Music has always been important to me. Ever since I was a small kid, I was always making music, starting off with toy instruments and empty pineapple tins, graduating to acoustic guitar and finally to an electric band. My band mates and I took our music very seriously and we worked hard at perfecting our set. On the few occasions we did play for audiences, we were always enthusiastically, encouragingly, supportively, indulgently received. We never felt the cold wind of rejection. It was a blessed existence.
Because I was also the son of a man that liked to make things, himself the son of a very able maker, there was a strong tradition in our family of finding a proper job and going out into the world to make things. My chosen field gravitated towards electronics and software. There was a raging competition within me about whether to choose the family tradition (making stuff) or following my passion (music).
I’ve always believed that being good at music is only half the equation of what makes a successful professional musician. The other half is about attitude, approach, application and resilience. Two concerts that I witnessed, now over thirty years ago, proved to be pivotal.
Newcastle was a second-string city in Australia, about a hundred miles north of the state capital, Sydney. It was big enough to have suburban sprawl, but small enough that the outer suburbs still felt quite rural and remote. One of the traditional highlights of the Novocastrian year was the Royal Agricultural Show. For those unfamiliar with this event, Americans and British people would recognise it as a county fair. Livestock is shown and ribbons are awarded. Carnival folk arrive with their tents and games and fairground rides. There are hot dogs and cotton candy / candy floss / fairy floss (choose which, according to your nationality).
The whole thing takes place in a fair ground, used by day to parade and judge livestock, but in the evenings there was often a fireworks display, lunatics trying to blow themselves up or jump busses with motorbikes and the occasional free concert. One year, the free concert featured a very well known band – Air Supply. Air Supply had been hugely successful in the US and had a string of gigantic hit records. Now, in the denouement of their career, they had been booked to perform as the headline act at the free concert.
The problem with a free concert at the Newcastle Show is that the acts were, in those days, poorly promoted (if at all) and there are so many other activities and distractions that even Elvis would struggle to reach an audience. Air Supply played and played well, singing all of their biggest hits, but precious few people were listening. Even those that were listening were only half listening. I watched and listened, but I think I was one of the few.
Fast forward to an event sponsored by the local radio station in Speers Point park. Those of you that are not from Newcastle, NSW, will not know that Speers Point is a far flung suburb of the city, situated on the shore of Lake Macquarie. It’s beautiful, but mosquito-prone and quite far from the city centre. There weren’t many people living near there, some thirty years ago. This time, the free concert featured Split Enz, a pretty successful band that had had some hit singles, a couple of successful albums, had made several national television appearances and had toured globally. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn showed, by the look on their faces and their body language, that they were used to playing in more salubrious circumstances with larger and more enthusiastic audiences than the few dozen people milling around the front of the stage. To their eternal credit, they played a good show, sang like angels, worked their hearts out and got very little audience appreciation for their efforts. But I was impressed. I was damned impressed. I was witnessing something I couldn’t have done.
I now realise that in my youth, although music was a potential career path for me, I chose a different path, because at the time I didn’t have what it took to do what these artists did – to perform admirably, with grace, to the ungrateful. Music was too precious to me. I thought that my hard work and dedication entitled me to some respect and recognition for my music, at all times. If I had met with the sorts of disinterested, distracted, disheartening audiences they had played to, I would have felt utterly crushed and nursed my open wounds for days and months afterward. I thought it was all about me, not about the music.
Life subsequently taught me to deal with loss and the destruction of dreams that I had fully identified my entire body and soul with, in another field entirely. I now think I know that it truly is about the music. It doesn’t matter who is listening or what they think of the music, the point to be reached is that the music is always good. The Finn brothers and Air Supply showed that even when it seems like nobody cares, the music still matters and is important enough to cherish and nurture, especially when it is falling on deaf ears.
These experiences, at the time, helped me choose engineering over music, but the vivid impression stayed with me from that time until now. Today, the pivotal meaning to me is not to abandon music, but to uphold your art in the face of rejection or indifference. Art that you are passionate about making is important enough to make, whatever the circumstances. I offer my gratitude to the artists that eventually taught me this important lesson. Pity it took me so long to recognise it.
Today, I spend time jamming with friends. The Grand Gurus of Greater Middleagia, a.k.a The Asbo Brothers, annoy the neighbours on a regular basis. It’s the music that is important.