus I set out with such an intention, following every cliché in the book and going to Paris to give it a crack.
Paris offered crowded Metro trains, late nights in smoky bars, long afternoons staring into the grey eyes of a Polish woman named Dorota I met when she was working in a Haagen Daz outlet, strong coffees and a deep eventual loneliness that no amount of red wine or “café au lait” could conquer. And, most importantly, barely a word was written. Having spent a lot of time rambling along those streets in the mid ’90s, by the time of my return in late 2006 I felt the city had changed markedly and that change seeped into my psyche. Always tougher and less romantic in real life, I felt, than the image portrayed in movies and novels, I latterly felt that it had gotten even tougher, less open and defiantly more unfriendly. It was like the borders of the Europe had come down with the EU but personal borders of everyday Parisians had gone up. But perhaps it was just something within me because, as Paul Theroux once wrote, “Travel is a state of mind – we always carry ourselves with us wherever we go.” Either way, the point is, I barely picked up my pen and scribbled a sentence.
Things simply weren’t feeling right so when an offer came to relocate to Northern Ireland, a place I had never previously visited, came up, I took the opportunity gladly. The house where I was to stay was located in a tiny village called Dundrum in County Down, best known for the ruins of Dundrum Castle and perched on the edge of a wide shallow bay called, funnily enough, Dundrum Bay. Through a contact, I had a four-bedroom house all to myself, looking out over the bay at the edge of town. It was February and it was freezing; the bay often enveloped in an impenetrable icy mist through which, it was said by the locals, at night you could hear the ghost shouts of the Vikings who once supposedly sailed there. It certainly had a dark, ancient, haunted feel about it, but the people in the village were friendly and the cafe in the nearby town of Newcastle was rather cosy.
And, for whatever reason, the writing began to flow again. The only problem was, it wasn’t writing for my intended novel. It was more fragmentary stuff, snippets of ideas, poems, stanzas for song lyrics, all with some underlying sense of longing for sunlight, longing for warmth and fresh air and an open landscape. Essentially, it was a longing for Australia. Echoing Hemingway’s idea about America, I had to go to the other side of the world to be able to see Australia more clearly. Or so it felt. But seeking to not stem the flow of words after months of inactivity, writing-wise, I just let it go; my visions of, and desire for, that landscape of “home” growing every day. I kept writing every day to capture that. Dorota came across for a few weeks, we went on long long walks through the rough countryside, I drunk Guinness in the local pub, I was asked to join the local cricket team simply because I was Australian and “all Aussies can play cricket” (apparently) and I filled a book with a vision of Australia that felt important to me. The intended novel went out the window (though I doubt the publisher is still waiting for my call…)
February 2007 then turned to March, Dorota went back to Paris, my time in Northern Ireland was coming to an end. Unsure of my next move, a few weeks after she had left, I returned to Paris to see Dorota. But something had changed. We met on a street up near Lamarck-Caulaincourt and the spark in her eye that had been there for months, through those early Paris days and in Northern Ireland, had gone. Paris in early spring wasn’t romantic at all. It all felt like shit and I went back to the El Dorado Hotel on the almost mockingly-named Rue de Dames and pondered my options. A couple were fucking athletically in the room above, I couldn’t find anything decent to eat and I felt the cold of Europe wearing too deeply into my bones. It was time to go home to the blinding sunlight. Within two days I was on that plane back to Australia.
Flying via Singapore, the plane took the beautiful route diagonally NW to SE down across the country and I remember waking to the hubbub of breakfast preparations and opening my window shade to see the deep red earth of the Kimberly down below. The longing and love for the Australian landscape that I had held within, which I had put on hold for months in Europe, broke inside me and I felt an overwhelming excitement about my own life and the possibilities that may be present in my home country. I peered out the window for perhaps hours, mesmerised by the deep fissures and tracks of rivers, the fuzzed green-white outlines of salt pans, the red corrugated unknown ranges, the jig-sawed plains, the fly-blown wilderness that looked like it was all baking in the purest sun. My eyes were aerial mapping the land, I felt, lodging the cracks and lines and earth deep within me. And then a phrase struck me. The Aerial Maps. It was a name I’d toyed with years before for an earlier band project but had pretty much forgotten it. But right at that moment, in that plane, it came back to me, and with an attendant clear vision. For many years I had performed spoken word poetry around Australia and then, in the couple of years before I’d gone away, had channelled that into incorporating that delivery style into the band Modern Giant. Suddenly, all those things I’d been writing in Northern Ireland felt like they had an outlet, a way of release.
By the time I’d landed in Sydney, the whole concept had formed in my head. A band called The Aerial Maps in which the core was spoken word stories (mostly) about Australia, about the landscape and people and other attendant visions I’d had thereof. It all made complete sense and felt right. Within a few months I had gathered a collection of people, briefed them very briefly on the concept and booked a few days in Damien Gerard Studios in Rozelle, Sydney. On board musically initially were my brother Simon Gibson, our long-time friend and musical guru Simon Holmes and Andy Meehan from Modern Giant. (Later recording sessions were to see singer-guitarist Lucy Lehmann, piano whiz Tim Byron and lifelong friend Sean Kennedy plus a cast of others join us.) With Simon Holmes producing and playing an array of instruments, we entered the studio with the barest of musical ideas – I just had a book full of “poems” and stories that I wanted to “put music to”, with no real thought as to what the end product might be and certainly with no real intent of ever playing the stuff live.
The very first thing we recorded was a track called ‘On the Punt’, based on a memory I’d had about coming home from school and hearing my father listening to the horse racing on his transistor in the kitchen and calling up the PhoneTAB and putting his bets on. I extrapolated that idea into a wider thought about travelling Australia and hearing those race calls in distant towns and distant places, a sense of a dusty unbridled landscape seen through the binoculars of the race caller, long highways, fly-blown towns. My brother Simon came up with the chord progression and played drums, Andy Meehan and Simon Holmes played guitar and bass respectively, Lucy Lehmann adding backing vocals and suddenly … suddenly we had a “song”. Jeez. That felt good, we said, let’s keep going. And thus we did, my brother Simon leading the musical writing charge and Simon Holmes taking the producer’s helm with ease. And, in less than a month or two, we had recorded 11 or so tracks and we suddenly realised we had an album on our hands.
One of the tracks we recorded was called ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ and, echoing my earlier novel manuscript, coupled with my blinking eyes seeking to burn the damp and chill of Europe away, it felt the right title for the whole project, and thus ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ became the album. With no previous thought of releasing it, I now thought it might be a good idea to put the feelers out and see if any labels were interested in doing so. Major labels were of course out of the picture and hip local Sydney ones didn’t want a (literal) bar of it. So I reached out to old friend Scott Thurling, honcho of small Melbourne label PopBoomerang, which had released the Modern Giant records a few years before. Ever the enthusiast, Scott was right behind the project without even hearing a note. I thus sent him the unreleased record to garner his thoughts. Within a day he had gotten back to me and said, “Let’s release this!”
And therefore, time moved ahead and we sorted out the technicalities like artwork and sequencing and mastering etc and eventually, by mid 2008, it was ready to be released. By this time my brother had relocated overseas but it felt right to form a band around the record and to see if we could replicate things live. With Simon Holmes leading that charge again, we got Andy Meehan on board on guitar, AJ Johnson on drums and Sean Kennedy on keyboards and thus the very first incarnation of the live Aerial Maps was born. With the album due for release any day, we launched both it and the band with a show at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and then shortly after with a more raucous affair at the Hopetoun Hotel in Surry Hills. It was 2008.
We subsequently went on to play a heap of shows all around the place as the Aerial Maps, with various members coming and going. Tours of Melbourne and Brisbane and lots of points in-between. It was a niche beast we were pursuing – spoken word storytelling with musical backing – but it seemed to work quite well and a lot of people seemed to be into it. We felt we were hitting some form of mark and ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ found its way into various nooks and crannies, the band receiving correspondence from all over Australia and, to our ongoing surprise, far afield from places such as Scandinavia and Italy. Something struck some sort of chord and jeez it was fun. The album was selling nicely, it won the Overland Poetry Prize for “Best Spoken Word Release”, people seemed to like it.
On the back of that, and now getting ambitious, we decided to record a second album. Not content to take an easy path and do ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ Mark II, we nearly broke our psyches and bank accounts by trying to turn the core idea of the novel I’d gone to Europe to write into an album. This album went on to be a record called ‘The Sunset Park’, a concept album if you will, that told a transcontinental start-to-finish Australian story. It was an intense experience and Simon Holmes, Sean Kennedy and I all went a little mad in the process. The chord struck by ‘ITBS’ had attracted some attention from bigger record labels and a key supporter involved with one such label asked to be the first to hear the new album. Little did he realise (at that point) that we had gone so far off into another direction that, commercially, ‘The Sunset Park’ was an absolute impossible sell. We finished the album and did in fact send it to him. The silence was very long and very loud. Whilst he remained a supporter of the Maps, there was simply no way known he could envisage releasing the record. It still came out though and, to this day, I get messages in regards to it by people who love it. Even I find it a difficult listen but I remain very proud of it.
The Maps again toured again around that time to support the record with the likes of Peregrine Chiara, Alannah Russack, Greg Perano, Lucy Lehmann, Paul Andrews and several more playing with us and being integral to the whole thing. But the recording process had drained our funds and a fair bit of energy. We weren’t the Rolling Stones and playing a thousand shows a year, but we ticked along and kind of wore ourselves out. We played a live version of ‘The Sunset Park’ on ABC Radio National, we did all sorts of things, but we were tired. And then life intervened for all of us, Holmesy moved out of Sydney, Sean started working as a producer at the ABC. I was doing this and that. The Maps basically went into an unintended / extended hiatus. In order to keep performing live however, I formed The Ark-Ark Birds, playing a bunch of Maps tunes but also newer stuff co-written with my brother. This soon coalesced into an album, and then another, and time moved on etc and so forth and that became my main musical “vehicle”, as it were, and remains so now.
Anyway. Anyway. In early 2017 or perhaps mid/late 2016, I was chatting to Simon Holmes and mentioned that 2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’. Where had the time gone? Who knew? But maybe, I suggested to him, it would be a good occasion to mark? Perhaps we could re-release the album on vinyl, or something, perhaps we could do a tour, play shows as the Aerial Maps again? I’d always loved the band (and the band name) and it was always something I thought we’d eventually do. The 10-year anniversary was as good a reason as any…
Sadly, none of that was to happen. In July last year, just as my thoughts were privately coalescing into a plan to get that release or perhaps tour to happen, Simon Holmes took his own life, much to the devastation of many across the country. It ripped the heart out of so many of us and we’re all still dealing with it in our various ways. Perhaps even the very writing of this is part of that. I was honoured to be involved with Simon musically for a fair period and to equally call him a friend. The Aerial Maps were but one small component of his life but I like to think that the recordings we did and the shows we played gave him a lot of joy. I’m not intending to speculate on reasons or wherefores, but as it stands, it is 10 years since we released ‘In the Blinding Sunlight’ and at a celebration of Simon’s life at the Factory Theatre last November, I felt his presence right beside me as we finished a set as “The Aerial Maps”, perhaps for the last time, with ‘On the Punt’, a raucous, rambling version that I am sure the big fella, 10 years on, would’ve been proud of.
Will we re-release the record on vinyl? I dunno, maybe it’s a good idea … and maybe that major label will at last come to the party? Probably not though and that’s okay.
A collection of impressions about a band
By Adam Gibson
There’s something happening out there, in the suburbs and streets and towns. You might not be aware of it. You might have absolutely no clue, lamenting the demise of the music you knew, the bands that once held sway. It’s all gone to shit. There’s nothing out there but kids with dumb playlists who are always playing on their phones doing crap that you don’t understand, and you firmly of the belief the soul has gone, the spirit of the country is up shit creek and reflected in crap music and scattershot, ill-formed opinions, What do they bloody well know?
But there’s a line out on Enmore Road. It’s a complete fair dinkum sell out. Believe it. You can’t get a ticket even if you want one. Callow youths with non-ironic ironic mullets, daggy surfwear caps pressed flat over long hair, looking like extras from some movie set on the day of the first Big Day Out in 1992, guys and girls in equal measure, sundresses and cut-off jeans on a hot March night, suburban kids, uni students living eight to a house somewhere south of Marrickville, battling 10,000th generation cockroach families and gentrification creeping like a werewolf along every street.
There’s something happening, right now, I can see it here and realise, true. This is a brewing, shouldered mass, clear-eyed and happy, inclusive, together, strong with anticipation. Not looking back in lament, not second-guessing, but surging forward like we did in that envisaged earlier scene of my own ’92, hungry for songs of their own, hungry for stories, hungry for words of the moment and a co-incidence of chords that hit upon a melody that ignites in unification, that coalesces into songs that they can and, most definitely will, sing. As if the future and present are exactly NOW, and they’re living it, whether you or their parents or anyone else likes it, or knows about it, or not.
The air is smudged with non-toxic smoke machine smoke, visual approximation of them old days but without the carcinogens. The Enmore’s ready, the old sprung floor begins to tremble under a mass of feet, a girl and boy of barely 18 grapple together in front of me, kissing hard as the first trickle of what will become a torrent of guitars begins, as if this is the first day of every tomorrow, while a tall 25-year-old, built like a footballer, grabs me in a headlock and screams HOW GOOD IS THIS?!
And it is good. It is absolutely, infinitely cathartic. The crowd a tightly pressed unit seemingly of one, pouring with sweat for the hour-and-a-bit set, screaming lyrics to songs that, if you weren’t there and weren’t aware, are already anthems. And they are. DEATH TO THE LADS! they sing, as loud as they possibly can, Wil Wagner confessing he is fucking amazed by the crowd, “the loudest one we’ve ever had”. This is Midnight Oil-wellian in the connection and local conscience, this is Mick Thomas/Weddings Parties Anything-esque in the folk singalong sensibility, this is Living End-like in the punk-vibe sneer. Crowd surfing and sing-alongs and even a mosh pit, going hard with, again, equal measure of male and female. “Music industry professionals, they can go and fuck themselves!” Too right, I’d say, the best line Joe Strummer never wrote.
There’s something happening out there, a band on tour with 32 shows across the country possibly just like this, a sense of beginnings and possibilities, Australian accents and stories and songs, about local lives and local events. The crowd pours out onto the unlocked night, sweaty and with possibly sore throats, alive to the sound of guitars and choruses still being shouted here and there. It’s good, it’s bloody good. As are The Smith Street Band.
We had a superb weekend and super-fun gig at the Fairgrounds Festival over the weekend just passed, December 8, 9 and 10. A truly great event and we loved doing our thing on the Windmill Stage. That wraps up an eventful year, one full of a few ups and some serious downs. But as we cast our eyes towards next year, we are planning a lot of good things, with some exciting developments on the Ark-Ark horizon. Until then, see ya.
By Adam Gibson
Around seven Australian men commit suicide every day. Seven men. Per day. For god’s bloody sake, that’s ridiculous. Shocking. Donald Horne was being ironic when he said Australia was the “Lucky Country”, but that phrase has become common vernacular usage for what people do feel about the place. It’s a badge of honour, to be worn to express “How good have we got it?!” But seven men pulling the plug per day!? That’s nothing to spruik about. Someone ain’t sharing the luck. That’s shit.
And bloody hell, it’s not a contest and it isn’t anything to be proud of, but that’s more than three times the figure for women. What a disaster. What is going on? Every suicide is a tragedy, be it a man or a woman, but that disparity is just so vast and so heavy. Why isn’t this known more widely? Perhaps it is. I hadn’t been made well aware of it. All I know is that on this warm Monday afternoon in Spring in Sydney, it suddenly occurred to me that I personally know at least 10 to 20 men – friends or acquaintances – who have committed suicide. Extrapolate that out to all the people I know … and jeeezussss.
I have been through depression; I’ve given anxiety a solid nudge. I’ve seen the dark of the night and I have been on first name terms with the otherwise nameless shadow figures of 3am, those spirit souls wandering the night, throwing doubt and hopelessness around like flowers at a 70s hippie party in Nimbin, granting black blood blessings to your horrible individual self, a self that would give anything for sleep. Been there, got the damn prescription. But I have found ways to get through, put my head down and carry on.
So forgive me if I sound glib about this, but something needs to shift in Australia, something needs to be arked up and sparked up and revved up and any-other-verbs-you-can-think-of upped up… Jesus Christ. Seven men per day. Seven men who maybe followed footy teams, seven blokes who maybe had kids, wives, mums/dads, Labradors named Billy or Alsatians named Sasha, who played in bands, who owned Toyota Hiluxes with mag wheels and ARB canopies; fellas who were happy the North Queensland Cowboys made the NRL Grand Final (and pissed off Melbourne won) or that Richmond finally won the AFL; men who were stoked in the last Gang of Youths album, who loved Suzanne Vega or the new Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile record; guys who ran triathalons, who loved Game of Thrones and Q&A, who caught the bus to work playing Megadeth on their headphones so loud even the bus driver could hear … basically guys who were just like you, or not far off, or someone you know, or maybe who you used to know, back in the day.
I’m baffled, I’m struggling to get my head around this. But I do believe that I come from a position that I have seen the dark side and have worked things out which, to a degree, can make a difference. I also come from a solid family, live in a good area, have had a decent education (arguably) and am reasonably fit. “All good”, you might say. But such things don’t in themselves negate the blackness.
So yes, the first and basic idea is that, I believe, no matter how bad things are, they will always eventually pass or get better. And if they get bad again, they will again pass too. I don’t know. Try to damn well stick with it… I am no psychologist and I am no doctor. This is perhaps akin to the sort of homespun homily you find everywhere these days, shallow “inspirational” quotes attributed to people whom you don’t even know and who probably didn’t even say them in the first place.
But anyway …
Just try try try … try to move onward … give someone a call or email, give ME a call or email, go for a surf or a run, sign up to a bloody yoga class, get on Tinder and swipe right a zillion times till you get a match, do a knitting workshop, go to a decent GP (eg. Dr Simon Gerber, Bondi Junction), don’t outright reject anti-depressants or similar, think that through, do a meditation class (talk to Lis Cancio, Bondi), learn to box and hit the heavy bag (talk to Maydad at the Bondi Boxing Gym), go live in the hills in a shed at the back of Bangalow (LJ Hooker Bangalow, I guess??)…
Essentially, do SOMETHING to shift things; try, have a go, go and see a band, start a band, explore the Clash’s back catalogue, get on YouTube and search for Husker Du, listen to every song, buy every PJ Harvey album and learn every word, listen the spoken poetry of Kate Tempest or Sean M Whelan, read the novels of Peter Carey and the non-fiction of Helen Garner, order the novel ‘The North Water’ online (it’s bloody great), read about when Leonard Cohen met Marianne on Hydra, listen to all of Leonard’s works, go to a Boon Companions event, buy a Patrick Lee Fermor book, listen to a Mick Thomas album, learn to surf (talk to Let’s Go Surfing in Bondi and elsewhere), learn to play the trumpet (let the neighbours know first), do an acting course at the Actor’s Centre, my god … find a GOD, almost any one will do!
Deep breath… more … Find a sport and a team to support, join the SES and get a nice orange uniform, join the RFS and fight fires (say hi to Tony Abbott), go for a beer with a mate at Bat Country at The Spot in Randwick, join a writing workshop to purge yourself of those awful rough angles in your mind (call me, we’ll start one), buy a surfboard; a shortboard, a longboard, a fucken ironing board, anything will do, hang it on your wall if that’s all you wanna do with it.
Basically, my point is … just do something, anything to turn the days onward, to shift the dark feelings, cos they always do eventually shift.
Many years ago, old-time Aussie movie buff Bill Collins (“What do you have to do to be a ‘buff’?,” – George Costanza) showed the classic surf film ‘Big Wednesday’ on his Saturday Night at the Movies show. In the customary intermission, I remember clearly, he came on and just said, “Wow, I have never been a surfer and never will be … but I can see that it is something … that makes the bad days good and makes the good days better.” Nailed it Bill. It’s what everyone needs.
That is an absolutely shithouse statistic of seven men per day … it is affecting every one of us in Australia. I don’t really have the answers but a collective effort aimed directly at men encouraging such things as I mention, is, perhaps, somehow required.
Ok, I’m going for a surf now…
- All those specific names I have mentioned have been people, or places, which have helped me. They are just reference points to indicate that these aren’t abstract ideas I am simply tossing around.
It’s on again … + WE’RE on again! That sweet lil’ big festival, that old-school-wander-around-and-discover-unreal-bands event, that classic friendly, cruisy shindig of sun, music, grass and bands – Fairgrounds – is back on. And we’ve been invited to play again. We are stoked beyond measure having just found out the news.
If you haven’t been in previous years, make your debut this year. If you’ve been before, we’ll see you there. The usual spot. In the shearing shed, near the windmill. The Shins are playing! Gang Of Youths are playing! You Am I are playing! Saturday, December 9.
Stay tuned for some good news, coming in the next week or so.
I was in an opera with Dame Joan Sutherland. It was Lakmé, performed at the Sydney Opera House in the late 1970s, just before she was actually made a Dame. I didn’t sing a note. I stood onstage dressed as “Chinese Boy” whilst the great coloratura soprano took the lead role. I remember her head being a massive edifice of fixed-tight hairsprayed hair, seemingly as solid as hardened fibreglass. Her costume was equally elaborate; a massive bust embroidered, in both reality and in my memory, with intricate scrolls and patterns. Her image is fixed in my head as this gigantic perfumed operatic monster, a ship that seemed to move with the steady assuredness of the Queen Mary, with an equal sense of the wisdom of getting the hell out of her way if she was approaching.
I was eight years old. The Sydney Opera House stood as the pinnacle of Australian culture. Only having been open for a handful of years at that point, it was (and still is) the only real place in Australia that seemed to hold the true devastating mystery of the entertainment world. In his position as one of Australia’s most well known big bandleaders, my father Bobby Gibson had spoken of the Opera House in such a fashion and the awe and wonder of the place was transmitted down to my brother Simon and I. Those strangely long but small steps; that grand sweeping jut out into the harbour, those magnificent “sails” and the cold off-white tiles that seemed to hold something grand and historic in their smooth-to-touch feel. This was a place where Things Happened, where the Great Magic of Entertainment lay.
My brother and I hung around the Sydney eisteddfod scene in those days, venturing all over town as kids did their best performances in shopping centres and community halls from Bondi to Burwood and back again. As a talent agent, our mum was also involved in all sorts of television shows and TV commercials and stage shows and every year at the Sydney Easter Show at the Sydney Showground we based ourselves at Joy O’Neill’s Daffodil Theatre, just near the main arena, down a bit from the famous Tasmanian Hot Chip stand. Simon and I, and our friends, were often to be found on stage performing in some form, or else we were haunting the rest of the Showground with the Goodman girls, scamming free rides on the Cha-Cha or Wild Mouse or Ghost Train or Matterhorn by saying, “We’re Showies, can we have a ride?” So when it came to the casting of kids for Lakmé, we were at the front of queue. Not that there was really much of a queue. Things just happened then. Showbiz? Yeah, why not. A role in an opera with “La Stupenda“, aka the soon-to-be “Dame” Joan Sutherland? Yeah, why not?
And so I found myself being cast as “Chinese Boy” in Lakmé. This was the late 70s and whilst there were obviously real Chinese boys in Sydney at the time, it was absolutely not an issue for a completely Caucasian boy from Bondi to be cast in the role. No one seemed to think that there was any problem with that, not one iota. And thus so I further found myself, with my mum, dad and brother, deep in the bowels of the Opera House, sitting for an hour each time in the make-up chair pre-performance, the smell of the thick make-up and cold cream and cigarettes and heavy 1970s aromas emanating from devastatingly beautiful opera singers and other cast members. The women lithe in the flowing robes the “Oriental” theme of the opera demanded, with dark mascara and heavy eye-shadow across their faces; the men, huge handsome figures with booming voices and an air of ancient solemnity mixed with a pheromonic base note of all the sex I’m now sure they were all having.
Onstage, the lights shone brightly into my eyes, the huge audiences filling the Opera Theatre, the hustle-bustle backstage of the crew moving gigantic backdrop scene structures. And in the arc light of the drama, Joan stood like an immovable mountain; like dead-set Mount Everest, the sheer force of her voice eviscerating the dreams of any of the other singers who thought they may come close to her. I recall one of my tasks involved having to stand at the rear of the stage, near a pylon, stage left, and at a certain point having to move forward with some sort of item, which I cannot now specifically remember – perhaps a box with a trinket inside – and place the item on a table near Dame Joan. I did this on the instructed cue, and every night, the sheer terror of the moment nearly made me freeze but, every night, I managed to do it, walking forth into the direct, silent, gaze of La Stupenda, placing the item, then retreating slightly while she regarded me with a stare that contained all the great power of European operatic history and drama and death and struggle and the beauty of all humankind. And then she’d look away.
Backstage and down in and around the legendary performers’ “Green Room”, myself, Simon, and a bunch of other kids who were also in the cast ran absolutely amuck in the hushed and magnificent labyrinth of corridors and rooms and deep hidden places that lay beneath the bedrock of Bennelong Point. I recall the plush carpet, the low ceilings, the pale wooden doors with brushed metal handles, each with a code indicating some information about the room’s role, which we could never decode. We had complete free run of the place. During long afternoons between the matinee and the evening show, we would find our way into places that I am certain Jørn Utzon didn’t even know existed. We’d take that corridor this way, then this one that way, and find ourselves behind false backstage walls of the Concert Hall or the transport loading dock or the kitchen, ancient security men not bothering too much with security and cleaners finding a hidden room in which to have a ciggy and maybe a bit of a nap. Oh what a superb subterranean world, a great incredible mysterious place for a bunch of kids dressed in fancy dress and performing before or later onstage with one of the world’s greatest ever opera singers.
Life moves on, you travel overseas, you come home again, you fall in love with someone, then they fall in love with someone else. You get older and your memories bury themselves somewhere just below your breastbone or form as an ache in the hip that just won’t go away. You remember things just as quickly as you forget them before remembering them again, just in time before they’re gone forever …
And so, a little while ago my brother and I had the opportunity to go and see The Whitlams play a show in the Concert Hall in the Opera House, backed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t been inside for years, even though I’d always looked at that superb building whenever remotely close to it. As my ferry rounded Bennelong Point from the east, I again looked up those truly magnificent sails and felt that same frisson of excitement I’d felt all those years ago when I gazed upon the building. I alighted my ferry and walked past the thronging crowds at the restaurants beneath the Toaster and made my way towards the venue. Every feeling again returned; I ascended those tricky low steps, felt my feet on the plush carpet and, as I approached the ticket counter to pick up my tickets, looked to my left and saw an unmarked door. It all came back to me. At eight years old, I knew that door well. It was one of the many that led into the mysteries within. I looked around and, despite the crowd, nobody noticed me as I walked towards it, just to see if it was unlocked. I placed my hand on that brushed metal handle, pushed down, and yes … the door creaked open. I could easily have slipped in, gone inside, gone underground. But I didn’t. I pulled it back closed again and continued upstairs to meet my brother, simply happy to realise that such doors to the past do sometimes remain open.