My fifteen-year-old self would punch me in the mouth if he could read this.
Back in high school everyone at my school loved Cold Chisel. They dressed like Jimmy Barnes, they tried to sing like Jimmy and they drank like Barnsey. I couldn’t stand them. I was never an outsider on the outside but on the inside I was very much in my own world. One of my core skills is my ability to blend in to every day society and look like I belong. This skill allowed me to survive high school where I was popular but not interested in anything my friends were interested in. I was listening to the Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello and David Bowie. I was discovering Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and the b-sides of Beatles singles. I read comics, anything by Dennis Potter and played basketball. Cold Chisel had no place in my world and remained shut out for many years.
In 1999 I was travelling overseas and found myself alone in Edinburgh when Australia made the World Cup Cricket final. I decided to do something I would never do normally and that was to go to an Aussie Bar to watch the final with like-minded ex pats. I sat with a bunch of Aussies cheering on our victory over Pakistan and nearly dislocated a hip trying to emulate Warney’s victory dance. Then "Khe Sanh" came on over the p.a. and everyone joined in with a rousing sing along. Except for me. I had no idea what the lyrics were so I slinked off remembering that yet again, I was not meant to be there…wherever “there” is.
A few years later at the Hi Fi bar during the Melbourne Comedy Festival, I found myself drinking upstairs watching a lot of the comedians butcher songs at karaoke. Finally two people who could sing hit the stage: Gatesy and Skod from musical comedy trio Tripod. The song they sang together was fantastic and I had no idea what it was. Afterwards I asked Gatesy and he told me that it was “Bow River”.
What? A Cold Chisel song and I liked it. It made me feel funny inside; like I had done the dirty on all I hold dear. I had to admit it was a pretty cool sounding song but maybe it was just because my friends had sung it well? The fact of the matter was that I had never actually listened to a Cold Chisel song all the way through. I just hated them for what I thought they represented which to me was bogans who liked drinking bourbon and coke and had no desire to achieve anything in life. Looking back on this attitude I realised I was as bad as the people who wouldn’t give what I liked a go and decided to rectify this at once. I discovered that Ian Moss was playing an acoustic set in Melbourne so I bought two tickets and head into the city to see him play live with my pal Tom. It was a pretty cool night. Moss’ playing was sublime; a night of blues and soul music, just a man and his guitar holding an audience captive. His voice was rich and smooth. When he performed “Bow River” I became excited like a fan that has been waiting all his life to hear this one song live.
The next day I bought a Cold Chisel greatest hits album. I was blown away. “Breakfast at Sweethearts”, “You Got Nothing I Want”, “Choir Girl” and yes, “Khe Sanh” were all great songs much to my surprise. I had never realised how they could be sensitive one minute and then balls to the wall rocking the next. The tiny tales told within each song appealed to the storyteller in me and Jimmy Barnes’ voice was much more soulful than I had ever given credit. And like most of the population the song that stood out the most for me was “Flame Trees”; the lyrics were totally relatable on some melancholic level even if I was quite clearly not the person in the song.
So now I find myself listening to Cold Chisel on cool summer days, watching the night slowly descend and the sky a burnt orange before it fades away. I have nothing else to add that hasn’t been said before. It is just nice to know that sometimes when you’re wrong about something it doesn’t always have to end badly. And to keep the fifteen-year-old me at bay I will confess I still don’t know the lyrics to Khe Sanh.
Maybe one day…
June 9th, 2010