To have such a strong barrier of fear between myself and the stage has me dancing between grief and excitement. On one hand, I feel like I’ve lost the love of my life, yet on the other, I’m curious as to what this challenge has to teach me. Strangely enough, this feeling has made the memory of my first public performance as a six year old busker pop into my head.
My mother owned a coffee shop on Queen St in Campbelltown in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was a big two storey cream coloured historical building. Entrance to the coffee shop was on street level, directly under the loud and showy colonial style steps that ironically lead to the type of business that would normally prefer inconspicuous entrances – Queen Street’s “massage parlour”. We would see many pace the street in contemplation of taking on those steps and only the bravest would succeed. Most would settle for a hamburger and chips – winning!
At six years old, I was one year into my battle with Leukaemia. During this year, I formed a bond with my guitar that has been with me ever since, and it wasn’t long before playing with my father to the garage roller door left me wanting more. So we went ahead and put together a mini three-song set using syllabus backing tracks from the guitar teacher that dad was seeing at the time. Besides the very un-rock’n’roll spoken count in, “1-2-3-4”, they were pretty sweet recordings for their time.
I watched my dad set up the small PA system in front of the infamous stairway to heaven with a natural fearlessness that comes with being an inexperienced earthling. I wasn’t nervous because I didn’t know any better. With a moving stream of people going about their day, I sat down and plugged in, gave dad the cue and he pushed play on the Sans Sui tape deck. As soon as I heard “1-2,-3-4” echoing down the street, my stomach churned. I’d never played this loud before but away I went as if I was jamming in the garage. I spent the entire first song with my head down, lost in the exciting world of “woooo, oh shit don’t hit a bum note, yeeeah, oh no….love this bit!” It was like walking a tightrope. The song finished with a giant cheer. Startled, I looked up to see around twenty odd “stranger dangers” in a semi- circle staring at me. I looked to dad in between songs for reassurance and he gave me a confident thumbs up. I played harder. By the end of the three-song set, I was on cloud nine. The bottom of my guitar case was covered with coins and notes. I performed another two times that day and spent the money at TimeZone – a wonderland of arcade games for kids in the 80’s and 90’s.
The next Saturday was a completely different experience. I peeked around the corner to see 30 to 40 people waiting for my father to finish setting up. Approaching stage time, the crowd grew – and so did my nerves. Last week, I didn’t have a care in the world. This time, I was petrified. The world of expectation closed in. My heart was pumping and my palms were sweaty. I wanted out! In hindsight, it was probably my first bout of anxiety. I was at the top of the rollercoaster and I hated rollercoasters. I turned to dad as he came for me and told him that I couldn’t go out there. What if I fuck up? What if they don’t like me? What if, what if….I’m not even sure I knew exactly what I was afraid of? I think it was the sensations that scared me most of all.
He just kept telling me to pretend that I was playing in the garage. With tears rolling down my face and muscles shaking, I just wanted to go home. Mum came out, gave me a big hug and said, “Trust me, If you don’t go out there now, it’ll be even harder the next time, and you’ll regret it forever. It’s normal to be nervous, and it’ll get easier the more that you do it.” I mustered up the courage, and drew inspiration from my parents as well as my favourite musicians at that time. The first step was the hardest and off I went. As soon as they saw me, they let out a big cheer and I couldn’t help but smile bashfully. I picked up the guitar, sat down, plugged in and gave dad the nod. “Kick butt!” he said.
Those two words became a final send off for every gig to date. “1-2-3-4” and I was sailing! All of that nervous energy turned into super powers. The further through the song I got, the more confident I grew. I watched as people threw money into my guitar case, thanking them whilst trying not to hit a bum note. By the end of the set I felt high, excited and invincible. When I ran out of songs, the crowd encouraged me to repeat the set again. I did so five or so times. By the end of that day, I counted $260. This was in 1988. That’s the equivalent of over $1000 bucks in today’s money. I couldn’t stop counting it – I’d only ever seen that much money in the movies.
After playing for several weeks, the money built up to a point where TimeZone became the second priority. It was time to get my own amp. Off we went to Guitar Factory. This trip sparked a long-term relationship with the owner, Stan Mobbs – a killer blues bass player and a great guy. My dad owned the offensively loud and heavy Peavey Renown with the cool coloured knobs. It only seemed appropriate that I get the baby version – Peavey 112. It had a clean distortion channel with reverb. I was a little bummed that it only had tiny grey knobs, but who cares, it was all mine! As a young kid, an amp was something for the adults. It was like a car, but even cooler – so you can imagine how buzzed I was to have my very own. I couldn’t even carry it, that thing was so fucking heavy. Transistors! My roadie (dad) had a bitter sweet relationship with it. It sucked because it was a heavy lug, but at least it made his biceps look good!
Reflecting on this memory is a reminder of what sits on the other side of fear.
Over time, the pre-gig sensations were still there, but shifted to become a sign of a thrill to come, a storm of magic, an opportunity to rock! But after falling for three to four years, they’ve reverted back to what they were before that second performance. As a six year old, there’s a little less ammo in the imagination department, but with 33 years of experiences to draw on, the mind can cook up some reactive emotions.
Nonetheless, the courage to leap is relative. I never ever thought I’d be in this position again. It’s difficult and ironic but also exciting to have to learn that lesson all over again after 27 years. Many have been numbed and jaded by touring. I guess I get to experience those “green kid” thrills all over again – it’s not such a bad position to be in.