In the middle of the journey of my life I found myself inside a tent of mirrors. Ahead lay a labour of trouble. All around, a thronging darkness. A deep slumber had caused me to stray, and to go forward was the only way back.
Six weeks previously, in October 2004, my manager Rob had rung to say the Spiegeltent was coming to Melbourne for the summer. Would I do some shows? I’d played in the tent before, at the Edinburgh Festival. Built by Belgians in 1920 of wood and canvas, and decorated with mirrors, velvet, brocade and leaded glass, it travels around the world hosting cabaret shows. Spiegel is Flemish for mirror, and the mirrors in the booths and on poles all around are the main feature, multiplying the audience in the intimate circular space. The staff like to tell you that Marlene Dietrich performed there back in the day. It’s a fun place to play, fits around three hundred people. They walk in with a different kind of buzz, like children at the circus.
‘They’ve suggested you put together a show you wouldn’t do elsewhere,’ said Rob. ‘You know, an exclusive. They’ll give you a few nights.’
I said I’d think about it, and not long afterwards found myself awake in the middle of the night with an idea fully formed in my brain: I know! I’ll sing a hundred of my songs in alphabetical order over four nights. Twenty-five songs a night, each night a different song list. I called Rob the next morning before I had time to talk myself out of it, wrote a blurb for the Spiegeltent’s program and started a list.
Preparing for and performing that first A–Z season was like running a marathon. I’d written close to three hundred songs in the decades since I started out, but had lost touch with many of them. I had to relearn words and chords as well as work on pared-back arrangements that would sound good without the colour and rhythm of a band. Some songs I had lost touch with due to natural attrition. I no longer had a connection to them, and couldn’t sing them in a true way any more. Their faults outweighed their virtues. Clunky rhymes, false conceits, banal verses. They’d worked for me once, but, badly made, had long since worn out. Those songs wouldn’t come back.
Others, however, had been neglected due to the performer’s eternal problem – balancing the old and the new. Your audience have paid their money and want to hear their favourites. So inside you, two people are at war: the stern artist who wants to keep his art fresh, testing out new and obscure material, and the needy show-off who wants to get over right here, right now to the audience in front of him. To harness that hunger in the room and give it satisfaction. And so release yourself and them.
My strategy with the band had been to rotate the songs, the familiar and the unfamiliar. So we had a set each night that gave us a kick to play and also included enough songs to keep the audience happy. But over the course of a tour, a set would evolve that worked really well and we’d tend to stick to it, with only minor tinkering. This meant that perfectly good songs weren’t getting a run often enough. I was like the coach of a sporting team with a huge squad, relying too much on his stars, proven match-day winners. Meanwhile talented players languished on the bench, some for so long that they didn’t turn up to training any more.
The decision to field four separate teams over four nights changed all that. By the end of the first season I realised I was onto something. The audiences had enjoyed these shows in a different way. They felt they were part of a game. Some came one night, some two or three, some all four. Those who’d come every night exchanged addresses with some of their fellow ‘completists’, previously strangers but now bonded as if they’d walked the Kokoda Trail together. Others said to me, ‘Will you do it again? We came on night three but we’ll pick another night next time.’
Next time? The last thing I wanted to think about was a next time as I headed home to lie down for a couple of days. But there was a next time. Then another and another. The memory feat became easier and my fingers began to know where to go without stumbling; I was no longer searching for old friends who’d dropped off the radar. I’d held a reunion and they’d all come, and now we were keeping in touch regularly. I’d found the gift that keeps on giving.
Right from the start, I realised the shows needed theatricalising, something to spruce up the doggedness of one man singing a list. So I decided to add some storytelling around the songs for variety, and not being a natural raconteur, wrote and memorised a script. Guests joined me onstage now and then, including my nephew Dan Kelly playing guitar. His role grew larger over time as I took the shows to other cities and countries. The performances were recorded with a view to releasing them eventually as a CD collection, and I began to imagine a book to go with it.
I went back to my show notes, put them next to the song lyrics and let my mind brew. I wanted to find a key I could turn, to feel a little click that would set me writing in a new way. Over time I found a series of keys, some to big rooms, some to little rooms, some to dark cupboards. Many days I was locked out of the house altogether.
Before too long a mongrel beast emerged. Was I writing an idiosyncratic history of music, a work diary or a hymn to dead friends? There were lists, letters, quotes, confessions, essays and road stories. Could I get them all to fit? Could I make the architecture sing? And what kind of megalomaniac would assume that setting his lyrics down and writing commentary around them – a kind of Midrash – would be interesting to others?
Just your everyday writer kind of megalomaniac, I suppose. The kind that says, Homer sang of heroes and so shall I. Of all the good people who travelled with me, who shared the dark hours and sweet moments, my twentieth- and 21st-century chums whom the gods neither helped nor hindered, I’ll sing. Of those who helped me make the sounds I couldn’t make on my own, the sounds that make me swoon, I’ll sing. Of those I never met who sang to me across space and time, I’ll sing. And hope my song becomes a charnel house, a place for those not yet born to visit, where my companions and I will remain strewn among each other, long after our days are done.
The kind of dreamer who hopes to make a new kind of book for new machines. A book for the ears as well as the eyes. A book that sings and talks and plays.
The kind of man who, appalled at his poor memory, throughout his life and in the middle of his life – though who’s to say it’s the middle? – kept putting out a net to catch scraps from the rushing river on its way to the wine dark sea.