Giving Thanks – A Year on the Road – PART 2

Followed on from https://staffordcreative.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/giving-thanks-a-year-on-the-road/

BYRON BAY?

Just before I hit Byron I freaked out. I called my good friend Dave Sands (the international DJ) and, I guess, asked him to console me. I was feeling lonely and was totally nervous that I would find it difficult to make friends in this new place where I knew no-one at all. I was moving to a town where I knew absolutely nobody! Is that a rational fear?

As I had effectively asked him to, Dave assured me that it would be OK. That was what I needed to hear. I have long suffered from social anxiety, something I write about occasionally in these stories, and to be honest, there have been times when it has been so isolating and confusing that it has almost been the death of me. Over the years I have gradually come to understand it more. Some years ago I found a name for it, and called my social anxiety “The Octopus”, as it gets its tentacles in and can really fuck things up for me in terms of what I want from life. But having named that son of a bitch, I can keep him at a distance more often than not.

Byron Bay was going to be a big challenge to The Occy, and that motherfucker was gonna fight back. All car trip from Melbourne, already feeling fragile, he was trying to convince me that I was not the sort of person that could rock up alone and make friends.

Realisation: It was time to face a fear again…

Are YOU afraid of the unknown?

Are YOU afraid of the unknown?

When I got into town it was 8PM the night before my course commenced. I hadn’t sorted out a place to live or anything, all I had was the address of the College where I would be studying, knew not a soul, nothing about the town. So I went to the beach, and found the backpackers to get the lie of the land. To all travelers, you already know this, local knowledge from the people in your same situation is priceless and can save you from reinventing the wheel. So these French dudes and gals were sitting at the picnic table making noodles for dinner and drinking cheap wine, so I joined them. What was it like for free camping in the area? Was there much harassment and oppression from the police or rangers? Turns out there was: they had been woken up rudely when sleeping in their cars and fined hundreds of dollars a number of times. I was tired, too tired to deal with that kind of immoral bullshit without absolutely flying off the handle and getting myself locked up. You know that caravan parks associations actively lobby for these By-Laws to be put in place that have a purely commercial intention? So people are forced to stay in shitty caravan parks (see https://www.facebook.com/Freechoicecamping)? Don’t you think that things should only be prohibited if they cause harm to others? This is the foundation of our legal system that seems to have gotten out of control.

The French crew then suggested a backpackers just out of town where you could park for $10 a night and avoid harassment. It was called the Arts Factory.

I stayed at the Factory for about 2 months. At first, staying in the carpark and using the facilities inside, it proved cheaper for me to buy a double room palatial tent with a queen size bed that was set up in the jungle out the back.

Every morning Id make a big bacon sandwich and coffee. Days were spent going to the beach, going to Bikram yoga every day, chilling out. Nights were spent doing a million different things, going out a lot, seeing lots of music, dancing, drinking and getting stoned. Oh yeah, and going to class twice a week for that electronic music course. It was mostly standard hostel life I guess! People were friendly, and I made a point to never eat alone. Id just walk up and ask to join someone!

A funny think, but I didn’t play music for about 2 weeks when I first got to Byron, not even pick up a guitar. Then one night, everyone was partying at the hostel got booted out to the carpark coz we were too noisy and it was late, and a ‘carpark party’ began. At some point I got handed an acoustic bass and played along a bit. Nothing spectacular, but this is the point where everything changed.

This is the point where everything changed, in my life.

The next day, Joe walked past me and said they were going into the studio. Did I want to come? Sure thing. I guess they thought I was a bass player. So I rocked up with my keyboard and some wicked effects pedals. Next thing you know, we are really killing it. Bass, Keys, Drums, Guitar, Singing and Rapping. The studio engineer offered us a gig on the Arts Factory stage then and there. My first gig in Byron, bang it was happening!

JJ-Inc - Staf Smith's first gig in Byron Bay. Would there be more?

JJ-Inc – Staf Smith’s first gig in Byron Bay. Would there be more?

I had done the electronic music course to meet musicians and get  a band together, but the course had proved useless for this. While I was learning some useful stuff, and the teacher was a great inspiration, the people in the class were mostly into Psy-Trance, a style of music that is just too far removed from anything I do. But after playing on stage at the factory with Joe and crew (we were called JJ-Inc) I started getting asked to play with more and more people. Ended up playing bass in a metal band too, accompanying jazz singers on piano, and playing with a great singer-songwriter called Jessie Rose. No paying gigs yet but it would happen. I have just a few pics:

I met many good friends at the Factory. It really felt like a family. Id like to give thanks for the friends and companionship, and the generosity with which I was treated. What a great crew. People were always jamming, the jungle hut was a cacophony of both well and badly played instruments all joining in together, and many a joint was shared between family. Too much cheap wine too haha! A few guys actually had a black market goon racket going, where they would drive south to the next town and buy a hundred or so 4 litre goon bags of cheap wine at a time, them come to Byron (where the 4 litreries were banned) and sell them for $20 a pop.

Things were going great in Byron. I had friends to hang out with, a healthy lifestyle, every day was a new adventure in a beautiful place, and most importantly I was starting to get out there and play music live. Sorry but walking around with a camera just didnt seem appropriate.

By this point I had also got my social anxiety so under control that now, I feel like its conquered. I fully expect it to raise its octopus head every now and then, but the point is, I can see that bastard coming now. For example, I just got a beer at the bar here where Im staying while I write this, and the bartender was rude to me. She acted as if it was strange that I was staying in a place like this and talked down to me. Instead of feeling like there was something wrong with me, I manned to remain impartial, and when I went back for another beer, engaged her in a conversation to find out. I think that actually she was the one who was responsible for the way she spoke to me, it was nothing to do with me. She had left a troubled time in England, and actually opened up to me about it when I showed I was not there to judge her and just interested in a non-superficial exchange.

The Kimberly

About a month after being in Byron I took a 10 day work stint back west to top up the coffers. This was a deadly serious project to do with some court proceedings and I can’t really talk about it, but suffice it to say that we were privileged enough to be looking at fantastic old Aboriginal rock paintings and engravings in some spectacular country. The first night we were put up in 5 star accommodation, but much to our disappointment we ended up camping the rest of the time in the bush. I still remember the moment, we had woken up and had a 5 star breakfast and a quick swim in one of the pools, and had driven to the office of the people who had contracted us (in our plush hire car). We were going over plans for the survey when one of them said, “So you guys can just follow Jim out in convoy to the site this afternoon, they have all the tents and swags”… What? Tents and swags? No POOL!?

It was still very nice, mostly Aboriginal people and just a few of us Whitefellas. Lots of meat, which got pretty heavy, but thankfully including goannas and delicious native Bush Turkeys! I feel deeply privileged to have been offered to share traditional bush foods with Aboriginal people. It feels very ceremonial each time something is caught and cooked, and the sense of reverence actually really makes you focus on the delicious flavours and give thanks. A delicious taste in your mouth, satisfied belly, learning, and grateful!

High Protein Diet for a Skinny Whitefella

High Protein Diet for a Skinny Whitefella

Another deep priviledge came my way by politeness, recognising my place, and quiet observance. I was working with some well respected elders, people wth experience of life that I may never reach even. These two men could not be called by their real names. It is an important thing across many of the Aboriginal cultures of Australia, that the names of the recently deceased must not be spoken. Consequently, people with the same name as someone who has passed away, must be called by another name.  One man I had to remember to call ‘Dadiga’, the other man, the white man, I had to call ‘Nabiru’ whenever we were around Aboriginal people (which was all the time mind you). By getting this right, speaking only when it was my turn, and listening to the old peoples rough english, I picked out the gems hidden in a reluctance to be fancy with words, and earnt myself enough respect to have my words listened to when it was my time.

Learning from Dadiga and Nabiru

Learning from Dadiga and Nabiru

On the final night I caught up with a mate in Broome and went out on the town, had a fricken wild night ended up on the beach with a bonfire and guitars until the sun up! Don’t tell my boss 🙂 Oh yeah, and the best thing is I was getting paid $1000 a day. A few for highlights:

Again, coffers topped up!

When I got back most of the family in the backpackers were confused at why I had been so far away for just a short time. It really is crazy to fly 5000kms or whatever to work for 10 days. Im really grateful to have had these awesome work experiences, really incredibly lucky to have these crazy adventures and get paid so well for it. I feel that these may be fewer and fewer in the years to come, as our democratic government strips away the legislation protecting heritage and environment in favour of facilitating big business. So its a good time for me to give thanks, perhaps the end of an era!

http://blakandblack.com/2012/06/27/amendments-to-was-aboriginal-heritage-act-a-mining-industry-friendly-high-jacking/

On my return I quickly became busy with music again. One of my Facebook posts at the time read:

“3 shows in 3 days. Actually, 4 shows in 5 days! To think that a couple of years ago I was scared of playing in front of people. Starting to think the best things in life are things that are hard. Heres to growing!”

It was also around this time that I started to feel cramped in the backpackers. I had awesome friends there, and it was very comfortable and fun, but very hard to get anything done. I had stuff to work on now, and needed a quiet place to do it. I was on a mission, to get in some gigging bands, and to get paid for it!

The Factory was on a road called Skinners Shoot, which led out of town. Id never ventured that way that didn’t lead into town, but one day, searching for some peace and quiet, I took a drive in that direction. Very quickly I found myself in the forest. Interesting houses popped up along the road at distant intervals, and ramshackle cabins with prayer flags could be seen amongst the trees. A roadside stand offered bags of organic ginger for a coin donation.

I got to the end of the road, parked my van, and breathed in the smell of the trees. Fantastic, fresh, spacious, and so peaceful! I decided that I would move to Skinners Shoot. Looking at the classifieds that day, the top listing on the Byron Bay houseshare section was a house in the forest at the end of that same road. They say that ‘things happen’ in Byron, truly the whole region is a land of strange coincidences. So much so that sometimes Im suspicious that I might be dreaming.

I moved in a few days later.

The house was cool and ramshackle from the outside, neat and peaceful inside, and surrounded by a kind of rainforest canopy with trees of all kinds, and multitudes of strange birds. There was a chaotic workshop, space for a veggie garden, and a chicken coop home to 3 cheeky hens. Peaceful woolly belted something cows wandered around the property, as well as a few not so peaceful bulls and one weird shaved alpaca with huge eyes. Occasionally a peacock would come in to the yard and walk about noisily on top of the workshop. And I was to be sharing with a chilled out philosophical plumber and a warm and vibrant acupuncture student. Amazing!

Ive said many times about this house that nothing is perfect, and thats how it was. It wasn’t perfect, but I was willing to compromise for the overall package, no doubt about it, it was awesome! Here is the sound of the forest at night:

https://soundcloud.com/freeway-studios/skinners-shoot-forest

I got along fine with the other 2 housemates, but we walked quite different lives. I was out most nights playing music or rehearsing or going out, and they were in bed by 9PM at the latest. There was not a single night that I came home and anyone was awake. But I didn’t mind too much to be respectful and quiet when I got home, after all, it meant that I always came back to a peaceful pad! SO peaceful! I had people come to stay every now and then, and everyone loved to come and  relax.

Friends love lording it up at Skinners Shoot...

Friends love lording it up at Skinners Shoot…

We would drag ourselves away and head into town, go and see amazing music at the bars for free, go to festivals full of beautiful people and positivity, or go to some of the most seriously cranking parties Ive ever been to. Paradise One was a notable place for rocking parties, a resort owned by a young guy in his 20s, where he would put on amazing free parties with multiple stages, hundreds if not a thousand people, dancing all night, and nude swimming in their own creek. Bodies would be littered across the grounds by about 4AM, lovers and chillers sleeping peacefully in the grass.

About 5 weeks after being in this peaceful weird pocket I had a big decision to make: I had been invited to America to be part of an archaeological expedition. Deal was they would fly me and give me about $50 a day. But I had so much good stuff going on in Byron, and I was working on things. I had got in another good band, Hunter and Smoke, and was getting paid gigs finally. I was in a conundrum: I was achieving my aims with music and facing my fears, and had a chance to build on those things. Each day I spent in Byron I was growing, and building. But I had an offer to have a free trip to America. It was a very tough choice, and I wanted to be true to myself.

I messed with a few options: stay in Byron and continue on the good path I was on, or go to America for just 2 weeks so I wouldn’t miss too many gigs or other opportunities. Or go to America, do the full 3 weeks of field work, and then make the most of my free ticket and have an American adventure, but thereby risk everything I was working towards.

I decided that if I didn’t grab this opportunity, I might end up resenting my new musical life (if I let it restrict me from grabbing opportunities that came my way). So I let everyone know I was off, but I would be back and keen to pick up where we left off when I got back. I took the risk, and headed up to Brisbane to fly to Las Vegas.

America!

Theres literally not enough time in the world to write about everything that happened, so let us tell pictures tell a thousand words each:

Back ‘Home’ finally!

So I came back to Aus, absolutely exhausted. I had just been dreaming of simmering down for a while, planting a veggie garden, finally setting up my studio, and building a few things in the workshop. But the day after I got back, Harley my housemate kicked me out. He had a new girlfriend and they wanted the house to themselves. He also kicked out Candace, one of his oldest friends, with just a few words. I said that I didn’t think that was fair, especially after the effort I put in to find someone to housesit the room for so long. I have been the leaseholder on a number of share houses, and it is not your right to just boot people out for your own reasons. But he had to go to the shops, and true to the rest of our relationship, it was left unresolved. I moved out a few weeks later when they started moving my things out of the lounge room and arguing with each other loud into the night. But December in Byron Bay is so fanatically popular that it is literally impossible to find a place to live for anything less than a fortune. So now Im living in my van, from place to place. I guess Im technically homeless.

But Im homeless and famous, motherfuckers! Since I had got back, Id hit music with renewed vigour. Only going out to play shows (not chase skirt like usual), abstaining from alcohol, and playing every single day, often with multiple bands. Most things were small, just getting started, playing with friends, helping out people with free recording. Particularly busy days would involve rehearsing in the morning, recording at lunch, and busking at night! All kinds of combinations. Its real work being a musician, and you give a lot of energy and consequently become tired easily. Anyone who thinks that sitting at a computer 9-5 is harder or more honourable probably has not tried it. I have done both. The only difference is in the monetary reward.

Just to backtrack quickly, it was a pity to leave the house like that, and very stressful, so much so that I got really run down and sick and had to sleep all day for a week in the national park. Felt like I was going to die. Regardless, Im incredibly grateful to the universe for those few months on the farm. A truly magical place, that so strangely landed in my lap on the very day I decided I would like to live there. I really needed a place to have some peace and build up my music, and much success came my way when I lived there. Another one of the bizarre things that happen in Byron. Im sure I said before, sometimes I think that I might have died and that the things that happen are part of some post mortem chemical reaction in my dying brain, they are so strange and coincidental. Alternatively, I might have lost it and in reality am in a straight jacket singing accordion music and ranting about upcoming gigs with my gypsy band, to a bunch of head shaking orderlies armed with tranquillisers. Who knows the truth.

But the gypsy band felt so real to me. That was something I looked forward to returning to, what a crew of vagabonds! I had played a few gigs, and mostly busked with these guys. Really fun, Cyprien the Frenchman on accordion, Bobby Dazzla, the highly educated and imperviously charming australian vagrant on violin, myself on homemade stick bass made for $80, and Danidoo, one of the most famous and beautiful women in Byron Bay on melodica and piano and vocals etc! We had such chemistry all of us, that I felt like we were a family. When we busked we would regularly get a crowd of people dancing in ridiculous styles, kicking their legs up in the air, and raining down coins (and even beers and cigarettes) into our waiting guitar case.

But dear Cyprien had to leave the Bay to go and do farm work in Tasmania to obtain a second year visa, and get some money. I can’t believe, this super talented man, working so hard, has to go and pick cherries like a mindless automaton because society does not believe musicians are worth paying properly. Im not angry though, I am grateful for the chance to learn how to live in poverty. It may be a useful skill in the future! I am just pissed off Cyprien had to leave and spell the end of Zingarra, our band.

The Legend of Cyprien!

The Legend of Cyprien!

When Cyp left I almost cried, but he did leave me a parting gift: He named me as his replacement in one of his other bands, a 12 piece reggae outfit called Fyah Walk. I had wanted to play in this band since before I even heard them. Hell, I left Perth and told my friend Craig Waller that I wanted to play in a reggae band and would look for one on the east coast. To work on my rhythm, and because reggae keyboard parts are all about, rhythm, and groove. Its like being a drummer but on keyboards. And secondly, reggae keyboards is all about old vintage sounds, REAL sounds, organs, pianos, clavinets. The stuff I like! I am incredibly grateful to Cyprien for suggesting me, I know the band was a great opportunity for him also and he did not want to leave it. I always felt competitive with Cyp in the friendliest of ways, but I feel like him suggesting me for his prize band was an unbeatable act of gracious human generosity. Bless, Cyprien my brother. And damn you for decidedly ending our competition with that beautiful act!

http://www.reverbnation.com/fyahwalk

Things were cooking along now: it was December in the Byron Shire, one of the most popular destinations in Australia for people to come and get drunk and entertained. I had lots of gigs with various bands and parties. I had about 30 songs to learn of Fyah Walk, and after a lot of procrastination I sat down and put in the work. God, how I feared failure at this one! So I let time pass. But one day, I chance to be in a car at the same time at Simon, the lead singer and musical genius of the band. He was speaking of their December gigs and said that they would probably get an old keyboard player (a real session musician 100% pro) to cover those gigs. I knew that I needed to grab this opportunity before it passed, even if I wasn’t ready, so I opened my shy mouth: Hey Simon, how about I have a go at the Brewery gig on the 21st? When I got a ‘yes’, it made such a stressful impression on me that I still remember the exact date a month later! (thats unusual for me BTW)

So I had a week to learn the parts. I worked on them, like I had a deadline for a conference or something. I went to rehearsal feeling OK. I had had a few all night jam sessions at parties that weekend, and had pulled out some really good stuff, leading the bands in parts and playing at a level that I was, for once, happy with. So I hit it with confidence. If they didn’t like my playing, then at least I was happy with it.

We played 4 songs, and no-one said anything about my playing… I started to feel nervous. These guys were pros… Maybe they operated at a different level and my confidence was embarrassingly inappropriate…

But right when I started feeling awkward, they spoke up: “sorry, the reason we haven’t said anything is because it just sounds right. Welcome to the band.”

I was elated. In almost exactly a year, I had become the luckiest man alive. I had left my birthplace, family and friends, a high status job that should have made me feel great but left me empty, and hit the road into the unknown. I had driven across one of the largest nations on earth. I had lost the longest love of my life, even though she was such an amazing catch. I had basically, left behind everything that I felt I SHOULD be.

From this, to this!

And I had tried, for once in my life, to be who I wanted to be.

And now, Im broke, living in a car, playing in the best reggae band in Australia, have friends who love me, courage drive and purpose, and feel so excited for the coming year that I can hardly contain myself.

New years was great. I played at Falls Festival in Byron, on a big stage. And on two smaller stages. And the night after the festival at a country hall. And the night after that at the brewery. And the whole time it just felt right.

I won’t bore you any more with my story. Go for it, my friends, make yours.

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