"Something to remember me by" - Mark Mordue, the Sunrize Band and the Careless Horserider
I was freelancing for rock'n'roll magazines and having the lazy time of my life. A visit from half a dozen traditional Aboriginal men from Australia's Top End was well into the realms of the unpredictable, but they were rock'n'roll and so was I and that seemed enough to seal the occasion. Nonetheless I began battening down the hatches and warned all my friends that I had some pretty unusual visitors coming to stay. This is how it happened according to my diary at the time.
This loving rock ‘n roll tale by Australian writer Mark Mordue documents a 1992 tour to Sydney by the Sunrize Band from central Arnhem Land. It was first published in The Griffith Review in 2006.
For mine it is as fine a piece of writing about rock ‘n roll and more as you’ll find. It is long but well worth the effort. I could say much more but I’ll leave that to Mark and the band.
In the summer of 1992, the Aboriginal band Sunrize, a group of heavy rock musicians from Maningrida in Arnhem Land, decided to pay me a visit in Sydney.
I’d toured through the Northern Territory outback with them a few years earlier and it was now my turn to show them round “my country”. They were flying in to headline the Survival Day show at La Perouse on Australia Day and I was the only close friend they had in town. There was never any question my home would become their home when they arrived.
I was living in an old terrace in the inner-city suburb of Surry Hills, a happily dingy joint with cracks in the wall so big they allowed you to see through into the next house. A round table in the kitchen and the butt end of an old tomato nailed to the noticeboard (breakfast rage) completed the domestic bliss.
I was freelancing for rock’n’roll magazines and having the lazy time of my life. A visit from half a dozen traditional Aboriginal men from Australia’s Top End was well into the realms of the unpredictable, but they were rock’n’roll and so was I and that seemed enough to seal the occasion. Nonetheless I began battening down the hatches and warned all my friends that I had some pretty unusual visitors coming to stay. This is how it happened according to my diary at the time.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 20: “Mozzie here. Just ringing to let you know we’re at the airport. Be there in an hour. We got to wait for our guitars and equipment.”
The invasion has begun.
Ben Pascoe of Sunrize is calling, familiar with his nickname and its laughable reflection on his skinny bones and fuzzy burst of hair. Known as the “Jimi Hendrix of Arnhem Land”, Ben’s phone voice betrays a nervous excitement at being down in the big smoke to show there’s more to Aboriginal culture than Papunya-Tula dot paintings and Yothu Yindi dance songs.
After the group arrives, we sit and watch Basic Instinct on the video over a couple of bottles of Tooheys. Terry Pascoe (Ben’s brother and the band’s bassist) thinks Sharon Stone is “too sweet”, lingering over his vowels in a way that suggests he’d be next in line for the icepick if it were possible.
Terry has already got my video clock operating and is helping me out big time with wiring up my new stereo. A graduate in broadcast journalism from Batchelor College, Terry’s been working for the local Maningrida community television station – doing everything from reading the news to making programs on the greenhouse effect. Inevitably, he’s made a Sunrize on the Road video of their tour through the Kimberley in Western Australia. We’ll watch that later, too.
Wayne Kala Kala (drums) and Kenny Smith (guitar) meanwhile peruse photos of my family and my girlfriend, keen as ever to know my “relations” with other people as well as where and who they are. Living tribally in an extended family identified by a complex “skin” system, they’ve long ago named me “bulang” (brother to Wayne), taught me that my father is “duwa” and that my totems are black crow, brolga and red rock kangaroo. Other than that I know the words for tobacco (“jumbucco”), light (“bol”) and goodbye (“bobo”) in Burrara (bra-da) language.
That’s basically the full extent of my traditional knowledge. In return, these Arnhem men have their own concerns about their first visit to an east coast city.
Wayne has been fretting that junkies with needles might stab him while he walks down the street. Kenny wants to find “some ganja”. Horace Wala Wala (clapstick, tambourine, didgeridoo, vocals) goes for a trip to Food Plus, bright eyed with the possibility of “checking it out”.
In the Territory, Horace is renowned as “Mr Check It Out”, a sociable adventurer if ever there was one. There’s a Yogi Bear-like devilry to him, a hip-swivelling humour that seems to license him for mischief of any kind. Wayne’s nickname is “Caveman”, for reasons that are apparent – he is hairy, short and stocky, extremely strong and mostly silent. When he does shout though, it’s usually high on the Richter scale. Terry gets called “Red Face”, a mystery never explained to me. And Kenny is known as “The Terminator” due to his love of gaudy reflector sunglasses.
Their white-trash roadie, Tom Pryce, has the most bizarre nickname of all, “Careless Horserider”. He passes on a message hello to me from Andrew McMillan, the self-styled Hunter S. Thompson of the Territory, and keenly tries to engage me on everything from true love to Truman Capote. In the meantime, Sunrize’s manager, Denise Officer Brewster – a one-time publicist for Midnight Oil – insists that I lay down the law with all of them. “They can be real slobs if you don’t watch out. Just don’t let Horace do any of his midnight specials. He likes to come home at all hours and cook up a feed.”
With this advice burning in my ears, Denise charges off with her new boyfriend, an ex-roadie for Mental As Anything. I’m left with the gang. And Basic Instinct. Too sweet.
Later, Kenny learns how to operate the clicker for the gas stove with explosive results. He gradually closes in on the jet-plate from about a foot away, clicking till the gas ignites with a mighty whoosh. The rest of the band cheers the huge burst of flame. Welcome to Sydney.
THURSDAY NIGHT JANUARY 21: I can’t sleep so I go downstairs, where the smell of burnt meat and toast is still in the air. Horace is asleep in a lounge chair by a frypan of half-eaten sausages. Everyone else slumbers, and already the pungent, acrid-sweet smell of body odour and sweat is settling in for the duration.
Only Ben is awake, eating in front of the television set with a bottle of tomato sauce at his side. A TV docudrama on the transvestite peccadillos of J. Edgar Hoover is blasting its lighted silence across the lounge room that has now become his bedroom. He has made himself a cup of tea, “just with the hot water out of the tap”. It’s all mod cons here: “The Ben Pascoe Television Suite” with a bare floor and a sleeping bag to throw over himself is in full luxurious swing.
Ben sighs about how he doesn’t have any cigarettes. There’s a Food Plus over the road, I tell him, open all night. “Mmm,” he sighs again, “the fellas are asleep so I don’t have anyone to keep me company.”
Taking the hint and restless as hell, I offer to do some “company keeping” with him. As Ben ties the shoelaces of his runners, he tells me that “we Aboriginal people believe in our spiritual way that if a person cannot sleep someone is thinking of them, maybe a lover, family, someone close to them”. He flutters his hand over his heart with a light final beat to his chest and says, “true!”
I tell him how much I love that idea, that I can’t get my girlfriend out of my head right now and I’m missing her like crazy. “Well, she must be thinking of you. When you think of someone like that their spirit is with you. She calls you or maybe you call her. You can’t see her, maybe you don’t even know exactly that she is there, but you can feel her.”
Bathing in the thought of this hidden calling, I travel through the 2am Cleveland Street air to Food Plus with Ben, where he picks up his pack of smokes and decides to phone his family in Arnhem Land.
Will they be awake?
“Mmm! They’ll be watching videos. We like Terminator 2. We like Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves ¼ Have you seen that? Good movie!”
While Ben feeds the STD phone, I sit in the gutter with my strawberry Freezie – “the new taste sensation” – sucking at the sweet ice and looking at the night’s rainy mist. Ben gets through to his sister’s house and the Burrara language rolls and bubbles across the bitumen and neon of the Food Plus, casually occupying the morning space as the word “aya” is repeated again and again in affirmation.
How is my girlfriend? I wonder. Somewhere in Tokyo, that slice of life seemingly cut like a vision from Bladerunner. How is Ben’s pregnant wife, Elizabeth, his sons Deltone and Isaiah, one named for rock’n’roll, one named from the Bible?
“Aya, aya … “
SATURDAY JANUARY 23: Bacon an eggs courtesy of Horace’s cooking help kick the day off to a robust start. The band is playing a series of supports with Spy V Spy around Sydney so they enjoy the benefits of a professional road crew as well as “Careless Horserider” Tom’s regular stage support. To pay back for favours and various fringe benefits from the Spy V Spy crew, Sunrize offer them their silk-screened tour T-shirts for free. Horace finds it particularly amusing when I go into a tirade about “you guys from Arnhem Land coming down here offering us T-shirts, broken mirrors and beads and thinking you can just buy Sydney!”
In the meantime, I start having a hay-fever attack. This time Ben reckons that, according to Aboriginal beliefs, it means “just maybe” my girlfriend is speaking my name.
Uh huh. I begin to wonder if doing anything from opening a can of beans to watching television might have mystic significance for my love life, but despite the joke Ben and Horace are adamant about this piece of information.
Terry goes off with Denise to look for a bass amplifier, so I take Ben, Horace, Wayne and Kenny for a walk around the neighbourhood: Surry Hills, Oxford Street and Hyde Park, with the Centrepoint Tower always looming in the inclement greyness, past the city’s notable buildings, on the new monorail, then the underground train to Kings Cross (Wayne doesn’t like it, he feels like he is being buried), to coffee at the Tropicana (no Coca-Cola or lemonade – the boys are disappointed and I’m embarrassed that urban sophistication can’t meet such basic desires for soft drink), and finally home again on foot through Darlinghurst and along Bourke Street (“this is where all the artists and drug addicts live”).
Wayne buys himself a new pair of runners from a trendy, overpriced boutique. Horace smiles about the monorail, nonplussed – “it’s something different.” Kenny has seen the city before as a touring member of Warumpi Band in the early eighties and as part of a dance troupe with David Gulpilil, who, legend has it, split Kenny’s head open with a shovel during an argument. He compares the fountain in Hyde Park to one he saw in Rome. Some local Kooris across a road wave to the Sunrize boys, not because they know them personally but just because they recognise kin. Ben slaps his arm to demonstrate the colour that these local people so respect.
By the time we get home, the lads at least know where they are in the city and hopefully how not to get lost. I test them on where they are in relation to the Centrepoint Tower and they all pass. But they think it’s the funniest thing when they ask me which way the sun rises and I say I don’t know.
Backstage that night before their Spy V Spy support at a western-suburbs hotel, Sunrize paint themselves up with ochre. Kenny says he wants to paint the totems they have given me on my chest and get Terry to interview me for the Maningrida community station. Tables are being turned.
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 27: Kenny is splashing on Brut aftershave like nobody’s business and the scent can be smelt wafting from room to room. On the bus out to the Annandale Hotel the windows have to be opened to allow a little bit of air. Apparently Kenny is on a date later tonight. Horace thinks Kenny’s nickname “The Terminator” should be changed to “Mr Bruto”. “Like that one in Popeye. Same name,” adds Wayne authoritively. “Bruto. Brutus. Always trying to get that Olive Oil.”
At the hotel, a girl approaches Kenny after the show and the first thing she says is, “You smell nice.” Horace and I giggle our heads off. Mr Bruto will stick.
Back at my place we all get drunk and sit round on swags spilled across the lounge-room floor. Everybody is throwing wisdoms and words at me at a cracking pace to test how much I am learning, and we get onto names and meanings. It turns out that Terry, Ben and Horace all share the same totem, “baru” or crocodile. This makes them close with Mandawuy Yunupingu, a countryman from the same region.
Leaping in with pride, I explain that my last name is an Anglicised version of a French phrase that means “man of death”. Descended from a group of knights who fought during one of the holy crusades, it was an oath taken to fight to the death for their faith. “I love it. That’s how I want to be with my writing. To the death.” Terry gets very excited and starts to touch his chest. “Oh, I feel that. It went right into me when you said it.” Grabbing the others, he insists, “You are going to live a very long time. I know.”
They make me sit in a certain place and explain that because I am Wayne’s “brother” (wa-wa) I shouldn’t really ever sit beside him. I’ve been Wayne’s brother now for three years, during which time I have always assumed I should try to sit next him, only to feel a rather distant reception from him that would strangely dissolve again in later, looser company. Three years of this and at last I have it figured out for me. Thanks, guys!
Aside from their skin-system affecting marriage choices and incest taboos, what you can eat (never your sacred totems) and where you can travel, it also determines social situations and actions like where you sit, whom you can demand favours from, even whom you can make fun of and whom with. Apparently Kenny is my man for having a laugh about anybody else.
Kenny and Wayne call my attention in the rabble of conversation by shouting “bulang!” Then Kenny wings his arms out in an expansive gesture to take in me, on his left, and Wayne, on his right. Totemically, he explains, “we are birds”.
SATURDAY JANUARY 30: The backyard is full of tongues, rolling and laughing. Kenny and Ben take turns to strum on an acoustic guitar and are singing a sweet song by the Raminginning group Top End Barra Band. I ask Wayne what it is about and he says, “I dunno. I’m French.”
Denise has already told me that when the group filled out their census forms at her house, there wasn’t enough room on the form to include all the languages they spoke between them. “It added up to something like 16 languages.”
Tribal areas are mapped by language, which also gives identity to Aboriginal people. Sunrize are made up of the Burrara, which is Ben, Terry and Horace; Burmalki, which is Kenny; and Gun-Air, which is Wayne. All these languages are merely the primary language through which they are identified, invariably passed on from whatever the mother’s original tongue is. They also learn their father’s tongue and many others.
As Wayne says of his own language, beginning to teach me, “You say it like air. Like the air we breathe!” Wayne is educating me in everything from basic phrases to dirty words and some beautiful translations like the one he manages for “writer”: Gun-goich gar-bang-gun gar-bim-bun djura gun-jar-de dor-dang. In English, it becomes “He who knows in his mind how to put down a story on paper with ash”.
Both Wayne and Horace are worried that they “are getting lighter” of skin by being too long in Sydney. Wayne flashes out his hands to prove it. Pale intrusions of caucasia spider his black veins. I warn that it won’t be long before people think I’m the Aboriginal and he’s the white man.
It’s the day after a giant party celebrating Ben and Tom’s birthdays. My old two-storey house shook to a freshly recorded tape by Sunrize that would be going to air the following Monday on JJJ-FM’s Live at the Wireless. Two hundred people in a shambling Surry Hills terrace that felt like it could burst its seams. Black, white, old, young … the whole world felt like it had poured in, including a ballet dancer from the United States (how’d he get here?) and two cool young cops trying to do their job, half-amused at my garbled promises and lies about when the night might end. Blasts of didgeridoo and clapsticks rang in the birthdays, with James Brown and The Cruel Sea and CAAMA tapes like the North Tanami Desert Band keeping the stereo throbbing through the early morn, the crackle of the fire roaring us on. One thousand beer bottles and cigarette stubs the next day.
And so it is that the whole week has rolled over me and keeping a diary has fallen a poor second to just keeping up. But Horace, casually wise, hears a song with kooky whistling on the radio and turns it up for my pleasure as much as his: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
“Hey, I love this song,” he says smiling. “I put it on every morning for my children to get up to. They love it. They get up really good, straightaway. It’s like magic.”
ALAN MURPHY, YOTHU YINDI’S SOMETIME DRUMMER, CALLS IN AT THE HOUSE. The boys are nearly all asleep for the afternoon, though Horace wanders around and slumbers and moves again and again, well-tanked again on a fresh round of late morning beers or “gun-bung” as Wayne would say. How perfect – the word for beer in Gun Air rhymes with “gone bung!”
Wayne wakes up and starts quizzing Alan about the fact he is drumming for both Yothu Yindi and the Territory’s great musical secret, Blak Bela Mujik, a melodically more interesting band without the same organisational push or as focused a frontman as Mandawuy Yunipingu.
Wayne is wondering if not being a full-time member of Yothu Yindi worries Alan. Wayne also wants to know how much Alan gets paid a night as a contracted employee of the band. A black American who once worked as an in-house studio producer for EMI’s publishing division, Alan has an attitude of bold confidence lightly fractured by self-consciousness. In other words, there’s a likeable chink in the chrome, and he deals with Wayne’s questions generously, parrying the more specific one on wages. Finally the dawn comes when Wayne’s circumlocutions lead on to even heavier hints. Alan realises that Wayne is trying to ask him if he would play back-up for him in Sunrize if he ever got ill, suggesting he would do the same for Alan if he couldn’t make a gig with Yothu Yindi or Blak Bela Mujik. Not a bad trade from Wayne’s point of view.
In the meantime, Horace flits around the conversation, five minutes behind it or echoing something somebody has said before dropping off again into a slumber. Ya gotta laugh.
Before everyone fell into their rock’n’roll snooze for the afternoon, we had watched a lunchtime video with Val Kilmer and Sam Shepherd called Thunderheart. A thriller set in native American Indian lands, it especially caught Wayne’s interest, with its themes of land respect, dreaming knowledge, the modern world versus the ancient, and some real footage of a community not unlike an Aboriginal one: a vision of wiped-out suburbia, half-functional, dulled by a spacious inertia, powder-keg poverty and bored, drifting, unempowered people.
“This is now?” Wayne kept repeating to me. “Now in America?”
WE SEE THAT HORACE IS CRYING. HE IS MISSING HIS FAMILY AND HIS HOME. How is it that these men whose eyes so fill with blood when they’re drunk, men whose reputations for violence and volatility with alcohol is renowned across the country (around Tenant Creek the most common form of injury to an Aboriginal woman is the classical defence fracture, an injury to the arm usually incurred when it is raised to protect the head from a blow) – how is it that such men can be so gentle, so sprawlingly tender too?
Earlier in the week, when we sat around after a show and got drunk, I’d told Kenny that a guitar solo of his in a song called Pollution Free Zone had deeply affected me. “It was like I was watching you and looking up to the clouds, and I went up into them but I felt kind of sad, too. It made me think a lot about you and why you made such a sound.”
Overwhelmed, Kenny held my hand. And held it softly, as most tribal Aboriginal men will do, affection that breeds awkwardness in a Western man unused to it. “Oh, Mark, I am so pleased that someone in Sydney would think about me in such a way.”
Kenny’s words had come out of a well, as if he thought no one cared about him, or that he was somehow worthless. His voice, I thought, was like his guitar, sweet and lost. He let go of my hand, leant over in the semi-darkness, and handed me his guitar pick. “Just something for you so that one day maybe you can say that you knew me. To remember me by.”
TOM PRYCE IS YOUR ARCHETYPAL GONZO ROADIE, feverish about literature and cutting into the world with his rock’n’roll perceptions: a typically wonderful Darwin loonie where passion gone tropical and the “gone troppo” aspect of it creates a delusion in the sufferer that they’ve really gone sensible instead. He fails to engage me much on his future career as a science-fiction writer or his writing style, which apparently is “like Mark Twain. I love good clean, hard prose”.
I think about his and Denise’s positions in relation to Sunrize, the two whitefellas with a traditional Aboriginal mob. Denise has already muttered something about “a black man and a white woman” when she won’t go out late for cigarettes alone with Ben because of past hassles.
Unfortunately, racism really is a “two worlds” situation, to put a twist on the common phrase for cross-cultural divides. Tom says he and Denise have caught a little of it already in Sydney, the white people working with black artists thing – like who the fuck do they think they are? I know the bad taste in the mouth that it can cause. Even the most casual encounters can become insulting as black people, with a mixture of bitterness and ideology, alienate whites willing to be involved, Aborigines who damage the cause of their fellow people in the name of exorcising their hate or anger.
At Sunrize’s first solo showcase in Sydney, I try to catch an Aboriginal singer’s attention for a possible story on his band in the national rock magazine Juice. Wild-eyed and smelling that heavy, sweet smell of spirits and Coca-Cola, he starts babbling about us “stepping outside”. So I back off, figuring he’s out of control and best avoided, a little shaken at the stupid, childish edge of aggression that’s come out of nowhere at me. Later he’s proclaiming me a great writer, telling Wayne I’ve “got all the edges” in my words. For a second I’m his best friend again as the result of a story I’d done on his group for a street music mag a while back. But he turns ugly again and I can feel the change coming way before it happens, the schizophrenic senselessness of it, the stormy blankness brewing behind his face.
“You don’t know pain,” he says, coming up close to me.
“Well, I don’t know your pain, that’s true.”
Leaning even deeper into my face he emphasises, “You don’t know pain. You don’t know anything about pain.”
I can feel his intensity and as I go to speak I realise I have to eat shit, eat any words of defence or even the mildest disagreement. He can see the words though on the edge of my mouth, and he waves his fingers near my face. “I can show you pain. I can show you pain outside. So don’t fuck up.”
Again words are at my mouth, and again he gestures aggressively, like a violent schoolteacher, “You’re fucking up. Don’t fuck up.”
So I leave it be, leave my pride on the floor; feel ashamed while Wayne watches me back down. “Is this how a man would act in Aboriginal culture?” I wonder.
The event casts a pall on my night and what hopes I see in Aboriginal music when a leading figure like this singer-songwriter hates me for my skin. Was it just the piss talking? It felt like more than that. It felt like a fundamental divide that could never be crossed. ‘Building bridges’? That was the slogan for indigenous music events. Building bullshit, I thought, with this “heroic” black man burning with hate, his ego run amok as he talks non-stop cosmic babble like the Jesus Christ of Aboriginal rock that he thinks he is, failing and fucking up because that’s what makes him happy. Copping out when the crunch comes and pleading racism to excuse his lack of will to make it through.
Angry thoughts of mine but too full of reality – and not entirely to be dismissed by progressive sociology or politics. Not in my mind. Not tonight.
Back at the house I finally shake off his bad aura and party on with Sunrize and a few of their friends in the backyard. Exhausted, I try to go to sleep, but Horace and Kenny are out the back playing songs with a black girl who’s bellowing her heart out. I’ve already had a minor run-in with her as she pushed in front of me on the band bus, as if being rude was her right as a black person and a woman – the double whammy of sexism and racism to hoodoo me out. Then I’ve felt my hackles rise back at the house as she’s made demands rather than requests about everything from the state of the fire to more alcohol. Hey, welcome to my home …
So it’s one o’clock in the morning and I ask Horace, Kenny and the girl if they can ease up a bit. Horace and Kenny say sure, but the black girl boldly tells me, “You’re not respecting us mob!”
“Listen,” I say in an even, cold voice. “It’s you who aren’t respecting me. This is my home and if you don’t like it, just get up and go back to yours. Simple.”
And then there is silence. And I go back upstairs hating and upset. Queen Bitch. King of Pain. What a clashing and awful night. And here I am now writing about them both. My little harvest. And no matter what you do – threaten me, hit me, curse at me, call me racist or sexist because you didn’t get your way – I go back into the media and my white life and feed off what you gave me. Me. It feels like some Lord of the Flies story lies deep within all that rots between us. Queen Bitch. King of Pain. We’re an all-round party of losers, tonight, the three of us, oh yes we are.
SUNDAY JANUARY 31: On a ferry from Manly back into the city I pick up a salt-stained, day-old newspaper tucked behind a seat. Inside is an interview with Mandawuy Yunupingu, with a quote from the press conference after he became Australian of the Year. Asked if he had anything to say to the manager of the hotel who barred him entry in Melbourne, he held his trophy aloft and said, “Sit on this”.
A little more gloriously, Mandawuy told The Sydney Morning Herald, “The colonisation that has happened, with the laws and religion and oppression, and our people becoming victims of that oppression, are part of history. But I tend to look beyond that – to stopping being a victim. Things will change.”
I ask Wayne what he thinks of radio announcer Alan Jones saying the award for Yunupingu was just tokenism. Wayne shrugs his shoulders. Couldn’t care less what some DJ says. Doesn’t even know who this Alan Jones is!
Out on the harbour Sunrize are soaking up the views. These Arnhem Land “saltwater people” are in their element, yet far away from the coast they know. Wayne leans on Terry’s shoulder and they rave in their own language, taking in the cityscape as the waves splash over the bow.
“SUNRIZE HAS BEEN GOING SINCE 1968,” BEN EXPLAINS TO ME. “They first broke up in 1974, I think. That was our brothers and cousins. And … you know how it’s like when you look at the name Yothu Yindi. Well, that means ‘mother’s son’. If I die, who is going to take my place, follow my tradition and keep the Sunrize name going? All right, we’ll get so-and-so to be a part of our family. They can take that tradition from there. That’s what it’s like everywhere. If one person dies, or one leaves, we can approach a relation or family and ask if he wants to come into the group.”
“So that’s what happened when our closest cousin in the Pascoe family died. The band automatically split up. But Jacky Pascoe, the co-founder of the original Sunrize, the one who picked all the members, was like the band proprietor. He waited a long time for me and Terry to come back from Dhupama College in Darwin. He talked real serious to me. He wanted to see that Sunrize go a long, long way.”
MONDAY FEBRUARY 1: Sunrize’s live-to-air is finally being broadcast on JJJ-FM. Listening to their most triumphant set so far in the Great Southern Land, Sunrize are getting justifiably pissed and legless in celebration of both the triumph and their last night in Sydney.
You can definitely feel the unhinged air, the bristle of almost anything having the potential to happen beneath our party-down camaraderie.
Horace tells me that when the barge comes in once a fortnight with grog for the community at Maningrida, “it’s like Shaka Zulu”. But as Terry explains, all the Sunrize boys usually get their beer and go over to Wayne and Horace’s camp, or down to Kenny’s beach, even out bush, “away from all the humbug” so they can enjoy themselves.
On one barge-day evening, Kenny says he saw a man get an axe put through his chest after an argument. Maningrida is legend for such boozy chaos in the days surrounding a delivery. With full knowledge of this and a good dose of paranoia as well, I’ve hidden a guardsman’s sword that usually hangs on the wall in a closet before Sunrize arrived. It feels like a ridiculous thing to do, and yet not entirely foolish either.
Gurrumul Yunupingu, the blind multi-instrumentalist from Yothu Yindi, arrives at the house. The Sunrize boys fuss over Gurrumul with a laughably disorganised respect, all helpful arms and voices while their crunching lead guitar-breaks blast over the radio at high volume. Gurrumul must truly think he has entered Babel. Eventually it’s decided Gurrumul should be taken home, and a cab is called while the lads all help him walk back through the house and out onto Bourke Street. The effect is not unlike six men trying to change a light bulb. By the time Gurrumul realises that it’s a cab he’s being piled into, he’s saying “No, no, no” because he wants to stay.
In the meantime, I’m trying to explain to an extremely worried and pissed-off-looking cabbie that the guy with a Tooheys Lite in his hand – and three guys supporting him – is literally blind not drunk.
I lay back with the group talking before an open fire in the backyard. We’re laughing about a Perth radio journalist quizzing them “on this song called Careless Horserider”. Sunrize are almost in tears as they tell the story. Finally it clicked with them that what the journalist meant was the misheard title to a song that is actually called Killer Sorcerer. It seemed best that the group’s most passionate, upside-down man take on this mistake on as his nickname. Tom seems very proud. But as the laughter subsides Kenny gets serious and tells me he wants me to write a story “about a killer sorcerer. You should do that Mark. Listen to the song. You can use your … reflection. Use your reflection.”
Ben, meanwhile, thinks that maybe I am here to “save” him. “Just like Denny Laine and the journalist.”
Denny who? “Denny Laine. From Paul McCartney’s Wings!” he says like it’s impossible I wouldn’t know. “I read his biography, how Paul got sick of him taking drugs and having girls and messing up. And then a journalist saved him. I think maybe you are like that for me.”
Ben’s wife is in Darwin expecting a baby. He tells me he is having problems with his marriage, with the pressure of being a father and keeping the band going. “I tell her, if you want to go with someone, you go. But maybe I will find someone, some nice spunky woman who sees me playing the guitar up on stage.”
At one point Ben got a thrash across his spine with a firm stick for his misbehaviours. “It fucking hurt, so I gave her one good punch in the face. Then another one too. I don’t want that bullshit in my home. I’m not like these other mob hitting their women all the time, but I’d had enough and it was a piece of wood this big,” he gestures solidly.
“Fuck that shit. I want everyone to be equal in my home. Not for the man to rule the woman, or for the woman to rule the man. Everybody has their place in my home, everybody is equal. That was too much.”
Sunrize confess to me they are all sure the house is haunted. Wayne and Terry pull me aside to discuss things that went bump in the night, and the way their electric fan went off and on without Wayne even touching it. I can barely stop laughing at them. I’d been downstairs playing with a plug that controlled power to their room. Upstairs they’d been living in terror of the Amityville Horror.
Nonetheless they say they also feel a presence downstairs that has made them think that way ever since they arrived. Ben heard a voice in the kitchen whispering to his ear. “The spirits will talk to us Aboriginal mob when you can’t see or hear them or know they are there.”
Kenny then tells me he has seen a spirit come toward him in a dream. He feels that perhaps someone has come travelling with them from Arnhem Land. Someone restless. Someone not yet returned to the Dreamtime.
POSTSCRIPT: WHEN I FIRST TRIED TO PUBLISH THIS DIARY IN 1992 I sought permission from the band. They were shocked by all the drinking and swearing and took such a red pen to the story it made it unpublishable from my point of view. It wasn’t the kind of thing they wanted printed about them and I understood why. Deep down I also wasn’t sure it reflected that well on me either. And so I left the diary in storage till moving house recently dislodged it from a cardboard box and made me look at it with a fresh eye. I was surprised by the honesty of it, much as I cringed in a few places at the sentiments and the rawness of the writing.
Still, it had something real about it – as you would hope a diary piece should. I didn’t feel I was transgressing anything sacred in wanting to publish the story now (or then), but I felt I owed it to the guys to find out how they might feel about the story today. It was a matter of respect between friends, really, rather than a cultural issue. I’d do the same with anybody.
My first port of call was their ex-manager Denise Officer (sans Brewster, she now goes purely by her maiden name). Since 1992, she had worked as executive officer of Northern Territory Arts Touring, “the boss” for 10 years. She was about to take up a post at the National Gallery of Australia as its travelling exhibitions project officer. Denise offered to take the story back to Arnhem Land for me to show Sunrize after some funeral business happening there. Quite some time after, I nervously phoned her to find out what had evolved and within a few hours I found myself linked up to Ben Pascoe and Wayne Kala Kala. That’s how it often is in the Territory – nothing seems to be happening, then all of a sudden, just when you are ready to give up hope, it all happens at once.
I talked to Wayne first. He told me there was “no problem” with the story. I could hear his amused baritone idling down the phone line as he spoke. Deep and warm. Just thinking about talking to him makes me feel like crying now. I knew Wayne had lost his wife in a drowning accident last year, and that one of his daughters had committed suicide. It was hard to know what to say about all this and, despite his cheer I sensed the weight of it all upon him as he preferred to express an even more recent sorrow over the death of the Lettersticks guitarist Kumantje.
Since our time together in Sydney, Wayne had been all over the Territory, working for a while as a town clerk in Alice Springs, living on and off at Barunga, near Katherine, (where he lost his wife in a flooded river crossing) then returning north to Maningrida to take in some healing time with extended family there. When we spoke he was eagerly awaiting a phone call that might confirm whether or not he was successful in becoming a lead performer with the indigenous dance group, White Cockatoo.
Next on the phone was Ben Pascoe. No problems with the diary, he laughed. What he did want, though, was a story about Sunrize now. I said that this was difficult and that this is a story about what happened at a point in time. Then he suggested a story about when the band toured with Santana a year after the events described here. I said, “But Ben, I wasn’t really with you then!” Eventually we settled on this idea of a postscript so it was clear the band was still alive and kicking, though it seemed to me it was more the band’s name that was alive and that sooner or later the family energies behind Sunrize would awaken it once more. Since I had written the diary, I knew Ben had become a born-again Christian, though he said his beliefs had “eased up” in recent years. He was now a policeman.
Wayne and Ben seemed to be willing to speak on behalf of the band since the rest of them were uncontactable for one reason or another. Terry Pascoe was in the Kimberley, where he had fallen in love and recently married. I’d never seen a man chase girls so hard – and be so fast at it – as Terry Pascoe, so I was glad to hear he’d gotten good loving in the end. Horace Wala Wala was meanwhile having a very good time in Darwin, “checking it out”. I’d heard apocryphal tales that Horace knew how to make himself invisible and had already encountered the powers of his storytelling around a campfire fire, a vividness of telling that seemed to reach into my dreams. Despite the levity, you wouldn’t underestimate Terry or Horace, for as time had passed their authority had grown traditionally. When major ceremonial business took place, every member of Sunrize had an important role to play.
Soon after, I got through to Alan Murphy, who was “still a drummer, still a musician stroke producer, still involved in the whole indigenous music scene”. He was just about to go to Maningrida to do a recording project based around language maintenance, transferring old recordings made in 1970s from reel-to-reel to digital. He, too, was upset by the death of a member of the Lettersticks band, “one of three in past few years” that had brought that group to a standstill. Alan also told me the great Black Bela Mujik guitarist Kumantje (a term of respect used for the recently departed since saying their name is forbidden in the months or years after a death lest it disturb their journey back to the Dreamtime). “It’s sad for me personally,” Alan explained, “these guys are my oldest friends in the Territory.”
I heard from Denise that Gurrumul was still playing with Yothu Yindi and the Saltwater Band as well, and that he was even more of a legendary musician throughout Arnhem Land. That “Careless Horserider” Tom Price had moved around, running a newspaper for a while in Bundaberg, Queensland, before returning to the Northern Territory as the head technician for the Darwin Entertainment Centre. Shine on you crazy diamond.
Sadly, Kenny Smith died in 1996. Very few Aboriginal men get to the age of 50 in the Top End. Which puts all of Sunrize demographically close to the edge. They were my age, my generation, and yet here in the middle of my life I was reflecting on friends now having to cope with the end all around them.
What pleased me most when we spoke was the way Ben and Wayne both liked the way Kenny’s spirit seemed to be speaking through the story. I, too, felt its murmuring energy. It made me feel something was in motion between us all, something unfinished and calling us still.