Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dispatch From The Front: Day 36

Lyle Lovett’s sound-check.

Michael Dransfield stepped off the plane in Perth and inhaled the air. It reeked of solitude and vast distances. The light was sharp and clean. He walked into a hot, dry wind, more focussed than he could remember.

J.S. Harry and Kerry Leves had gone to Brooklyn. They weren’t country music fans, but the festival seemed a far better option than travelling into the wild West on a mission that was bound to end in tears.

Michael caught a cab into the city, then walked down through Kings park and the botanical gardens to the Swan River. He found the jetty where kids were doing bombies in the opening pages of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. He sat on the end of the jetty, looking out over the sliding dark blue river, going through the details of his plan. He had much to do and see before he went to the wheat belt. First he needed to visit Fay Zwicky. Fay had sent him a text, saying she had a special gift, one that would be ‘a talisman against redness...’ After visiting Fay, Michael was going to call in on Andrew Burke. He’d liked the poems of Andrew’s he’d read in New Poetry and sensed he could rely on him in a tight fix. He was going to ask if he’d accompany him to Geraldton. Michael had always wanted to see first-hand the harbour and surrounding countryside of Randolph Stowe’s Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, and Andrew Burke knew the place well. He remembered a line from the novel, and said it aloud: “The merry-go-round had a centre post of cast iron, reddened a little by the salt air...” He understood that line now. The redness was not rust. It was Stowe’s metaphor for a fast-approaching time of linguistic decay and unprecedented ego in Australian literature. The merry-go-round’s centre post was the eye of the storm, the hub, and at its perimeter was the centrifugal force that would throw all but the most discerning and determined readers and lovers of poetry into chaos.

Fay had morning tea ready when Michael arrived. She poured tea and talked about The Island War. She spoke calmly about how the Waggaists were representative of all that’s wrong with poetry when theory becomes its overarching focus and driving force. “Most of them are running scared on the meniscus of an ill-perceived notion of what it takes to write good verse,” she said, spooning blackberry jam into a bowl. “They feel that if you dive deep, and go on your nerve and trust your instincts rather than the poetics of the current fashion of the time, you’re seen as being too vulnerable, or sentimental. The Waggaist’s poetry is largely without passion and emotion. They view anything that engages with matters of the spirit as being pathetic. It’s why the Deep Imagists were ridiculed by the Academy when they started publishing their poems. When James Wright wrote “...when I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds,” or “...if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom,” the hard-arsed spin-doctors of cynicism and theory couldn’t handle it. For them, opening your chest and saying ‘Look at my heart, it’s in shreds’ was a fuck-up.” Fay was leaning on her elbows, using a scone to highlight each point. “By following the Red K’s lead, the Waggaists were writing too much, too quickly.  Technique and craft might seem to be interchangeable, but when careful editing is exposed on a hillside in septic weather, the poem breaks down.” Fay took a sip of tea and looked carefully at Dransfield. “Can you remember one line of a Red K poem?” Michael had to think, but not for too long. “No,” he said. Fay smiled and stood up. “My point exactly,” she said. She went to a large mahogany cabinet and opened a drawer. When she turned around she was holding a pendant on a plaited black leather string. She came to stand behind Michael and looped the pendant around his neck. It settled against his shirt with a cool, comforting weight. He lifted it and saw a photo of an osprey behind a globe of glass. Michael was overcome with emotion. The osprey was his favourite raptor. Fay took his hand. “The long voyage does indeed involve many streets,” she said, and kissed him on the forehead. “Now get to work.”

Emmy-Lou Harris was running around with a clip-board under her arm, organising the many singers and bands. There were only two days to go before the festival, and things were tight. The stage has been erected - it ran along beside the water at the marina, and had a huge scallop shell behind it, lit with green and blue. At night it looked incredible. During Lyle Lovett’s sound-check, Lyle had insisted the crowd be allowed to come to the stage. The atmosphere was electric.

Heading the bill at the music festival was supposed to have been Lucinda Williams and Hex, but no one had seen Lucinda for days. In her place, she’d put Lynyrd Skynyrd (with special guest John Berryman). Ronnie van Zandt and Berryman had been holed up in the back bar of the Angler’s Rest, putting music to some of the Dream Songs. Berryman loved that “Life, Friends, Is Boring...” now had a driving Southern swamp-boogie sound. Following Skynyrd were:
Johnny Cash
The Charlie Daniels Band
John Prine and Iris Dement
Patty Loveless (performing songs from her forthcoming album inspired by the poems of Mary Oliver)
Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris
Drag the River (with Lucky Oceans replacing their late friend on pedal-steel)
Sun Kil Moon
Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers
Dolly Parton, Lynn Anderson, Linda Rondstadt
Blue Rodeo
The Jayhawks
Kris Kristofferson and the Oyster Band
Gillian Welch
Drive-By Truckers
The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
Lyle Lovett
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (with Doc Watson and Vassar Clements)
The Ozark Mountain Daredevils
The freak banjo-player from Deliverance (with James Dickey responding on guitar)
Waylon and Shooter Jennings
Steve Earle and the Copperheads
Townes van Zandt
Wrinkle Neck Mules
Robert Earle Keen
Frog Holler
Chris Knight
James McMurtry 
I See Hawks in L.A.
Bill Wisely was Head of Security. He and Terry Hack and Moose had set up a perimeter fence around the venue, and out back of Yeats’ oyster shed, in case they were needed, they’d erected a few chicken wire cages. Bill had also enlisted the help of the Sons of Zebedee, who had finally been won over by Berryman and Hill’s eloquence and passion. Bill was handing out planks and giving orders.

Traffic out of Sydney and on the freeway south was already a nightmare. The Old Pacific Highway was banked up from Asquith and cars jammed the freeway from the Gosford turn-off. Many had abandoned their vehicles and were walking in. A local outlaw motorcycle club had already arrived in Brooklyn, and were a serious presence as they walked around with Bill’s planks, keeping things in order. Dolly Parton had taken the members aside and given them a stern lecture about how crowd-control can get out of hand. She reminded them of what had happened in ’69 when the Stones played Altamont. The bikers were impressed by Dolly’s cautionary speech, and promised to keep order without resorting to violence. 

Brooklyn was packed. You couldn’t get near the bar of The Rest. Thousands of craft were anchored out on the river - from Brooklyn to Flint and Steel and up to Spencer there was no room for anymore. The river was a tight patchworking of motor boats and sails. In town most people had gone up to the oval above the marina. There was a constant blue fog of spliff smoke on the breeze. Barbecues were spitting and smoking. The local cops were barely visible. They assumed because it was a country music festival that things would not get out of hand. This would prove a fatal mistake.

In their stone cottage, Bron yr Aur, in the Snowdonia National Park in Wales, Led Zeppelin were getting ready to leave. Robert Plant had received an email from his old friend Gram Parsons. Gram had told him how much he was looking forward to the festival in Brooklyn. Plant had contacted the other members, saying how much he wanted to go, and were they up for it. They hadn’t been semi-acoustic since Led Zeppelin 111, and they thought they’d surprise Gram by turning up in Brooklyn. They were all keen. John Bonham was excited. He was a keen fisherman, and news of massive Waggafish in the Lakes District had been in the London Times. He’d already packed his live-baiting gear. The band’s air-ship was waiting, hovering over a field outside the cottage.

G. Lehmann

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