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The singer not the song

Big tall lanky rangy wild-eyed Koori man with a guitar, reeling off the escalators to the underground at Central Station with a lean on like a ship heeling in a sou’ wester. Except there is no breeze, not yet anyway, only a remanence of the disturbed air that has rushed to fill the vacuum left by the train now pistoning through the tunnel. A disturbance and the hint of more to come. But right now the air is still, and in the absence of other stimuli his present inclination to the vertical is strictly attributable to his other one to the drink. The eyes roll in happy confusion in search of a friendly face – of features that offer the mysterious guarantee he seeks and even through an ethylic stupor knows how to recognise: a sympathetic ear and a pocket full of disposable change. "Can anyone give us two dollars to get home?"

The fluorescent lights produce an all-day light that is not daylight but a synthetic polychromatic amalgam aspiring to white, a wash of unrelieved and unforgiving luminescence that casts a mortuary pallor over weary commuter faces on this threadbare winter's evening. These faces now find themselves intensely preoccupied by a piece of lint on a coat sleeve, or are suddenly prey to a pressing need to SMS or an imperious rekindling of an earlier and distracted literary interest. As if a predator had swum into their ken, they withdraw like anemones, leaving nothing for that boggling gaze to batten onto, and in a matter of seconds there are no eyes on the platform, only crowns of heads bent conscientiously over newly vital tasks and occipital aspects of crania whose orbits are studiously aimed in the opposite direction. The auditory response however, as any old stager knows, is largely involuntary.

"Get out in that kitchen, and rattle them pots and pans". Rock ‘n’ roll shuffle in A. The voice is thick and raucous but improbably and delightfully tuneful. "YEAH get OUT in that KITCHEN and RATTLE them POTS and PANS". Heaven forefend, was that a foot set a tapping over there? Maybe… just for a moment before the forebrain recovers control and reinstates that state of wary disapproval.

Disapproval finds its ultimate expression in uniform, and the two sturdy buzz-cut boy-men now purposefully perambulating along the platform are filling security-guard ones, infused with their uniform ethos and primed to deliver and if necessary enforce society’s collective message. You can’t do that here sir. They advance with rolling gait, a curiously maritime one imposed by their girth and the numerous subjection/ reduction appurtenances riding on their hips. And of course they’re very sorry sir but you’re bothering these people. But who called them if everyone was so deeply preoccupied with other matters? Was anyone bothered? Or was it some inexplicable quasi-quantum-mechanical potential for bother that caused these two to manifest and begin speaking rehearsed words in quiet voices while they quietly manoeuvre him away from the seating area and off towards the sheeny blue-tiled wall?

The artiste’s remonstrations are met with the same monothematic response: you’re bothering these people sir. The earnestly indifferent public thus alluded to as ‘bothered’ faintly begins to stir, and now in the presence of an official presence a few eyes cautiously look up and a few cautious heads begin to turn. Effectively, the ease in tension is accompanied by a flowering of faces that trope as one, as if to some new light source, but the timorous blooms close rapidly once more as the frustrated performer now erupts in what might be real anger. Eye contact in such moments must not be made.

"YOU tell the pricks they’re botherin’ ME!" Please sir, now listen sir, please be reasonable sir… "You tell those pricks they’re botherin’ me!" But it’s obvious there’s no violence in the voice, only an upwelling of infinite sadness and incomprehension. For some reason, the joy that makes a man want to grab a guitar and a bottle and leave the house and play and sing is not being understood. So what if it’s a false happiness, fleeting and illusory? Isn’t it all? Who can honestly censure a man for tying one on and wanting to rattle them pots and pans?

The guards are wary, the man is highly vocal and too insistent. Fists flex and shoulders square in anticipation of implementing certain techniques entrusted only to trained personnel (but only for the person’s and everyone else’s safety; to protect and uphold the common good). Prudence is required: these lads know their bodies are society’s sacrificial anode and are not about to precipitate anything themselves. So after a mutual look of indecision followed by a flash of unspoken agreement, with gentle pleases and sirs they start to shepherd him back towards the escalators, and they manage a few metres until an indomitable astuteness cuts through the alcohol and he props and stalls again.

"No fuckin’ respect for a black man like me! Yeah! Eh?!" and he looks around at his audience, and they look at each other, and there are Caucasians and Asians and Hindus and they mentally shrug and look away or glaze over again. A brutally muscled arm ventures to gently direct his steps to the moving stairway with a sir, come now be reasonable please, sir, and he gives a sobbing cry that is half anguish and half rage. "Hey! I got a name! I got a fuckin’ name! I’m fuckin’ William. My… name… is… William!"

And it’s heart rending and compelling. Not Bill or Will but William: the big rangy bearded Koori man with the guitar and the white feller name he wants these people to use. The odd individual is smirking, but most are now looking on again with undivided attention. William has got a name now, and if you will lift your eyes from your book you can see his humanity has been there all along too. His denim jacket is stiff and neat, his jeans are blue and new and his boots are bright. It’s only his face and eyes and the Rasputin beard that give him any different aspect – and of course the poor simple plywood-top guitar, strung from three or four different sets of strings and tuned way down after a long afternoon’s playing. Playing for folks like them who can’t comprehend the spirit that moves an aboriginal man to sing, who can’t or won’t see that he wants some respect and will never get it, that he’s got a white man’s name no one wants to use and a nice line of good-time rock’n’roll no one wants to hear. Now, when did being an unkempt bearded drunkard with a raucous voice ever stop a white feller from winning an audience? Maybe the same folks down on that platform would have already been mobbing a Joe Cocker by now... But then maybe Joe never played a room as tough as Sydney Central Station at 9 pm on a winter’s Wednesday night.

Where did your people come from William? What would they make of this people that dig themselves into the ground, spurning rocks and trees and earth whose songs would never any more be sung? And what is their descendant doing here in this underworld of machinery and motion and pretended ceramic asepsis? For there is slack-eyed, slack-jawed William, slack-strung in body and guitar, down below where no breath of the bluster presaging the gathering storm above can enter. And the effort of body and will that got him tidily dressed and put his treasured instrument in his hand and still keeps it there long after the last bottle was emptied is a most wondrous thing.

A growing roar fills the underground station as the next train approaches, another piston squeezing air down the tunnel and blasting it up stairs and escalators. A clutching of skirts and coats and bags, a collective tilt into the draught and the commuters are standing bunched near where they know the doors will open, to dash to a suitable seat. The little one-act drama forgotten now as thoughts turn to the journey and home. From the nearest carriage the odd face against the glass might contemplate a dark angular man stepping unsteadily onto the escalator, guitar in hand, elbows propped by two burly security guards, and through the open doors over the hiss of compressed air comes a plaintive: "Leave me alone, instead o’ patronisin’ me!" And then unsteady but unsupported he lays his guitar across his chest and pulses that driving A chord, and howls to nobody in particular and everyone in general "Get out in that kitchen, and rattle them pots and pans…" until his lungs and legs and voice are sucked upwards into anonymity again.

William John Clifton Haley was born in Detroit, and much later as Bill Haley he formed a band called the Comets that sang ostensibly decorous white rhythm and blues like Shake, Rattle and Roll. A metaphor for a train journey, or life… Or the way William’s crazy pinball eyes lost him an audience twenty metres under the streets of Sydney. Would anyone have caught that tune? Maybe someone did, and remembered that not just Haley but a leering, snake-hipped and subversive Memphis trucker had sung the same song and with a decidedly suggestive twist. And maybe what subconsciously bothered them was how Elvis when he got to that last juicy verse wrapped his lock-up-your-daughters lips around it and gave a lurid smack of satisfaction: I'm like a one-eyed cat, Peepin' in a sea-food store…

It would have been nice to hear what William could have done with that verse. Who knows? Perhaps security were regaled with the full and unadulterated version, as they politely escorted their black Orpheus back up and out into darkness.

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Cronulla, August 2003

© V. Stevenson

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