When I was a younger man I lived for some years in Alice Springs. At the time there was one TV channel, the ABC. If you mentioned this fact as in indication of the place’s isolation or backwardness, old timers would scoff and talk about the olden days when … well, you know.
Murray Neck Video World was the most profitable in the southern hemisphere. (That’s not a fact. I just made it up.) I can still remember the jingle:
There’s a whole world of fun, just waiting for you
The biggest collection, you’ll see that it’s true!
We’re number one for home entertainment
At Murray Neck Video World!
There were four radio stations though: ABC, CAAMA (the Aboriginal one), 8CCC (the community one) and 8HA (the commercial one). They were all quite different, except on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning they all played country music. All of them. So Alice Springs is where I learnt to love country music, in the same way that Winston Smith learnt to love Big Brother. 1987 was a watershed as it was when I bought my first C&W album, Dwight Yoakam’s Hillbilly Deluxe.
It was actually a cassette as I didn’t have a turntable. I still like that album, and Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23 is still one of the most poignant songs I’ve ever heard.
In the days before hip hop took off in the bush the vast majority of Aboriginal bands played C&W. There were some exceptions, such as the rockier Amunda, and Coloured Stone from out of town, and I loved the Areyonga Desert Tigers’ version of The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. But most often they played the sad-eyed, world-done-me-wrong ballads that out-blues the blues.
The best of all of these ballads came from the King of Koori Country: Roger Knox’s Goulburn Jail. So when I heard, through the ‘What’s on in Walgett’ newsletter, that Knox would be playing the Oasis Hotel in Walgett, I knew I had to be there.
* * *
The day of the gig was a windy Saturday. In the small gum tree over my back fence the apostle birds huddled on the branches, occasionally clucking and mithering as the breeze ruffled their feathers and caused them to bump into one another. I wondered about the wisdom of going. I wouldn’t be setting off till late – sunset was at 5.15 – and everyone warned me about the roos; with the recent dry they’d come in to feed on the roadsides and, each day, the verges were punctuated with their bodies.
But I am made of stern stuff. Oh yes. I hopped on the Kwaka, cranked it up and pointed it south.
It was soon dark and, sure enough, the road was alive with wallabies. In my peripheral vision mobs of them bounded like ghosts in the far reaches of my headlights. Occasionally one would stand with its back to me, invisible and perfectly camouflaged against the dried grass and khaki soil, then spring into life at the most inopportune moment.
It was slow going.
It was cold.
I wondered about the trip home.
But eventually I crossed the Five Mile Warrambool and the Namoi and the glistening lights of Walgett beckoned ahead of me. There was a servo. And a little pagoda in a park with three huge uncollared dogs staring balefully at me as I phut-phutted past.
I pulled up at the Oasis. Surely this is the most ironically named hotel in the whole of Australia? It’s girded by a ten-foot steel fence and comes from the Soviet workers’ canteen school of architecture. I didn’t take a picture at the time: I’ve only got an iPhone and it was dark and there were lots of people hanging around and looking at me because I’d just bowled up on a motorbike. So the next day I looked for it on Google street view; it doesn’t look too bad here, which just proves how much the Internet lies. In real life, at night, it’s horrible.
The lads on the door said that Roger wasn’t on just yet but would be “soon”. I was hungry and looked around for somewhere to eat. I turned, looked across the road and saw Wongs Fish and Chips. Done.
There might have been a Wong once, maybe a hundred years ago. Or maybe these two behind the counter were the Wongs. It was your typical scungy outback chip shop. Kids flitted in and out buying chips and huge bottles of Coke; parents picked up phone orders from the toastie machine. Stores in towns like this often get slagged off for charging rip-off prices, but it’d be a tough gig working twelve hours in a Walgett takeaway. The Wongs didn’t look like they were awash with money; they had the weary expressions of folk just scraping by. Is this the dream they dreamed of, all those years ago when they got their Australian work visas?
The most popular dish seemed to be chips in tin foil with gravy poured over them. It looked tempting (I’m a shocker for food like that) but in the end I played safe and went for the cheeseburger and chips.
When I was a young man (here I go again), this time in England, we’d go for nights out to Big Town. At chucking-out time we’d spill from the pubs and clubs and onto the street, and if there wasn’t a chip shop nearby we’d get a burger from one of the little caravans that dotted the town centre.
The burgers these vans served up were only fit for drunken English teenagers. The “meat” part wasn’t even fried but bobbed around in a vat of hot, briny liquid, then got slathered in onions. We loved them, but since then I’ve been spoiled by fancy Australian burgers. At Wongs I got a little memory of England. Maybe the Wongs did their training at Big Town?
It reminded me instantly of the flag of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, as I’m sure it did you too.
I asked for some sauce to help get the chips down. Mrs Wong tentatively held a sachet of tartar sauce toward me. I shook my head: “No, tomato sauce”. She looked at the box of tartar sauce sachets, then back at me, then followed my eyes towards the four-gallon drum of tomato sauce on the back counter. “No sauce,” she said. My eyes narrowed. There goes your five-star Trip Advisor rating, Mrs Wong.
My delicious meal finished, I headed back over the road. It was ten bucks to get in and bands had been playing since two that afternoon. The Big Day Out should really take a look at itself.
I made my way past the front bar and through the throng towards the performance area. Like lots of Soviet-era motels in the Australian outback this was a horseshoe of rooms around a blue-metal forecourt. A stage of pallets had been rigged up in the centre and the band was up there: drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar. And, in the centre, seated like a medieval king, was the great man himself. Oh yeah!
I found myself a good spot near a 44-gallon drum with flames shooting six feet into the air. As is always the case at these things, there were plenty of people ready for a chat. Often they’d start with, “You a copper?” or, for variation, “You security?” Maybe it was the black leather jacket, or my natural air of authority. More likely it was the fact that I was one of only two gubbas in the entire joint, the other being the glum-looking copper trying to keep a low profile in his hi-viz and POLICE cap.
The band played, Roger sang and people danced on the blue-metal forecourt. He still has a fantastic voice, and lots of people leaned over to bellow in my ear “He’s a legend!” He sure is. I tried to take a couple of photos, but it was too dark. But I like them for their blurry impressionistic take on the night, like those grainy shots that Robert Capa took at the D-Day landings.
Well, ok, that’s a bit of a stretch. But there he is: Roger Knox! Yeah, in the middle!
I get talking to a woman; she’s real friendly. When I look up there are three sets of eyes on me. I say, “You’re gonna get me in trouble!” She shrugs her lips contemptuously in the men’s direction. “You all right. I got plentya nephews here.” This wasn’t a great comfort.
A bloke from the hotel (at least I think he was from the hotel) shouted, “You stoppin’ here tonight?” “Nah,” I said, “I’m heading back to the Ridge.” “You should stop here,” he said, “Rooms are cheap. Twenty dollars.” I looked round the horseshoe of rooms that surrounded the party. I wondered how many grey nomads, misguidedly thinking they’d treat themselves to a comfy bed out of the caravan when they hit Walgett, were lying grim-faced in their rooms, about twelve feet away from the King of Koori Country and his audience. “I’ll give it a miss,” I said. The man screwed up his lips and cocked his head to one side: “Ten dollars?”
Roger had the audience in his hand. All the classics: How I wish I was back in the Dreamtime and Streets of Tamworth (revised to Streets of Walgett). But he didn’t play Goulburn Jail; he did knock out another prison ballad but I think he knew the audience wanted a good time, not some miserable reminder of life. After he finished, the band stayed on, a mix and match of locals, and got stuck into a rousing rendition of Wipeout: “C’mon Walgett, let’s rock!” People gathered round the King to get selfies. It was time for me to be off.
The wind had dropped but the air was cold. A meteor slid through the sky to my west. The roos were thicker than ever. There were foxes, a feral cat bigger than a fox, a dingo or wild dog. A spotted pig minced quickly over the road like an overweight lady in tight high heels. Occasionally I hit a pocket of air filled with the tart stench of road kill. It was slow going, and I was never gladder to see the dark silhouette of Stanley at the side of the road.
Back in Walgett they’d still be kicking on. The grey nomads would be grimacing in their motel beds. The copper would be checking his friend’s Facebook status on his phone. And Roger Knox might come on for an encore. He’s still the King of Koori Country.