If the nine-year-old me were to pick two words to associate with Diesel, they’d be, “thick” and “hair”. “Thick” for the thickest fattest guitar sound ever, and “hair” because of how every single strand grooved in front of his face as if it had musical intuition. Funk baby!! I thought I was hooked when I bought my first ever vinyl, Johnny Diesel and in the Injectors, but meeting and playing with him made me realise that I’d be a fan for life.
When the producer of the Australian Music Awards, Neil Clugston, brought myself and Diesel together for a performance, I was pumped. I’d only ever seen his rusty face on the front cover of the Injectors album and had no idea what to expect. It would be an understatement to say that I was nervous.
Here I was with a guitar that was bigger than me, rocking out on a blues number originally recorded by Roy Buchanan, “Tribute to Elmore James”, backed by Diesel and his band at the AMA’s. Like a little wind up toy, I was off, basing everything on what I practiced with my dad. The rest was spontaneous emotion. Everything was going great, until I was taught my first major lesson in jamming.
For the most part of blues music, common jam ethics says that the guy who is soloing will decide when he’s done. Generally it’s a couple of rounds of twelve, this allows for a good climax. But nobody fucking told me that! Diesel takes his solo and towards the end of only one round of twelve, his licks were coming to a climax. He went for another round and I cut him off and didn’t stop. Ouch! When practicing, my dad would “play” Diesel and only take one round. That’s what I was used to. He knew as little as I did about jam ethics. Any guitarist could watch that clip and see that it was the most obvious “cut off” ever! Diesel’s retreat was classic. How fucking embarrassing. Great first impression numb nuts!
A deeper education was later received during my first ever tour at age ten – talk about being shoved in the deep end. It was a five week tour, supporting Jimmy Barnes and Diesel who were touring two of my favourite albums, Soul Deep and Hepfidelity. I’d only ever seen one band live – Dire Straits. That’s it. And I was expected to play to thousands every night.
Four feet of me backed by two bricklayers and the drum tech would play to thousands of drunk and rowdy Jimmy and Diesel fans. I played the first gig humbly with hesitance. The stages were mostly entertainment centres. Huge! It was nothing like busking or playing on TV.
After every set, I’d stand side of stage with the Barnes kids and watch Diesel and Jimmy do their thing. I couldn’t help but absorb it all. From the clothes they wore, to the way they interacted with the crowd. The way they charged onto the stage and played and sung every note like it was their last. Guitars slinging 20 feet in the air in between songs. The energy coming from the band. The dynamic fluctuations in the set. Lights. Sweat. Horns. Backing singers. The lot. They weren’t just playing the songs. It was a full show from start to finish. Everything had a purpose. They took every single soul in that room to the moon and back.
It wasn’t long before I was wearing sleeveless white shirts, a chain around my neck and a tub of “mud” in my hair. I found a ball of fire within myself that launched me miles above self-doubt onto the stage with purpose. Thanks to my parents, the focus and encouragement was always there, but the intention to rock and put on a show was formed on the road with these guys. I wanted to play louder and harder every night. I’d gone from expressing myself through the guitar, to now expressing myself through my body. Each gig had me stepping closer and closer to the crowd, until I found myself hanging high over the front row, completely lost in the music – giving it all. To look out and see thousands lost in that same moment with you is one of the most incredible experiences ever. They had their arms in the air, head banging as if I wasn’t a ten year old with a guitar. I turned to the side stage to see Jimmy and Diesel taking it in. That was a real moment for me.
During the years that followed, Diesel would bring me up at the end of his sets to jam over Crying Shame. The first time was a fucking disaster. My cue to walk on stage had arrived, the guitar tech dropped Diesel’s Les Paul on me without adjusting the strap. So I’m playing this beast, stringed with 13’s (to me, fencing wire), down around my knees. When he gives me the nod to rip up a solo, all I could hear were bum notes! Thinking that I was in the wrong key I yelled, “What key?” and he says, “E”. But for some reason I thought he says “A”. So I shift to “A”, and it’s sounding even worse. He keeps yelling “E!! E!!!”. And I’m still hearing, “A! A!” FUCK! So, bit by bit I retreat back to my amp, turn my volume down a little, but he thinks that I’m getting shy. So like a lion with a cub, he pushes me with his shoulders toward the front row. I resist, but he doesn’t let up. I’m sliding in the direction I don’t want to go. To a confident performer, the front row are people who are high on music. To an 11-year-old guitarist playing in the wrong key, they were vampires waiting to drink my blood for messing up the song! But, I found one note that seemed to work, so I just kept hammering it. The crowd were responding so it couldn’t have been too bad.
I’ve taken much knowledge from the artists that I was lucky enough to team up with. The early days of Diesel taught me many things. Guitar tone., the band, the songs, the show, playing to the crowd, how to sculpt hair without it looking stiff. Hepfidelity was the first time I ever heard funk. But one thing stands out.
After watching a gig I did at The Espy in Melbourne not long after his tour, he told my father that I need to be in front of a band that pushes me. Not the other way around. We didn’t realise the importance of what he said until landing in the US a year later where I played with Albert Collins and the Ice Breakers. Wow! From that moment, the choice of band was just as important as the songs. No stage can contain the energy between musicians who are fully connected. It has no choice but to spill into the crowd.
I couldn’t be more grateful to be surrounded by such credible and grounded artists during a very influential time in my career. It really set some solid roots.
Photo by Bob King
Diesel – Come to Me
Jimmy Barnes, Diesel and John Farnham – When Something Is Wrong With My Baby