Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Man Who Got Trumped.


I performed this story on Friday night 16th March at a gig called The Giant Dwarf  in Redfern, Sydney as part of "Queer Stories - The 78ers Tell of Their Lives." I was accompanied by the great slide-guitarist Paul Vassallo and had visuals projected on a screen beside me, some of which are presented here. I dedicated my performance to Jeff St. John who died last week. He was a great soul/blues singer who was born with spina bifida and when we teenagers in mid 1960s Melbourne knew he was coming from Sydney to our club, The Catcher, we were thrilled as he was a great inspiration as well as musician, for he showed us anything was possible if you had heart and guts, even from a wheelchair.

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Growing up I had a grumpy Stalinist grandfather, my mother’s father, who had roof-shaking political arguments with my dad over Communism versus Socialism and the weakness of the Labor Party of which my dad was an avid supporter. After nearly every visit we had to rush from his house in a fury, my dad cursing the old fellow, much to my befuddlement, the political arguments background psycho-babble to my childhood education.


Grandpa had been a larrikin in the early twentieth century. Originating in the 1880s they were an inner-city Melbourne gang that dressed nattily in short black coats with lots of pockets and braids, bell bottomed trousers, pointy-toed boots and broad-rimmed hats. They loved to dance energetic polkas and Irish jigs, and often fought the police, like hoodlums from which today’s rebellious youth evolved. Grandpa went on to run a two-up school during the Great Depression, filling his house with costly object d’art collected from those gamblers who lost but had no money.


Being a very cute blue-eyed child my grandpa spoiled me terribly, always giving me the highly desirous loose change from his pockets. I often fingered his precious bric a brac, staring in fear and wonder at various statues such as one of a leering red devil, soul-tempting Mephistopheles himself. Grandpa asked me to choose which piece I liked the best and I chose a gem-studded, silver Ghengis Khan riding a horse, and the old fellow laughed and exclaimed that I had good taste, and I would inherit all the treasure when he died.


Among the piles of jeweled ornaments was a chipped plaster statue of a bedraggled tramp passed out on a park bench, a pack of playing cards scattered at his feet, with the legend, “the man who got trumped” written on its base. I was fascinated by it and in bewilderment asked my grandpa, "What does it mean? “You’ll find out one day,” the old man wisely assured me.
Around that time, one night while my parents were arguing in the kitchen, I sneaked out to the lounge room and watched on TV a most magical movie, the Korda Brothers 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad” starring my henceforth dreamboat companion, the ebullient Indian youth Sabu. As I thrilled to him flying upon a genie’s back up to the high Himalayas to steal an omniscient jewel from an alien godhead’s brow I crossed my heart and swore that one day I too would fly to that mystical temple, have the most fabulous of adventures and achieve wondrous things in my life.


When I grew into a teenager my true nature became more evident, I walked, talked and thought gay, and by 1967 I had come out to all my friends and some of my workmates, but still thought it would be too much of a burden to drop upon my working-class parents who had enough worries. I was seventeen and going through a Mod phase, chasing all the hot bands of the time such as Lobby Lloyd and “The Wild Strawberries”, Max Merritt and “The Meteors”, Billy Thorpe and “The Aztecs”, Gerry Humphries and “The Loved Ones”, “Jeff Saint John and The Id”, “Python Lee Jackson”, “The Chelsea Set” and “The Purple Hearts” in inner-city clubs like The Biting Eye, The Catcher and The Thumping Tum. I was mad for pop culture and rock’n roll, and nothing could sway me from following my rebellious teenage bent.


While I was out dancing all night my mother had been beaten up one last time by my drunken father causing her to flee, back to her parents’ house for succor as there were no women’s refuges in those days. She was a grown woman yet her stern father insisted, if not home every night for dinner, at least she was never go out after nine pm and under these penal-like conditions I visited her diligently. I then ran away from home myself and shared a grungy flat with the first love of my life, a long-haired rock’n roll drummer named Tony. I was quite the dandy, ironically not too dissimilar to the Larrikins of yore, and on visiting my mum I proudly wore my latest Carnaby Street gear, a high-collared blue paisley shirt, striped bell-bottomed trousers, velvet jacket and my long curly hair obscuring my face.


Presenting myself thus at my grandparents’ dinner table caused the old Stalinist to flip out. “My grandson’s grown into a bloody poofter! Look at his disgusting get up! Get out of my house ya little fairy!” He yelled for me to never come back again and slammed the door on my crestfallen face. I never did see the old grump again and I inherited exactly nothing from him, I was disowned and disaffected.

From then on I found life as an obvious homo to be a terrifying, disreputable one, suffering beatings, rapes, insults, poverty, homelessness, harassment, exclusion and bitchiness, from straight society and fellow gays alike. It was hard to keep a job, rent a room, escape the sharp claws of the Law and avoid mental breakdown in the institutions of psychiatry, in fact all the world tried to fuck me, for if you don’t have middle-class support you are left open to the harsh elements. 

THE EASYBEATS.
I did indeed spend years sleeping on park-benches and by the side of the road like a washed-up tramp, a school of hard knocks in which I grew strong. At twenty-one I hit the road, became a dharma bum and hoped to find myself while practicing yoga, meditation and abandoned dancing in India for four years in the early ‘Seventies. I grew into a resilient, determined adult, confident about who I was and what I wanted.


I gambled, I lost, I dared to win, for instance at writing literature, influenced by Jean Genet and Edmond White, where, in the early ‘Eighties, I admitted in popular short story anthologies to the outlaw’s search for sexual gratification at the city’s beats. This compromised any career I might find in the arts where all accolades went to heterosexuals or well behaved, nice gays. At all those gallery receptions and movie premiers, I was looked at askance, the poof who confessed to sucking cocks in dark parks.


Yet I have lived life to the max, refusing to go on my knees to the gods of money, power and fame, instead I appreciated art, creating posters, films, murals, comics and stories. I’ve trekked many times to the high Himalayas and danced ecstatically with freaks by the Arabian Sea, and in Auz in the 1980s I grappled in the mosh-pits in Sydney’s wildest rock clubs such as Frenchs, The Trade Union and Sellinas at Coogee Bay to bands like The Angels, The Saints, The Cramps and Butthole Surfers, and The Divinyls: dancing up close with the musical genius of Chrissie Amphlet, her head-spinning, skirt-lifting highland fling as she growled and yodeled rock soprano sent us punters into a nirvanic swoon.

THE DIVINYLS.
Beyond single-issue identity politics I’ve fought for prisoners rights, Koori rights, women’s rights and, as a ‘78er, for my own liberation as a gay man. Though ignominious I’ve lived my life as if I were “The Thief of Baghdad”, riding a flying carpet, challenging a wicked regime, enthused by finding the light given off by a jewel-studded silver statue of my own creation. Oh, and I got over being trumped.

SABU
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The four 78er story-tellers before me were superlative, each one so funny I near pissed myself laughing but also poignant to the point of tears and heartache. All of them hard acts to follow, I was on last and I was not going to tell any jokes so I was somewhat in trepidation. My tale was hard-arsed drama and the audience was hushed, still, I would like to think transfixed, nary a guffaw was to be heard. I could let this get to me if I wasn't such an experienced showman, I carried on for I simply had a different story and a different way of presenting it, in fact it was all rock'n roll, in style and content. 



I went into a shamanic trance performing my story, almost a dervish whirl as befits its inspiring folkloric content, my arms thrown up in the air, a hot white light seeming to descend upon me as I swayed to the electric guitar. Afterwards I was congratulated by my peers and told I did great, all of which I didn't have a clue as I had entered "the Zone". Just to make sure I didn't get tabs on myself, in the midst of all the back-slapping, a serious-faced young woman approached me, the usual one curmudgeon in the crowd, who always seems to zero in on me, and asked if I didn't think I was racist. I couldn't believe my ears and asked her what she was talking about. I had just finished a tale about getting back-stabbed by the world and here she was trying to get another knife in. I guess she was trying to "trump" me, like no god farting in my face.


She claimed that my mentioning India was me appropriating Indian culture for my own benefit. Was I born in India, did my family come from there, blah, blah, blah. She hadn't seemed to listen to the M.C.s introduction that told of my studies at the Sivananda Jungle University. I repeated that I'd lived in India much of my life, that I studied and practiced yoga and meditation, that I certainly didn't teach yoga, dress as an Indian or call myself Baba Rumballs. I was just a tourist and the tourist industry was one of the biggest employers in India and India definitely encouraged tourists to visit.

She had some axe to grind, a serious young thing playing the racist card as her membership of a cause celebre. "But what about all that "Thief of Baghdad" stuff you went on about, isn't that appropriating Indian culture?" "Hello, Baghdad is in Iraq! The Thief is a Suffi tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights, a collection of inspirational mystic folktales from the Middle East that inflamed my imagination when I was ten years old. Are you telling me a child selfishly appropriated another culture to get a leg up in the world? Anyway, what ever happened to us all sharing World Culture? Should Ravi Shankar not have taught George Harrison to play the sitar? I have Chinese and Koori ancestry, am I not to be inspired by their stories as well as those of the Irish Celts? 

I sweetly smiled at her and said, "I suggest you go watch the Korda Brothers film of "The Thief" and maybe you'll  understand why a poor, working class gay boy was so turned on by it." She had a confused, glum look on her pretty face, mumbling my performance was good as she turned away, and I surmised the dear young serious politico didn't know much, and it was good for my ego to be questioned, if I didn't create a little controversy I'd think something was wrong.


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