Goes with tea/coffee/wine/beer
Unlike most biographies, I’m not going to write it in the third person and pretend it was someone else that did. No, it’s me. G’day!
I have two older brothers, Stephen, seven years older, and Shaun, nine years older. They like cars. I don’t. They’ll probably come up a few more times before I finish writing this.
My first memory is falling down the stairs at our house in Keilor at age two. There were sixteen carpeted stairs that ended with a tile floor that I ever-so skillfully smashed my face in to. In that moment, like a watery piñata, most of the tears in the universe flew out of my head. Mum tried to placate me by giving me a box of Smarties. They were swiftly made airborne. The defiance felt nice.
My second memory is standing in a cot and shaking at the bars like Andy Dufresne wanting out of Shawshank. I could hear Dad vacuuming the stairs outside my door. I was crying because Dad had bought the cheap vacuum from Kmart as opposed to the bamboo one from the hippies at Bizz Buzz. That, or I wanted to fall down the stairs again and score Smarties.
My third memory is, no… let’s move on.
I hated school. I mean, I haaaaaaaaaated school, to the point I hated it before I even got there. I had the shits for all of 1979 because I was being shipped off to St Augustine’s penitentiary in 1980. I cried on Day One, namely at the sight of a rare breed of penguin called nuns.
Our first bit of homework was to colour-in an outline of a mouse. I was outraged at the indignity. I was already handy with paint, potatoes and butcher’s paper. And, at age 5, my plate was full with hourly asthma attacks and all range of responsibilities that came with being on a first name basis with the ants in the backyard. Plus, leaving them unsupervised all day would be, simply, irresponsible.
I took a stand Day One, and at lunchtime I left the school grounds and walked the 2kms home. Like a GPS homing pigeon driven by Corn Flakes, I knew the way. By the time I got home there were two policemen at the house. They seemed like nice fellas.
As a kid I was shithouse at ALL sport, and was picked last EVERY TIME we played cricket at school. The repeated humiliation solidified in me a desperate need to be good at anything, like my brothers, who were handy with electronics, carpentry and cars. They could take two cars, strip them down and rebuild them into two other cars. All I could do to help was stand to the side and put coolant in the radiator, if I could locate the cap.
Around the age of eight I took a deep interest in making model airplanes. I’d get up at 5am on weekend mornings and work on my latest piece. Like an old man, I loved the solitude and quiet of the early hours.
The love of making models rolled into making several puppets. My best was of Ned Kelly. Ned, unlike the models with their instruction booklets, was the first piece of me outside of myself. I took him to school in Grade 2. Brimming with self-consciousness, I showed Miss Johnson, who mumbled to the librarian standing next to her, that I "wasn't like the others.” She meant it as a compliment, I think. It was the only constructive comment I remember hearing from a teacher. I grew 6 feet that day, but shrunk 4 the next when I was again picked last for cricket.
My brothers played a little bit of guitar. Shaun had a black Les Paul and was in a band. The word “band” felt full of toughness and heroism, and it was impossible for me, at age 11, to distinguish the difference between Shaun and Angus Young. After all, they were both, “in bands”. Shaun gave me a couple of guitar lessons, but his strengths resided in areas requiring little to no patience. I gave up after a month and by the time I was 11 both bros had left home.
The primary school years ticked along, and part two of my mandatory institutionalisation was following in their footsteps and going to St Bernard’s all-boys secondary. It was run by a medieval species called Christian Brothers. They were a joyless bunch, and their hobbies included picking a student each day to take out their regret on. I was horrified, not only by these floating frowns, but at the ghastly absence of girls. I liked girls even when I was in kindergarten.
I became best mates with Matty Ryan in Year 7, a tall lanky charming bloke. We somehow wangled sitting next to each other two years in a row and by Year 8 our school days were filled with having drumming duels on our desks. I was pretty good at keeping time, but Matty was better, and when in Year 9 his Dad bought him a kit, my short-lived dream of becoming a drummer was over.
Matty’s other best mate, Julian, who I’d been at St Augustine’s with in Prep in 1980 – but left in 1981 – was in a different class at St Bernard’s. Jules, according to Matty, played bass guitar. I had no idea what a bass guitar was.
Around the age of 15 I was looking through Shaun’s closet when I found his black electric guitar from years back. I’d forgotten all about it. I took it out of its case and lay it on the bed, truly daunted, but imaging the possibilities. I rang Matty. “I found a guitar” “Cool!” he said, “You’re in the band!” “What band?” “Our band.”
We convened at Matty’s house that weekend – Matty with his drums, Jules with his bass, me with a guitar I couldn’t play, and another St Bernard’s lad by the name of Bryce with a guitar he could play. Bryce started playing the intro to Sweet Child of Mine and Matty and Jules joined in. It was, to this day, the single most transformative moment of my life, and it was caught on tape with me saying "this is better than rooting!", even though I was a virgin.
Bryce became my own personal teacher, and the absolute first thing I could play, after breaking through the three-month pain barrier, was the guitar intro to Sunday Bloody Sunday.
The guitar was, in essence, my first real love. It was a sanctuary where no one could get me and a way out. I’d play up to 12 hours a day, before school, during school, after school and in the toilet if required. In our weekend jams, Bryce would play lead guitar and I’d play rhythm. He was the rabbit tail I’d chase for the next two years.
By Year 10 I’d become good mates with another Bernard’s lad by the name of Xave. Xave was a cut above the rest of us, smarter, better looking, more intelligent and sophisticated. I can’t say I’d ever heard him sing, but I was always taken by the tone of his voice, which seemed richer and more mature than the rest of us. One day in class I innocently asked him if he “knew the words” to any U2 songs, which our band was covering by now, and he simply said “yes”.
That weekend I arranged for Xave to come to the jam, whereupon our instrumental blastings were, for the first time, amalgamated with the sound of a vocalist. The circle was complete, and the following year (1991) we entered the St Bernard’s Talent Quest. I felt sick beyond words as we walked on stage to a hall full of students, parents and teachers. Matty counted us in, and the first song we ever played to an audience, That Ain’t Bad by Ratcat, began. I was so nervous I felt like I was falling forward and I kept putting my left foot in front of me, which was mistaken as some d-bag dance move. Time felt distorted on stage, like it was both flying and had stopped. The performance was over before it began, and, to our delight, we won.
The next year our five-piece band was trimmed down to four piece when Bryce went on a school exchange to Belgium. We’d inadvertently become Little U2 and I, along with Jules on bass, was up to the challenge of being the only 6-string guitarist.
Under the new name of Fallout, we won the Talent Quest again in 1992, playing Hard to Handle by the Black Crowes, Falling Down the Mountain by INXS and The Fly by U2. As a result, another student, and budding entrepreneur, Ben Hardwick organised a fully-fledged gig for us at a local theatre. Ben marketed the gig as though his life depended on it and to the band’s surprise, we played to over 200 enthused teenagers from the other Essendon schools. The gig was such a success that it was repeated a month later. It was our first taste of fame.
Around this time, Xave was pressuring me to do backing vocals. Although I was handy on guitar, I didn’t yet have the musical theoretical understanding to realise that singing, like guitaring, was constructed of notes, and they determined by pitch. The result was a guitarist-kid singing no less than 100% out of tune. Learning to sing would become an entirely new mountain and a long and steep climb.
After we graduated in 1992, we were determined to take the band to the city, the country and the world. Writing our own songs was a daunting and painful process but we inched our way to having a full set of original material. We hit the Melbourne circuit with a new sound and a new name, Ricochet.
The Ricochet gigs were highly anticipated, and we were keen to engage the local audiences as we had with Fallout. I never knew nerves as I had on stage with Ricochet, original songs exposing our souls far more than covers.
One by one we fell to the pressures of conventional life and I commenced studying graphic design. Matty and Jules started a different band, and Julian’s sister Ange and I started an 80’s tribute band by the name of We Shot J.R. This was the first band I ever played in with people I hadn’t grown up learning music with. The dynamic was something else entirely.
By the end of my graphic design course I joined The Australian U2 Show as its guitarist. The experience was not dissimilar to living out a teenage fantasy, but there always felt something dirty about playing covers, or, moreover, tragic in not writing/playing originals. I tried to write songs, but I felt truly lost in the musical forest.
My singing had inched to just south of the line of embarrassment, and it was around then, in 1999, that a Tim Rogers solo acoustic gig at the Dan O’Connell changed my musical life forever. It was while watching Tim play stripped back acoustic versions of his full band YouAmI songs that I better understood how a song is realised, written, and structured – that a song is elaborated on (the instrumentation) from the center-out, not the periphery-in. I had come from the world of doing “the guitaring”, the icing on the edges, without truly understanding that the instrumentation is secondary and often incidental to the actual song, the sponge in the center. It was the true lightbulb moment where I no longer wanted to be The Edge in a cover or original band at that, but more of a Neil Finn/Neil Young singer-songwriter journeyman using any instrument the song commands.
The following year I quit my graphic design job and packed my backpack for the first in several times. I was determined to reach the motherland of Malta and the fatherland of Ireland. I did just that, but travelling without a guitar filled me with emptiness. I hadn’t not played for this long since I started playing. I bought a cheap nylon acoustic in mainland Europe and one night in San Sebastian in Spain I mustered the courage to busk.
I found a street corner with pedestrian traffic and I laid out my guitar case. This would be the first time I’d sing solo, and I ever so tentatively started playing All Along the Watchtower. My ears went red as I began to sing, and I again felt dizzy as though I was falling forward. A couple of people gathered, and their light applause at the end of the first song, played, for me, the part of an audio life rope. I pressed on, playing a selection of covers, and the audience grew to 20 or more. A homeless girl stepped forward and put a sandwich on my guitar case. I stopped feeling dizzy.
From then on, I busked in every European city I went to, often getting applause, sometimes getting money, and once having water thrown on me from a balcony above.
I arrived Day One, dropped my cumbersome backpack, walked a few territorial laps around the hostel, and due, without question, to the spectacular mountainous setting, withdrew my guitar from its case.
As a voluntary baptism of fire, I perched myself on hostel’s top balcony, encased in a mountainous view that no camera could dream to capture, and swore I would no longer allow myself the indulgence of a “dream in music” unless I could produce the very thing the dream needed – songs – not a ‘piece of music’ as I’d done in the past, music that could be ‘sung over’ by a singer, but a song like that of actual songwriters writing for themselves. If this place wasn’t inspiration enough, and I stood up from the stool without one, I would quit music forever. I sat there until nightfall, wincing and agonising, but strumming and jotting until I did, and the first tangible song I ever wrote was called Horse. Shite name, but lest we not respect anything that can sleep standing up.
From here on a floodgate opened, and due not only to the inspiring location, but, lack of distractions, I was soon writing further songs. Ghosts On A Nowhere Train was born, then followed That Man On The Black 'n' White TV. Perhaps even more exciting than their arrival, was testing them in the lively jamming sessions that occurred each night with the host of other musicians passing through the hostel.
After a short stint living and working in London, I made it back to Melbourne in June 2000 and was 100% determined to start a three-piece band, like The Police – someone on drums, someone on bass, and me, armed with some 30 original songs, on guitar/vocals.
The first step was to rough-demo the songs I’d written in Europe. It was an arduous process, and by the time the new band started none of the demoed songs were used because I was writing new material. The European demos were later collated into the Embryonic release.
The new band, Audioride, (Matty Ryan on drums and Dale Trickett on bass) rehearsed as though our lives depended on it, and, as musos having another swing, they perhaps did. It was in the rehearsals that I first had the exquisite pleasure of hearing my little acoustic songs enlarged by the power of a band.
Audioride played its first gig at the Dan O’Connell in Melbourne on January 1st 2001, coincidentally the same venue I’d seen the transformative Tim Rogers gig a couple of years before. The crowd was modest, but the energy was right, and the mere tapping of a punter’s foot was enough to keep me encouraged.
Audioride rode the wave of the Melbourne live music scene for the next two years, continually writing, rehearsing and refining the set. We became a powerhouse rock trio, and, as told in the Join Like Water ] Move Like Tides and Audioride EP album notes, we hit the studio more than once. But I was becoming concerned by our direction, as my writing had morphed to cater to the band, as opposed to the band catering to it as planned. It was entirely my fault, and I became a walking contradiction, a rock guy that craved to play more intimate acoustic songs, while not wanting to be a depressing balladeer. My writing, regardless, turned back to its acoustic origins, and along with the tension this created, my general frustration with the music biz, and Dale the bass player moving interstate for work, Audioride folded. The band had reeked of potential, and its demise is one of my deepest regrets to this day.
The pestering woodpecker of conventional life had, by now, left an indentation in my skull, so I packed away the guitars and resumed doing graphic design, saved up, bought a house, got my ducks in a row until once again I packed my backpack and headed this time for Nepal and India. Just me, myself, and my guitar, the theme of this trip was to be unhindered freedom. As overly romantic as it sounded, I had my heart set on riding a motorbike across India. A plan I kept strictly to myself.
It was during this trip, thanks to an ultimatum from a mate at home that he “expected email”, that I discovered a dormant ability for comedic story writing. My objective, solely, was to write the most entertaining, ridiculous, dirty, interesting, outrageous, funny and disgusting tales I could, and, according to my audience of one back home, I was succeeding.
I thought little of it at the time, but the emails were adding up, and when I experienced certain monumental events along the motorbiking journey – and documented them in detail –my belief that I could be sitting on a book-worthy story, grew. I sat down at a later date and wrote much of the in-between detail, a task that took over my life almost completely.
The India trip was also punctuated with the breaking of a long-term songwriting block, which transpired into a new album that was later recorded back in Melbourne. The album, Journeyism, and the book, Man, Dog Bike, were released simultaneous-ish-ly, as the two had a certain symbiotic lean where they told the story of each other.
After recording the album, and several unsettled years at home, I moved back to London to give music the biggest swing so far. I started playing the London open mic scene, to network and sharpen the sword, and it was at the third open mic that I was approached by a girl. “Do you wanna play for Prince Charles next week?” “Umm… yes!”
Prince Charles was opening the doors of his residence Clarence House for an environmental suitability event and the services of some hand-picked musicians were duly required. I felt almost dirty when I waked in on the day, knowing the degree my Irish Nana despised the Royal Family.
I was met by Charles’s personal butler, an overly courteous man that repeatedly addressed me as “Kerrigan”. I was given a personal tour of the ground level, as though a bloke from Keilor had the first ability to appreciate crushed velvet.
I was escorted to the stage in the front garden, where I was to be playing, and play I did, for about an hour. The crowd was dotted, and the weather shite, and the highlight was when a disheveled red head lad stuck his head out of the top window and waved down. It was Harry.
I played solidly in London for the next two years, simultaneously getting somewhere and nowhere. It came to my attention that I hadn’t done a Journeyism launch gig, so I organised said launch at the Wesley Anne in Melbourne.
I flew home, and the big night came, and perhaps from the Facebook footprint of playing regularly in London – Prince Charles this and The Troubadour Club that – the room was packed, humming with the sound of punters, mates, and, most nerve-wrackingly, relatives. Brother Shaun was in attendance, as were Mum and Dad. This was to be the first time any of them had heard me sing.
Although gig fit from London, I was nervous, anxious, and, quite emotional to be playing to a homecoming crowd. Top musical mates Chris Keogh and Andrew McUtchen were on support slots, and my heart accelerated as they played and show time for me crept closer.
Someone mentioned that the drummer from Cold Chisel had died a few days before, and with only 15 minutes before I was due on stage, I, foolishly, went out to my car and started listening to Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees. It was a rookie error. I was brimming with emotion already, and the intoxicating sentimentality of the song took me closer to the cusp.
I sat out in the car, only just refraining from saturating it in tears, when someone panickily knocked on my car window, “Mate! You’re on!”
I walked on stage in absolute tatters, fighting off the desire to break into a million pieces in front of all. I put my guitar on, and the noisy room fell pin drop quiet. I heard my mother’s voice in the dark crowd “is he on?” All I could think of, while standing in the blinding lights, was a tidal wave of childhood memories of inferiority, of Mum and Dad in the dark, of my brothers, of the slew of cousins and aunties in attendance. I could feel their eyes on me. They were holding their breath as much as I, and then I started.
I remember physically pushing my emotions into my guts as I opened my mouth. The first song, What Is Sleep But The Feet’s Surrender went for an eternity or more, and I was neither here nor there as I too listened to what I was hearing. This whole music thing, namely the quest to become a singer, had had a whole lot of false starts, of bung notes, embarrassing moments, and, of course, crushing self-doubt. It had been a clueless Karate Kid dance of wax on, wax off, but it was on this night, perhaps from eating my emotions, or the significance of this crowd, that my voice set into the richest tone and most reliable pitch yet. The timing couldn’t have been better.
The end of the first song was met with genuine applause, and the night went from strength to strength as I invited on stage a host of musical mates, my original home folk, without who I’d have never taken this road.
I finished what I thought was the last song, until I was asked to play an encore, and no song could have been more fitting than one in particular, Flame Trees, and I sang it freely, confidently, and without my inner vase cracking up. The circle was complete. After coming down off the gig adrenaline, never can I remember sleeping as well as I did that night.
After a couple more musically active years in London, life took me to Austin Texas, the Live Music Capital Of The World. I bought myself the first nice car I’d ever owned, and its recurring transmission problems lead to a stroke of luck in music, as it was while sitting in the waiting room of Eagle Transmission in South Austin that I was chatted up by a music booker. “Do you wanna play live on the television next week? FOX7?” “Umm… yes!”
I’d be playing one song live-to-air. One take, no fuckups. I had no idea of the size of viewership. Was it national? Global? Was it Austin’s equivalent of David Letterman? Was it televised in Oz? Was this one performance going to catapult me to glory?
I rehearsed the song When You Call Me within an inch of its life, until the big day came. I arrived at the studio obnoxiously early, waiting in the green room and doing my best to keep out of the way of crew members assembling this and that.
While listening to the hosts interview various guests through the wall, I paced like a man on death row, until, “David?” “Yes?” “You’re up!” I walked into the bright lights of the studio, to see pointed at me an array of cameras; each with a monitor at its foot featuring none other than my giant head.
Host, Dave Froelich stood next to me. We were in an ad break, and as the floor guy counted down from ten, what I remember feeling most was a sort of anger, a crystalised anger that said, “I can do this” in response to the inner voice that said I can’t. “No, fucker... I can.” And I did, and the network had me back on multiple occasions.
The gigs in Austin stacked up like a body count, and were not without validating highlights such as winning an Austin-wide songwriting competition and, at another gig, meeting Willie Nelson.
All were meaningful, but none as much as when I was asked by Swan Songs – a foundation that organises gigs for people on their deathbeds – to play songs by The Cure for an anonymous recipient. I was given little info beforehand, but, judging by the choice of artist, I figured she couldn’t have been particularly old.
I prepared 12 songs, and it was at a hospice center on the day, that I was informed by the Swan Songs representative, that the recipient – who was in the advanced stages of transition – was only 34 years old.
I was taken into the ward, where I met her, a gorgeous blonde-haired green-eyed young woman, surrounded by 12 of her friends. The sadness in the room was palpable and was about to be intensified by the unrelenting emotionality of The Cure’s music. The Swan Songs rep looked at me sympathetically, as though not envying my position. The pressure on me to get it right was more than any gig to date.
I sat near the foot of the recipient’s bed, set up my music stand and started playing, whereupon she, plausibly, exploded into tears. Her friends followed one by one, and I closed my eyes, desperately trying to block it out as a lump the size of the moon formed in my throat.
I became the living embodiment of the very song I was singing, Boys Don’t Cry. I was the boy that wouldn’t cry, that couldn’t cry, that wouldn’t allow myself, because, if I did, I was making the gig about myself, or, worse, conveying shock to be in the presence of someone so near death. This was 100% about her, 0% about me.
I forged through until I got the nod from the rep to wind it up. The recipient, wiping her face, explained that she was such a devout fan of The Cure that she’d met them. She thanked me and said it was nice to meet me. The honour was precisely the other way around. Her friends gathered at the foot of her bed, and they, resultantly, felt like my friends, as though years of friendship had been fast-tracked in the 40 minutes. There was so much love in the room that day that I almost couldn’t take it. Afterwards, I sat in my car and cried like the boy that did. She died eight days later.
I drove home that day thinking that if all the struggle, joy and anxiety music had given me – from the infamous day I found the guitar in Shaun’s closet to this day – was indeed “for” this day, then every drop had been worth it. I also considered this a good time to burn my guitars and turn a page, until I got a phone call from the foundation the following week asking me to do another hospice gig, and another, and another after that.
In stark contrast, as bragged about here, it was around this time that I started doing standup comedy. Life and time were (are) too precious, and it was long overdue that I conquered my greatest fear, the stage without a guitar.
Nowadays the creative process is a river that flows irrespective of being wanted or not, and I’m grateful to have at least some capacity to catch the occasional butterfly, be it song, story, or hot air.
I have no idea where the creative journey ends, and the main thing I’ve learned is that nothing creative is ever finished, only abandoned. I’m just delighted to have stepped onto the path by finding my brother’s guitar, and both I, and my curiosity, love not knowing where it’ll veer next.
Thank you for reading.
To be continued..