Read The Big Whatever Online

Authors: Peter Doyle

The Big Whatever (6 page)

BOOK: The Big Whatever

Strangely though, my thing for Cathy had gone. Pretty much. Which was further proof the girl had hoodooed me. Now the thrill was gone, the spell was broken, there was nothing in my heart but a big fat fucking ZEEEEEEEEROOOOOOO.

The main thing weighing on my mind: I'd left Johnny in the hot seat. But if anyone in the southern hemisphere could slip out of knots it was our Johnny. And on the other side of the ledger, he still had our nightclub, which returned
a handsome dollar – not that I'm
money, which is a capitalist mirage we'd be better off without – being as the Joker was party headquarters for an endless stream of American servicemen desperate for rocks-offedness and all manner of diversions. So yeah, when things quieted down I'd return, but meanwhile Johnny could pocket the whole take.

The more I mulled it all over, the better things looked. I was in a new city. I had a car, a Hammond B3 (the sacred instrument of the electric gods, as revealed by their prophet, Saint Jimmy Smith), enough bread to cool it for a while, and a good chunk of hashish. I could feel the karmic current moving me. I had that tingle in my cells, a surge in the blood, that told me: Mel baby, something is about to happen. Have your wits about you, because fate just remembered your name and phone number.

I needed to be prepared for untoward events, just the same. So that afternoon I went to a certain pub in South Melbourne, mentioned a certain name, a name I'd been given one time back in Sydney. No one knew the bloke whose name I mentioned. I waited around, but nothing happened. I went back next day, waited again, drinking just enough to avoid suspicion but not enough to get drunk. Eventually a hard old gaffer moseyed over, dropped the name I'd mentioned, and we had a nice little chat. Nothing was said outright, but later that night I swapped a wad of money for a clean .38 Special. Even if I didn't expect to encounter Dutch Harry, or the Greek, or any of the Sydney crew, it was nice to know that if I did, I'd have some bargaining power.

I checked out of the George the next day, drove down to Geelong, and took a room in a run-down but comfortable enough guesthouse.

The weeks went by. I'd left Sydney needing a haircut, but I let my hair grow longer, grew a beard too. Killed time reading, smoking hash, practicing scales. It wasn't too bad, especially with the good gear. A simple schedule: wake up, smoke something, go for a stroll along the beach. A bite to
eat, mucho coffee, the newspapers, then back to the pad to practice.

The dope was holding out better than the money, but no urgency with either just yet. I could've carried on this way for months. But with all that practice I was itching to make real music. And – more wise words from old Mel – it's a thousand times easier to make money when you've
money than when you don't.

So one mild and mellow morning I packed the B3 into the station wagon, paid off the landlady and took my leave. I headed around the bay into Melbourne, all the way to St Kilda, put down a bond and a month's rent on a furnished flat on an out-of-the-way block, stuck between a garage and a vacant warehouse.

The place was one block back from the beach, but it had glimpses of the bay, and a lock-up garage, too. (Now hear me, brother and sister musicians: a lock-up garage is a
for those late nights when you get home too drunk or stoned to unload your gear).

That night I hit the bricks.

All right, hipsters, I know what you're thinking – Melbourne! Trams and quiet Sundays. Glen Waverley and Moomba. Blokes in grey cardigans going home through grey streets to grey wives and grey kids. Industrial shithole or suburban death zone. Yeah, I know. Well, listen to your Uncle Mel, because I'm right here telling you, Melbourne that year was the funkiest town in the country. Nay, fuck that,
in the southern motherloving hemisphere
. Oh sure, the discotheques were dry, the pubs closed early, the streets were empty. And there was nothing like Kings Cross, with its clip joints and nightclubs and brothels, all existing solely for the extraction of dollars from the pockets of Yankee soldiers on R&R, which it had been ordained, MUST and could only happen to the non-stop accompaniment of funkful soul music, preferably played by one or another band led by your faithful correspondent and teller of truths, Mel ‘Wild Man' Parker.

But I digress. Melbourne didn't do it that way. Down there it was hidden doorways and signs that said “For Madmen Only.” It was a crazy lodge, with secret handshakes and arcane signals. Nothing to see on the outside, but inside – madness and anarchy. Music, drugs and dancing to make Sydney look half-arsed.

Three days later I'd hooked up with a jazz-fusion group called the Bright Lights. A lucky break. We were playing three, four gigs a week. Wild parties afterwards in ramshackle mansions around East Melbourne, terrace houses in Carlton, mad farmhouses out Eltham way.

Within a few weeks I was also moonlighting with a rock'n'roll band called the Rods, playing suburban dances for greasy, leather-jacketed bodgies and purple-mohair, beehive-hairdo widgies who didn't know what year it was.

Theatre, too. Don't be surprised, my darlings, Mel Parker is an initiate of the thespian arts. I got a gig playing abstract accompaniment to a nonsensical piece of theatre at the Old Bakery. Never worked out what the hell it was about, but the writer, a young guy known as “Spinner,” told me I wasn't supposed to, I should just keep doing what I was doing.

But it is ordained that such times can't last. One night, as we writers like to say, I was playing with a little pickup jazz group in a St Kilda café. Standing outside, taking a break, a tap on the shoulder. I turned around: Stan.

“Hiya, Mel.” He stuck out his hand. “How's everything?” We shook. For my part, the handshake was not enthusiastic. But Stan's was. He patted me on the back like we were old, deep friends. “Great to see you, bro.” And fuck me, he sounded sincere.

Now, let me give you the mail on Stan. Last time he'd not been at his best, having just crawled, climbed and clambered out of Goulburn Jail. I for my part had been suffering a bad case of the Hume Horrors, so all I'd registered was a raggedy-arsed desperate in the back seat.

He was a different character now. He looked lean and
fast. His hair was short on top, longer at the back, in the Melbourne style. His eyes were clear, his gaze direct, ready for anything. He had on Levis, a red and blue striped T-shirt, both clean and new. There was another bloke with him, hawk-nosed, fair-haired, his head down, sucking on a cigarette. The back-up.

Later on there would be all that talk in the press and on the radio about Stan and me and the others, and the shit we did. Every idiot journalist and politician in the country would come up with some crazy theory or other – international criminal conspiracies, the harmful effects of drugs and music and leftist politics, the rising tide of contempt for law and order – Oh brother, and they said
were out of our trees – and people cast around for a mastermind who was orchestrating it all. Well I'm here to tell you children, it didn't happen that way. There was no master plan. One thing just led naturally to another. We thought we were paddling our own canoe, but we had no idea where it was heading until we were halfway over the falls.

But mark my words: none of it would have happened if it hadn't been for Stan. He had brains and he had guts, and he had something else, a quality I've only seen in a few people, something sweet and visionary that swept other people along with him. People wanted Stan around, they wanted to do what
wanted. He wasn't some kind of Svengali character, though, despite what a certain fuckwit journo later suggested. He was the front man of the operation, but he wasn't the leader exactly. He had no more of a grand vision of what was going on than anyone else. He was just having fun, going that one step further, upping the ante with each move, because that seemed the only thing to do. Not that I knew any of that outside the café in St Kilda that night.

“You're still at large,” I said.

He shrugged. “Got to tell you. The George Hotel business. Makes me feel bad.” He shook his head. “We lobbed there, and it didn't feel right – I saw a bloke drinking in the
front bar, a notorious dog. So I split.
split, me and Cathy. She said you'd sort yourself out, and we could make it up to you later.”


Stan shook his head. “She's not with me now. Beautiful chick, but . . .” He lit a ciggy, looked around. “This is Jimmy.” We shook. Jimmy grunted at me.

“Listen,” said Stan, “Let's get off the street.” He bent his head towards a Fairlane parked around the corner.

After we all got in, Stan said, “You want a toot?”

I shook my head.

He pulled a cap from his shirt pocket, tapped some powder out onto a cigarette pack, worked it into two lines with a penknife, put it on the seat between us. He rolled a twenty-dollar note and sniffed up a line. “Try that. Best speed you'll ever have.”

I hadn't had any go-fast since that big night in Sydney. “No thanks.”


“I've been taking giddy-up since before you lit your first cigarette. I know what I want and don't want. Thanks anyway.”

Stan grinned. “Munching the sponge from a Benzedrine inhaler? Aspros dissolved in Coca-Cola?”

Jimmy snorted from the back seat. “Jiving to Benny Goodman records?”

Stan chuckled. “
” nodding at the line of powder between us, “is the new thing. But suit yourself.”

Fact is, there's always been some part of me, the seeker you might say, or maybe the idiot, that wants to change. Change up, change down, change fucking
. Doesn't matter what, just . . . be altered. Oh yes, comrades, there was a crystalline sparkle to that white powder, and it was beckoning to me.

“Gimme that.” I took the rolled-up note, leaned over, snarfed up the other line. It stung like a bastard, but a
moment later I felt my scalp contract and my heart thumped hard. I felt goooooooood.

After we'd shared a few silent moments, Stan said quietly, “Back then. You did the right thing by me.”

“Ahh. Doesn't matter.”

“No, mate, it does. And now I want to do the right thing by you. Got a business proposition for you.”


I'll spare you all the I saids, he saids and we saids – this is Mel ‘Mr No-Bullshit' Parker talking, after all, not Leo Fucking Tolstoy.

Nutshells-ville: one of Stan's crook overlord mates had come upon a batch of factory-made amphetamine sulphate, the by-product of a warehouse robbery. Totally pure, so very strong. And very much of it. As a gesture of hail fellow, welcome home, and many thanks for not gobbing off when you got pinched over the Bexley bank heist, said crime czar had given Stan these numerous pounds – yes, you heard me, kiddies –
of white powder to help him get back on his feet.

Yours truly was to be a kind of local rep, responsible for supplying powdered go-fast to musicians, artists, writers and other deadbeats. I was suspicious at first – you would be too, right? My question to Stan was, Why the hell me? His line was, Because you're a staunch cat, Mel, solid as a rock, like a brother, and I'm back at him, Yeah sure, whatever you say, now give me the
story. He gets uncomfortable and lets it out in dribs and drabs. He personally hasn't a clue how to go about retailing the product.

The thing was, Stan may have been a criminal visionary, with genuine charisma, but back then he wasn't connected. He'd grown up in the rough and tumble of beer, footy, bashings, thievery and union politics, among the
cop-hating, IRA-sympathizing, undeserving working class of Collingwood. He knew that world pretty well, and it knew him, but he was a newcomer to the underground. Pot was a novelty to him, he'd only dropped acid once or twice, and for all I knew he still listened to Roy Orbison records. Back in Sydney, before his last arrest, he'd made the scene with Cathy. He'd introduced her to his crowd, to gunmen and second-storey boys, and she'd dragged him around to freak parties, art galleries, Balmain poetry readings and Trotskyist meetings. He was just starting to get the hang of all that when he was pinched for the Bexley job.

I did another line while we sat there in the Fairlane, Stan laying out his grand money-making speed-flogging plan. I told him I was sort of interested, then went inside and finished the gig – I was playing guitar that night. Later on we gabbed our way into a party at Brighton – me, Stan and ‘Jimmy the Thug,' as the backup guy was known.

Stan's people were a noisy, rough and hell-bent crowd, rangy, loose-cannon psychos. Rock'n'roll records were playing, glass was breaking. I saw a boy and girl, nine or ten years old, smoking cigs and getting pissed. No one seemed to care. A couple of women had a brawl out the back, and fought as rough as any men. In the kitchen a dog was trying to fuck a cat.

Stan was the big hero. As an escapee on the run, of course, but more than that. The people watched him almost shyly, they deferred to him, men and women equally. He spoke quietly, but when he did they listened.

The sun came up and we were still flying, hard-edged, clear-eyed, speed-mad. All that day we went from house to house, pub to pub, taking a sniff every few hours.

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