"First Steps"

Getting Started

 

Starting a band should be like starting a book. You just start and go, and you don't censor anything in the first instance. Initially, it comes from brainstorming sessions, followed by a first and very rough draft. The most difficult thing is to start. It requires overcoming inertia and willing yourself to enter a world of risk and discomfort. That night in mid 1974, we were going to see if we could commit to making such a start. Our first band meeting was planned. I was waiting downstairs in the tiny lounge room at our house at 14 Sims Street. It was like a little cave. The fireplace, where we cooked, and which warmed us on penetratingly damp and cold winter afternoons, was the centre. There was no other heat. We would go out on "wood runs" and get boards and any flammable stuff from construction sites, and smash them up into smaller pieces that would fit in. The rotten seagrass matting in front of the fireplace was burned black and full of holes, some blackened pits extending into the wood of the floor. We had no furniture except a low coffee table and a few cushions. I was sitting crosslegged on a cushion, waiting, while Rob got ready upstairs. He would never be keen to go out if his hair was wet, or if it was windy out. It was both windy and rainy that night. That below waist length hair! He had to be careful about it. I knew from experience, you can't rush him. My friend will be ready whenever he's ready. I picked up a copy of Creem Magazine off the pile, and started to read.

 

Creem was our preferred casual reading matter when we were not buried in books. Creem was the only rag that had articles about the stuff we liked to know. Stuff about the New York Dolls. News stories of the Stooges. Pictures of Gilda Radner with Boy Howdy Beer. We appreciated the writing style too. We admired Lester Bangs honesty and take-no prisoners attitude in the reviews, and we laughed about Richard Meltzer's contrarian cultural commentary. It was refreshingly anti-hippie and he wrote about junk food, crazy sports, and the endless debate "Camels or Luckies"? We knew that Creem was the cool mag to read. Rolling Stone was too political, soon to be too commercial and way too corporate. It was strange, yet telling, how the two ouvres of politics and corporate stuff wound up being so close. It was nothing for Jan Wenner to go from moderate left politics to completely bloated advertising for the major record companies, clothing labels, and yuppie lifestyle products. Circus Magazine was glossy, glam and metal oriented. Another Brit mag, "Trouser Press", might have been OK. I heard about that one later, but we couldn't get it in Sydney at the time. "Bomp", Greg Shaw's mag out of Burbank was fine but catered mainly to record collectors, and I was not a record collector. I was born without the collector gene, and since childhood I had always preferred to get rid of stuff than to save stuff. In the next couple of years, there would be the appearance of Punk Magazine from John Holmstrom in NYC, which was pretty cool because you could learn about the new creative New York scene. By 1977 there would be a plethora of local street trash press around, hand xeroxed diatribes with names like "Kill Me Now" or "Fuck Off", to go with the burgeoning first wave of punk bands in Sydney. I could never get into that stuff, it seemed pointless, witless and dull. Something to make someone feel a part of something which they were not actually contributing to at all, or else to feel part of something which didn't even exist except in someone else's imagination. A few more years after all that, and we would see the birth of one of the great rock magazines of all time, the legendary and hard to find "Black To Comm", created and edited by Chris Stigliano out of his mother's old TV Guide - filled basement in a suburb of Pittsburgh. So ... back to the story. I was reading Creem and drinking instant coffee while the rain pounded down on the hard Darlinghurst pavement outside.

 

Rob came downstairs. We got our jackets and walked out the front door. We knew without thinking about it, that we looked cool whenever we left the house. We turned right on Sims Street and went around the corner to Chisholm Street, turned right, and walked half a block to Taylor Street. We always walked down the middle of the narrow pavement. There was never a car coming. No one in our little neighbourhood could afford a car and there was nowhere to park them anyway. We often kicked Rob's football to one another in the street, unbothered by traffic. Those narrow lanes were in a little known backwater area, a lost island of deceptive calm in the busy triangle formed by South Dowling, Flinders and Oxford Streets. We kicked cans and rocks as we went along. We turned into Taylor St, another little concrete canyon devoid of life forms, usually filled with rubbish from the back doors of shops that line its north side opposite Oxford St. Twenty years later, I returned to walk down Taylor Street again. I found it wondrously green, shady, tree lined and quite pleasant. It was as though a life giving fairy waved her magic wand up and down Taylor Street, terraforming it! But in 1974, Taylor Street emptied into Flinders Street like an industrial effluent ditch streaming toxic waste into a dirty river. On Flinders we turned right and walked down past little tailor and garment shops and the corner takeaway food place, to Taylor Square.

 

Darlinghurst in those days was mostly eastern European and Balkan ethnic, as well as a small "art" and student crowd. It was a quiet community, full of elderly locals and transients like us, and there was no interaction between the two. Old ladies with stooped posture in black mourning clothes, pulling little wheeled shopping baskets, would creep along grey footpaths. The main streets had European cake shops and delis. There were little groceries, fruit and vegetable stores, newsagents. There was no obvious gay presence then, no sex shops, no expensive cars, no cafes, no espresso or cappuccino, no "flat white". Nothing remotely Asian. The local pubs were still paragons of Australian anglo-colonial culture and still contained drunk Diggers. Pubs were utilitarian places to drink beer in, not trendy. They were lined with sensible bathroom tile on the floors and walls so they could be hosed down between sessions. The whole area had a slightly grubby, grey, ghetto atmosphere. It was cheap, and convenient to get anywhere by walking or bus. You just got along and minded your own business and you did your own stuff there. No one paid us any attention except the occasional passing patrol car. The old ladies from eastern europe had undoubtedly seen far worse than us.

 

On Oxford Street between Taylor Square and South Dowling Street, there were only two restaurants. One of them was the Balkan Steakhouse. Ron Keeley and I would occasionally go in there for a meal, and eat cevapcici or rasznici, the heavily marinated and spiced meats of the Balkan region. You could get the full deal for 6 bucks. It always felt good to go in there with Ron. He was older than I was, and had been around more. He was willing to hear about my problems, sort of like an older brother. He was interested in talking philosophy too. I found his Navy background interesting, and I would get him to tell sea stories. Ron was the radioman on duty aboard the Australian aircraft carrier the HMAS Melbourne, the night she rammed and sank the American destroyer the USS Frank Evans, in the South China Sea off Vietnam in 1969. Interestingly, the Melbourne had racked up an earlier kill by ramming and sinking HMAS Voyager in Jervis Bay. Having never fired a shot in anger, she was decommissioned and sold to China in 1985.

 

Rob and I walked on through the cold Darlinghurst night. The weather was blustery, and Rob had to reach up and put a hand on his hair to keep it from blowing everywhere. He could have made use of one of those black scarves like the little old Croatian ladies wore. The night seemed heavy. It was, in fact, pregnant with possibilities. We may not have known it, but I felt it. We always jaywalked and almost never crossed with the light, preferring to rely on timing and agility. Traffic was dense and aggressive on Oxford Street. Exhaust stung the eye and made you cough. It could be as oppressive and thick as in Los Angeles during a temperature inversion. The rain did not cleanse you, but instead left a scum of hydrocarbons as it got under the collar. Thinking of something other than the present moment, as usual, I stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. In Sydney they always speed up and aim at you in this kind of situation. Rob, ever wary about this, grabbed my left elbow and I woke up momentarily from my reverie as he yanked me out of the way. "That's another one ... saved your life again" he said, jokingly but I could detect an undercurrent of real concern. For a while he kept score, and I think he ended up with 15 or 20 saves over the course of a couple of years.

 

We crossed Oxford St without further drama and then ran across Bourke St in between trucks. Heading west again, we were at the newspaper stand on the corner under the Oxford Hotel. The rain was pouring down and there was an awning so we waited for a minute. Maybe the force of the downpour would let up a bit. The guy who sold papers and magazines on that corner always had a grey lab coat on, and he had something strange about his eyes. They were sunken in, behind a large shelf of a brow, and you could never really see them. There was a shadowy depth in his face where the eyes should be. You couldn't be sure if he was looking at you or not. He gave the impression of being mildly retarded or otherwise damaged. Maybe it was a cover, a ploy to divert unwanted attention. The "fool" gets overlooked, no one bothers him, while he continues his important secret work! Maybe those unseen eyes were looking at galaxies and into the depths of black holes. Maybe they were seeing the true pattern of existence, a hidden window to an intuitive understanding of things on a quantum scale, effortlessly eclipsing Pauli, Bohr, Schrodinger, Heisenberg and Einstein. But for now, walking by the newsstand and seeing this guy, I was thinking, "hmm ... "The Fools" might be a pretty good band name! " It would be similar in genre to the name of our wayward heroes The Stooges, who of course got their name from The Three Stooges.

 

Ron Asheton was a dedicated Stooge fan. He was actually the President of the Davenport Iowa chapter of the Three Stooges Fan Club as a kid. Ron and his brother each had their favorite Stooge, and Ron's was Moe Howard. Ron cultivated an excellent Moe impression, which he used hilariously years later in his acting role in the D-grade horror movie "Mosquito". When The Stooges lived in Hollywood, Ron became Larry Fine's companion and confidant. Strokes had cruelly cut Larry down in his autumn years. Ron heard about Larry's fate during late night drinking and storytelling sessions at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard with his buddy Robert Mitchum. After locating him, Ron would go to the nursing home in Beverly Hills to visit Larry often. They would talk, and joke. Ron, with his characteristic kindness, helped Larry answer his fan letters, learning how to do his signature, because Larry's neurologic deficits had taken away his ability to write. Ron kept him company and gave friendship, often smuggling in the cigars and whiskey that Larry loved, but forbidden by the nurses. Like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, they formed a close connection, transmitting not just information, but a distillation of hard won experience and essential spirit, from the older to the younger.

 

Rob and I walked west down Oxford Street , we started down the hill and just before we got to the Crown Street intersection we turned and ducked into the cheery, warm, hip-70's atmosphere of French's Wine Bar. There were girls of every description, as usual, some milling around, some seated at the bar. Some of these girls were attractive and they were on the prowl. But we were not there for them, not that night. This was serious business and those girls would have to wait for some other guys, or some other time.

 

We found Ron Keeley at a little table waiting for us, smoking Pall Malls and tapping rhythms on the table with his cigarette free hand. Ron did this habitually, even while reading a book. The paperback would be in the cigarette hand, the free hand would be tapping out incessant paradiddles, flans, and rolls along to some subconscious musical track. It was a behavior which would eventually drive Rob insane during endless hours in the VW van (the same vehicle upon which someone scrawled "Van of Hate") four years later in England. Tonight Ron was wearing a beige work shirt, a scarf, bell bottom jeans. He had shoulder length mousy brown curls. He looks a bit like a tougher version of Gene Wilder, or a lighter version of Steve McQueen. He ought to have had a Shelby Mustang sitting outside and a .45 in his jacket pocket. "Hey Ron, whats happening?" "Hi Den, Hi Rob...what's up guys? Long time between drinks, eh?" Rob sat down, I headed over to the bar and got the drinks.

 

When I came back to the table, we sat there for a minute. There was smoke and electricity in the air. Ron was wary. His radar was up because of the residual fallout from the Rats breakup. It wasn't very long ago, and some of the debris was still glowing. Tension between Ron and Rob had always existed, even before The Rats, and always would in the future, but it was nearly always manageable. I took a deep breath, leaned forward and opened things up to the business agenda. "So Ron. What Rob and I want to do is to get a new band together. The idea is to combine some of the things about The Rats and TV Jones that we like, and drop the bullshit part of it. We'll just do stuff that we think is cool, we won't cater to anyone, and we won't compromise. We don't care if we piss people off. We'll be doing this primarily for ourselves, and it'll be FUN." Rob adds, "Let's face it. We all want to keep playing, and with Deniz and Pip, we have the makings of a bloody good band." Ron's got some technical questions: "Will Pip play straight time?" I take one of his Pall Malls and light it. I look at Ron. It's an important question, and failure to resolve this issue in the past led to Pip leaving TV Jones, over my protests. I was the next guy to get sacked, after that. I said, "Sometimes he will, and sometimes he won't. He's not really a rock player. He's gotta be free in time and space. But I'll be mostly playing rhythm guitar to the drums. Sort of like Keith and Charlie, or Pete Townshend and Keith Moon ... you ever see film of those guys? They play to each other. Visual contact all the time. As long we watch each other, it'll be OK. When Pip goes out and gets into his more free form stuff, you and I'll give 'em a structure to come back to. When I go out, the bass player and yourself will be minding the engine room. Pip doesn't really need to be part of the rhythm section. This is what Giles and Chris in TV Jones didn't understand. Pip's brilliance as a player will shine brightest if left unrestricted. Remember, he was into experimental avant jazz stuff like the Ethiopian Glee Club in Canberra, besides all that classical training. He'll be a secret weapon. No one else will have a guy like that in a rock and roll band around here. It could be really hip, to have a little taste of harmolodic theory as well as classical mixed in with the hard stuff. Anyway some of the Detroit-Ann Arbor guys have done it, maybe in a different way, with horns and stuff ... it can work."

Ron replied, "Yeah, alright ... I can see it. As long as there's a structure, and I'm not left hanging. We've got to watch that, but I see what you're saying. I'm willing to give it a go. What about Carl?" I say, "Carl's cool. He can play simple stuff, he's willing to learn. He sounded OK in The Rats and he'll come along. Plus, he's a great guy. He'll help organize gigs and stuff. And, best of all, he has a car and money." It was Ron's shout. He went over to the bar. Rob and I conferred. "Looks like Ron's in." Rob said, "Yesss..." His eyes were looking ahead into an unknown future. He looked happy for now. That was good enough for me.

 

Ron returned from the bar with the next round of drinks. Next thing on the agenda was the name. Ron said, "What are we gonna call ourselves?" I responded with my idea. "We could call it "The Fools". "It would be simple, and it's kinda like The Stooges." No one said anything. We listened to the bar noise. Stupid loud talk, glasses clinking. Pulses of throwaway chatter emanating from social bouquets. It's obvious that the idea is dead on arrival. The same thing goes for Ron's suggestion "Themroc" after an early 70's anarchic film noir piece. No one had to actually say it. We knew instinctively, although no one articulates this either, that the name is going to be very important. The name of a thing can be a blessing, and can help the named entity follow an appropriate path. I said "OK, any other ideas?" No one spoke. I said, "Well, how about Radio Birdman then." Immediate good response. No one hated it right off! I explained: "It's off a lyric from that song 1970, it sounds like Iggy is saying "Radio Birdman, up above". It's obscure enough. Nobody around here will make that association. So, really, it's virtually meaningless. We will give it it s own meaning." I had a symbol that could be used as well, which could fit in with that name. We all agreed. We had a name. We had a logo. We had a band. Meeting was over. Time to celebrate a bit. We drank and laughed before heading off into the cold, wet winter night.

 

It has always been the case that rock and roll lyrics are hard to make out. Mick Jagger does it deliberately. He learned it from Slim Harpo and others. He says that it's better that they are incomprehensible, so the listener can make up his own lyrics. I have found that to be true. The listeners often hear better lyrics than the original ones written. Sometimes I even incorporate the alternative lyrics that I get from listeners, who tell me what they thought they heard. I even use them in future live versions of my songs. Once I hear it, sometimes I realize it's better. The songs can evolve in this way. They are not limited by the imagination of the original writer, but can multiply in meaning whenever the songs are heard by listeners who take the time to focus their own attention on them. The songs get filtered through the new listeners life experiences, his or her own special way of thinking. They can then evolve with their own life, and that life is interactive with the listener. Ron Asheton told me later, that the original 1970 lyric is "radio buzzin', up above". Of course that was true. On the multiple takes of 1970 made available by Rhino in the Funhouse box set, I hear various things. Radio buzzin, sure. Also radio burnin'. But birdman? Works for me!

 

 

RADIO BIRDMAN early 1975 

Clockwise from top :

Deniz Tek, Pip Hoyle, Carl Rorke, Ron Keeley, Rob Younger.

Photo © Colleen Skinner