Tony Walker reports from the Bowery Ballroom, New York
The incessant noise pouring through the slatted walls of our house in Darwin must have driven the neighbours crazy. Almost from the moment he could drag himself around the floor, our son would head for the kitchen cupboards and heave out pots and pans and implements to bash them with.
We always had music playing. African, reggae, jazz, pop, country, Dylan, Joni, Coltrane and Hendrix, new wave and post punk, nascent Americana and New Orleans funk. It was his aural background from conception, and it animated him like nothing else.
When we moved to Kununurra, in the East Kimberley, for a couple of years when he was four years old, the soundtrack mix changed focus. Yothu Yindi had broken through with “Treaty“. The Pigram brothers from Broome way, Warumpi Band from the centre and all the saltwater reggae bands and red dust country bands were on everyone’s cassette decks and boom boxes. The boy kept soaking it all up.
When the first Stompen Ground Festival rocked Broome in 1993, the boy, his sister and their mother travelled across the Kimberley by bus to join me and enjoy the festival. The late George Rrurrumbu was also on the bus, heading to Stompen Ground for a rare Warumpi Band performance.
When I met them all at the bus, the boy was beside himself with excitement at having shared the trip with a “rock star”. Over the following few days he was dazzled by the stellar performances of Indigenous bands from across the country.
When we got back to Kununurra, he took to painting himself up and strutting around the house bashing away at a ukulele. We have a fading photo of him, the uke slung low around his hips, right arm raised in the air, like Pete Townsend mid-windmill, painted face and feathers behind his ears. We used to joke that it would illustrate the inside sleeve of his first album.
When we moved to Alice Springs, he dragged a battered old acoustic guitar out from under a pile at a Saturday morning lawn sale. I paid its owner $5 and the boy took it home and worked away at it sporadically. The guitar had to compete for attention with his efforts to be a Ninja Turtle or a West Coast Eagles star player.
The guitar had, more or less, disappeared, but one night, after we’d moved back to Melbourne and he was around 10 years old, the boy brought it out from his room and played a song. It might have been something by the Stones, and it was rough, but he’d worked it out himself.
He’d been in the primary school band playing trumpet and had learned to read music and follow arrangements, but suddenly the guitar was back front and centre.
He worked in a music store in his school holidays and got a good deal on an old Fender. He was taking lessons, sometimes two a week, practicing relentlessly and doing music/guitar as a VCE subject. It seemed that he was never going to do anything else.
A couple of nights ago the boy’s mother and I sat in a balcony, above a seething, moshing, sell-out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom in New York.
His band, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard–named in a fit of fun when they were all playing in other bands and thought they’d be getting together only once to play a friend’s party–were in the middle of their fifth US tour.
Their eighth album riding at number two on the Billboard vinyl charts. Their songs in high demand on radio stations across Australia, the US and Europe.
And there we were. Our guitar-slinging son on the stage just below us.
Amidst all the frenzy, he looked up at us and grinned.
Afterwards, the demand for merch was so strong that his delighted mother was pressed into service shifting t-shirts and vinyl to delirious punters.
We’d been in this together since the pots and pans days in Darwin, and looking back on the long strange trip we’d taken, it suddenly became obvious that this is where we were all going to end up.
What a blast!
Tony Walker lived and worked for 12 years in northern and central Australia for the ABC and Aboriginal media. He met Susan Quinn in Darwin, where they had two children and built a house. Home is now Fish Creek in South Gippsland.