A Dog's Life
“To the lions…” Sally pushed him back stage, both laughing loons.
“Sit there, shut up, be ready”, fold-back sound-guy grace.
Now David Broughton breathed beer-fumes in pitch-black wings, gulping his hip-flask rum - hoping it will temper nerves, and tame the hash joint he’d shared with best mate Sally Carberry… it had seemed like such a rock’n’roll idea. “Only Sal…” He had accepted the gig with a breezy… “Next Tuesday, Manning Bar? Fill spot between the bands? Fifteen bucks? No worries.” He cooly managed to avoid, “Me? First solo gig? Are you mad?” He was now questioning his own sanity.
“Well - it’s one for the money…”
In the loaded pre-gig eternity, he nervously - unwisely - reflected… Six months previously, he was solo jamming in the dust and diesel of the farm’s corro machinery shed. His grand vision involved two dodgy tape decks and a couple of C60s, bouncing electric guitar on electric guitar, with ambient mongrel dog barks, and his old man’s yells. Sal had flatteringly called the tapes “art-noise”. Now he was sitting in brave new university world, holding an acoustic guitar that felt like a strainer post strung with fencing wire. His stomach was stone torture. He swigged rum. “Two for the show…”
The band brought it home in full glorious rock catastrophe, and left nothing on the stage. He heard the crowd roar, and start the bar rush. He walked three drink-sticky steps towards the stage. “Three to get ready…”
The MC ran by, “You’re up”, as the four sweating rock-gods strode past in the other direction. The bass player offered a good-hearted “Have a good one, man”, and stepped on David’s guitar lead, just as he hit the blinding stage. He tripped, regathered, and tripped again on the stage-right fold-back. He heard the dance-floor mob laugh, and felt the stomach stone dissolving. He squinted out expectantly, and saw - nothing - not a damned thing. None of his life-long rock’n’roll imaginings warned him about the sci-fi galaxy wars of blinding stage lights. Sal had promised to blow him a good luck kiss. “Sorry Sal… I’m through the looking glass.” He was a rabbit in headlights. His stunned stoned look betrayed him… And the mob laughed again. Now - the stomach stone is gone. Those holding up the bar at the back of the room heard the laughter, and turned to join the fun. David hit centre-stage, bent to plug in, and his guitar head hit the rock-amped mic… A simultaneous BOOM, and YOWL of feedback. Now they were really laughing hard, and so was David. It’s not that he found it funny… Just pure joy at the sudden stillness inside…
“Now go cat, go!”
“Ah… um… hello… “, a second yelp of feedback punctuated David’s inglorious first big-stage entrance. A klutzy clown walk-on, and a mumbled grunt. Most of the hipper than thou, mid-eighties uni-black Manning Bar crows were cackling. Some were sober sensitive, cringing. But David fell to the Chaplin-esque clowning like a duck to a cream-pie. Amidst the laughter, the eternal pre-gig pain stopped in a frozen, crystalline moment. He will wonder later if the nuclear blast of stage lights didn’t spark some kind of instant hypnosis that stopped the clock, and sent him spiralling back…
Back to a party, suburban back yard lawn, six candles on the cake, and someone plays a record. “Day Tripper? The Beatles?” He sees his future mapped to one lightning strike guitar riff. From that day on, he is a broken record… Endless with “That’s what I’m going to do, mummy… Play guitar.”
Back to the thirteen-year-old boy… Oldest child, only boy in a relentlessly itinerant - routinely skint - farm labouring family, who finally - finally - gets his hands on a guitar. He had taught himself to play mind guitar, a million times over, and now… the gifted jumbo acoustic felt like a missing part of his body, reattached. It was a kindness from his English teacher, Mr Grande. “Permanent loan, mate. The bottom string should be the same note as the start of ‘Day Tripper’…”
“‘Day Tripper’?!” David smiles.
“Doesn’t Matter. Anything else?” He’s hungry.
“Tune the second string to the feedback at the start of ‘I Feel Fine’. Fifth fret, bottom string… You’ll get the pattern. After that, you’re on your own.”
Someone from the back of Manning Bar yelled, but he only caught the end… “any Sunnyboys? Come on… No band? Are you on your own?”
Looking back… He was on his own. The next two years on the farm were a blur… Alone, with old records, Henry Lawson stories, and six bewitching strings. His old man was still toiling, now boiling, as David just - disappeared… The Broughton road forked, and Dave took the ratbag rebel route… No choice. Anything, anybody - that took the guitar away, left him glowering dark. The painful noise of home-grown practice left bloodied hands, and bruised home life. “Get out there and feed the mongrel dogs. I’ll burn that bloody guitar.”
Manning Bar waited, watching the nervous train-wreck debut - but time is still frozen for David. He is tumbling backwards in his mind…
Back to changing schools - again - and heading into town for his final two years. He enrolled in his first formal music subject, surrounded by “proper musicians” - real musicians like Sally Carberry - and he was paralysed with insecurity. The flat-out fear made him leave music for chemistry. It lasted two weeks… whereupon his defeated-dog-depression sent him back to music - his tail between his legs.
“And - you will need to perform a piece for the class once a week.” Mr Bachhoven-Brahms on the piano stool, sounded rounded vowels, resonating strings with no sympathy.
“Oh - perform… a piece?” David’s home-grown agricultural guitar strangs didn’t fall to “pieces”. “I know. I’ll - compose - something, Sal.” He rolled “composed” around his tongue like the punch-line for a bad joke. “Decomposed, more like it.” That’s it… He chugged away, fifth fret, bottom string - the start of ‘I Feel Fine” - and banged out a hillbilly honky-tonk song about the sudden, unexpected death of a mongrel dog… covering his insecurities in clown makeup. He will realise later that it was Lawson’s “Loaded Dog” bounding after him. Sal laughed, along with most of the class. Even Mr Amadeus-Strauss grinned at the climactic “hit by a fuckin’ great truck” - another bad punch-line.
The uni-black bar crows were getting edgy. The walk-on laughs were gone, and David’s insecurities returned. “Should I? Oh - what the fuck… “. He rolled the dice. He pushed aside the list of clever and cunning songs he’d prepared for the uni hip-kids, wiped his brow with farm-flanno-sleeve, and reached for a recycled-time-rhyme. He hit the fifth fret, bottom string, in a honky-tonk groove, it fed-back through the PA - and he felt… fine. “Well, the mongrel black dog was a-walkin’ on down the road… “. Just like the dog with the truck, no one in Manning saw it coming. The punch-line landed a tidy little glancing blow. But as the laughter fell away, so did the crowd. The next three clever, cunning songs gathered some interest, smattering applause, and a sea of uni-indifference. David clowned his way off, while one wag punter howled like a dog. The gig was done.
“Well… I never saw that coming!” Sally was the only other person in the bar to have heard both live performances of David’s “Mongrel Black Dog”, but she just rolled her eyes at the privilege. After pushing him behind the curtain, she crawled quickly back to a darkened solo table under the window. Despite her best wishes, she is ripping apart inside… Fearing for her fragile best friend up there, naked on the stage. The hash joint was working it’s rock’n’roll wonders, but now the accompanying paranoia was kicking in. Damn. “Only David…”
Sally had - in truth - only showed at the gig in support of her friend, and spent most of the four songs watching strangers watching David. They’d been best mates since he had blown into the country town boarding school - a welcome southerly change. But his music always seemed so dangerously seditious. And while she acknowledged his “wild beast’s skill”, quoting Paterson to his Lawson, she does sometimes darkly think that his music will be how David dies. Her own musical life was worlds apart… Fifteen years of violin study, favouring slow baroque works - and now… Too many ‘Smiths’ records for David’s liking. Sally was the town GP’s only daughter, and the latest in a long Carberry line to do their time at Sydney Uni. Her rebellion was to reject the family business, and study Economics Law, with humanitarian ideals. Music was side-lined to a hobby. She was the only Wiradjuri woman in her course… Her dear mother’s side - she called it her life-line. She wondered if it was in her Aboriginality, that she found the bottomless pools of empathy for David… David the tortured artist, the storyteller, forever misfit, and yes - the pain in the arse. No one in David’s family had seen the inside of a university, and he would claim to be “majoring in dropping out as slowly as possible.” Sally knew his insecurities - had seen too much of what she called “Dark Dave”.
The gig was a swirling blur for both Sally and David, and when it finished, he fell relieved into her hug. They waited for a take-away bottle, raving smiles. As the next band roared into gear, they paid for the Bundy, and fly-walked buzzing joyous… straight out the door.
“Hey, that really was… great!” Sal is honestly pleased, proud. Impressed.
David swings his guitar case hand to hand, “Yeah… I think it was.”
They were off-campus now, sipping rum, ripping up King Street, bouncing off shop windows.
“If our oldies could have seen that, they’d…”
“They’d have - um…” They laughed at images they couldn’t form - absurd pictures… Incongruous thoughts of worlds colliding across time. The headstrong explosions of two nineteen-year-old kids, striding into the brave new late-eighties. They held no awareness of their “oldies” at nineteen, nor the endless generations who had walked these lines. But they were right. This was their time.
They fell shoulder to shoulder through the terrace door, and collapsed - still laughing - feet up on the board and brick coffee table.
“They really did laugh, Sal”
“I know. You’re mad… Where did you pull the ‘Mongrel Black Dog’ from?”, Sally smiles, rolling up another number.
“I had nothing else.” David was drinking quicker now.
They were the only two in the crowd who could not answer the unspoken question… Were they laughing with him, at him, or a combination of both?
“They did clap… A bit. Did they like the ‘Mongrel Dog’?” David’s insecurities were returning, with interest.
“They did - mate.“ Sal lit the joint and pulled hard, covering an awkward silence. “It was… fine.”
“It was the stage lights I think. When the tuning went south of sour, I just couldn’t pull it back. And that feedback… Where the hell did that come from? Next time, I’ll…” David is sinking fast.
“David - it felt fine.” Sally passes him the joint. “Hey, have you finished your Phil essay?” It was the only subject they had in common, and the best change of subject she could find. “Due tomorrow, you know.”
“What? Oh - no - no - haven’t started. I’ve been working on the gig. I really wasn’t sure which song to play second. Maybe - maybe they only liked ‘Mongrel Dog’… I could feel them drifting away after it. Do you think… “
“It felt fine.” Sally cuts him off too sharply, “The whole thing was - fine.” She’s suddenly tired. She passes him the joint, thinking, “Here comes Dark Dave”.
She stood, stretched, “Anyway - see you there if I see you there.” She walked to the door. David was smoking, sinking fast. “Don’t go yet… It’s only half-ten. How about a jam?” Sally knew they had never been able to connect over music, and she knew David knew that too. He was desperate, depressed. “Well, the mongrel black dog ain’t got no soul at all.” She tried a half-laugh, and sat on the edge of his chair, “I’ll stay for a bit. Just - don’t sing.”
David flicked his guitar case latches, and lifted the lid… “Oh fuck! Fuck! I’ve left me guitar strap.” It hurt him beyond reason. By now, he felt it to his marrow - the gig was a disaster… He did not want to go back to Manning. Not then, not ever. It’s was his worst nightmare. He would have let the ringing phone ring out, but Sally answered. “It’s Cheryl at the uni bar… they’ve got your strap “.
“Yeah”, Dave did not want to have this conversation.
Cheryl was sunny, bellowing over the bar clatter, “David, you pissed off early man... Your strap is behind the bar. If you don’t need it now, pick it up Friday - play another fill spot for us - if you want? We’ve got Died Pretty. It’ll be huge.”
“Yeah? Yeah… alright… Friday.” David’s forever turning weather-cycle mood just rolled around again… His low-front lifted. But even as he shone a cloud-break smile at the note of approval, the slow-build of a pre-gig fear storm topped the horizon. Sally raised her eyebrows - matching his loaded smile… The black dog was back on the chain - for now.
Cheryl went to hang-up, then adds “Oh - and David… Maybe - Don’t play the dog song. We’re pretty well unanimous down here.”
“Yeah, man… Nah - no worries.”
Well, the mongrel black dog was a’walkin’ on down the road.
Well, the mongrel black dog was a’tryin’ to loosen his load.
Wel, the mongrel black dog is a real bad son of a bitch.
Well, the mongrel black dog was a’walkin’ on down the street.
Well, the mongrel black dog was a’lookin’ for something to eat.
Well, the mongrel black dog ain’t got no soul at all.
Well, the mongrel ball dog was a’walkin’ on down the road.
Well, the mongrel black dog was a’tryin’ to loosen his load.
Well, the mongrel black dog got hit by a fuckin’ great truck.