Read The Big Whatever Online

Authors: Peter Doyle

The Big Whatever (9 page)

BOOK: The Big Whatever

But yeah, the aforementioned unhip directions: the band was playing longer and longer songs, with drum solos that went on forever. The guitarist had two amps now, and played loud enough to be heard in Antarctica. Audiences stopped dancing and took to squatting on the floor instead, zombie-staring at the band. A head named Zack put on a light show, and the group no longer played dances or discotheque gigs – no, that was old-hat shit. Now it had to be art. Performance. An
. And the band name was
changed to Oracle, singular, without the “the.” I mean, what kind of bullshit was

Not that I was dead set
the psychedelic music thing – hey, my little astral travellers, hadn't I been an acknowledged acid pioneer nearly a decade earlier back in Sydney? Oh yeah, I could tell you stories about visions and other worlds, and those old doors of perception. (And for that matter about what lies beyond, the League of Secret Rulers of the Fallen World and whatnot, who are responsible for nearly everything. But alas, another time for that one.)

Because that spring, late 1969, was when acid really took hold. Each month more and more recruits were turning on for the first time, and thereafter doing all the acid they could gobble down. And behaving accordingly. Just as many, maybe more, trod a little more warily: they'd drop a trip or two, and then go, yeah thanks very much, very interesting, now I'd like a nice beer and a smoke of hash, if you don't mind.

When I'd first dropped acid, it took me deeeeeeeeep into Ornette and Albert and Miles, into art and philosophy – don't scoff, my young smartarses – but for Bobby and his crowd, acid turned everything into a harlequin-coloured playground, and them into fairy children. Which I could dig, but only so far. Plus I'd kind of vowed not to take any more acid. Gave me funny aftershocks. And – full disclosure – yeah, I'd spent time in a certain Sydney funny farm, following what they used to call a ‘nervous breakdown.' Despite the electric jolts and the two-week stretches of sleepy time, I could still recall some
-drug-induced trippy sequences, not pleasant ones, and the acid sometimes brought those back too.

Given all that, I could see the day coming when I would drop out of the performance side of Oracle, whether it was my own doing or Bobby's. So I did my homework, practised my scales, brushed up on technique. I hung out at the St Kilda flat, working up songs, recording demo tracks on my tape recorder.

I still did the occasional gig with those marooned-in-time
old bodgies the Rods, who played well, no denying it, and I also did a few dates with my jazz-fusion pals. There was always a bit of work there, generally paid union scale. Some of it loose and creative, a lot of it by the numbers. Weddings. Supper clubs. Private functions. You noodle away in the background, play pop songs. Do a bossa nova when the suburbanites want to cut loose on the floor. The Hammond was a work ticket.

But dig, other pursuits were occupying your artistically inclined correspondent. Denise's parents presented her with a new typewriter, so she gave me her old Olympia portable. Surprise you though it may, little ones, I'm no stranger to the ways of the scribbler. I even wrote a book once, years ago (long story, never mind). But now, with a typewriter sitting on the kitchen table, I was tempted once again to wax verbal. And holy shit, my young questers, I
I had a story to tell, full of funkfulness and revelation and angelheaded whatnots. And guns of course, those staples of the storyteller's art. But such jottings would be incriminating in the extreme, and I decided I could bide my time on that front.

But I could sense the big wheel was still turning, and who the fuck knew where or when it would come to rest? Not me, young seekers. So I tapped away at the Olympia, bits of song lyrics and such, and kept the big story in my mind, waiting for the right time to tell it.


So there I was at home, listening back to a two-track I'd recorded that morning, when there came upon my door a loud, rapid banging. When I opened up, Stan, Denise and Jimmy the Thug stormed in, laughing and stumbling like ecstatic fools, carrying armloads of stuff: silk blouses, dresses, men's suits, jackets. A 35mm camera, a pair of binoculars. Denise was beside herself. Even the Thug was chatty.

“The five finger discount, mate,” he said, to my raised
eyebrow enquiry.

I shook my head and muttered, “High risk.”

Stan looked at me, reached into his pocket and thumped a handful of jewellery down on the table. A gold chain, a pair of silver earrings, a brooch.

Denise, flushed and grinning, said, “These boys are the

Stan looked me in the eye. “Mel. A favour, mate. We need to leave this here for a couple of hours.”

I shook my head.

“Give you ten percent,” said the Thug.

I said nothing, but the stuff stayed there for two days.

Thereafter the three of them regularly used the flat to store swag.

I didn't want any part of the actual shoplifting – I knew I wasn't cut out for it, had found out years before. Yeah, and I'm no good at poker either – what Mel feels, Mel expresses. But early in the piece – just once, at Denise's enthusiastic insistence – I tagged along to observe her and Stan and Jimmy in action.

As arranged, I got to Myer's before them. I was well-dressed, making like an independent shopper. I pottered around, picking up this and that, checking out socks and ties and whatnot.

A little while later Stan and Denise sauntered in. Playing a couple of straights, chatting, giggling, like they were planning their wedding. Denise was dressed smart and voluptuous, like a Toorak heiress. Jimmy came in a few minutes later, looking like maybe a respectable bachelor. Stan and Denise glided about aisles for a while, taking their sweet time then they latched onto a shop assistant. Stan flirting with her, Denise being as sweet as pie. I lost track of Jimmy, and didn't see anyone lift anything.

When I got back to St Kilda later that day the table was covered with booty – a pocket radio, a leather wallet, a couple of handbags, gloves, scarves, silk ties. All with Myer's tags.

“But I was watching you,” I said, “and I saw nothing!”

Stan grinned and hugged Denise. “This one is a natural,” he said, and kissed her.

I shook my head. “And you, a nice girl from Bentleigh East.”

She bowed her head, curtsied. “Property is theft,” she said.

Next day they brought home a new electric guitar (a Les Paul Gibson, no less), a leather coat and a bottle of cognac, and gave them to me.

By late spring their thievery had hit such a level that serious police attention was inevitable. Jimmy and Stan could spot a floor walker or plain-clothes man a mile off – they had the instincts – and they were seeing more and more of them.

Instead of backing off, they grew more audacious. Sometimes they'd create elaborate distractions, like paying a mob of urchins to start a fight inside Buckley and Nunn while they stripped the racks elsewhere in the store. They pulled the same stunt in three different shops. Another time they started a fire in a loading dock at Chadstone, so that one whole section had to be evacuated. They stampeded out the door with the other panicked shoppers, except
bags were stuffed with swag. There were close scrapes – a chase down Toorak Road, which only ended when Jimmy turned and decked the store dick.

Then word came back from Stan's underworld pals that detectives had been asking around about the new gang on the scene. The cops knew the thefts were the work of experts, and – worst of all – they, the cops, weren't getting a piece of the action. If you wanted to operate professionally – and long-term – Russell Street had to get its due. So things went quiet on the hoisting front.

In early December Denise threw a big party at her parents' holiday house on the Mornington Peninsula. The oldies were
interstate. The slather was open.

The party started Friday night, and over a hundred people turned up, mostly the Barrel crowd. We set up our instruments in a big shed out the back. The house was well hidden from the road and from neighbours, so we cranked the music up loud. It was more like our own little Woodstock festival than a party. People camped around the property, lit fires, smoked grass, dropped acid. Vic's friends were roasting a lamb on a spit. They had their own keg.

Clive the foppish journo was there, crapping on again about ‘the underground.' The Captain was wearing a velvet jacket, drinking cognac, smoking joints, taking lines of this and that.

Oracle – man, I just couldn't get hip to that name – played all that first night. We played pretty well, too – I really
the music, we all did. We tried new things, outlandish changes, and they would always work. Bobby sang a song we'd written together called ‘Superman on Dope' – I'll tell you all about that a little later – and the party crowd loved it. We took a break around eleven.

Then Cathy wandered into the shed and back into my life. Her hair was cut short. She looked good in tight jeans and a suede jacket with little coloured beads sewn into it. Cowgirl-hippie-American Indian shaman style, I guess you'd call it. She stopped at the door and slowly looked around the room. She waved to me, or maybe to the room, I couldn't tell. Then she came over and kissed me, smiling like nothing had happened, no story, no explanation required. She took a step back and said, “Mel!”

“Hi,” I said, like I was the Duke of Detachment, the Count of Unearthly Cool.

I mean, after all, what was I to say? The Sydney rip, the mad escape down the Hume, her disappearance – that was history. So we chatted. She'd been travelling, she said, had been to Adelaide, Perth, driven up the West Australian coast to Darwin, hooked up with a yachting beachcomber crowd,
kicked around Torres Strait, Bali, Java. Now she was back.

Looking at her up close, there were signs of a change even then, a change I didn't get right away. She was kind of dreamy, distracted, like none of the stuff we were talking about mattered. Like it was this, but could have been that, and if it had been that, so what?

We did a couple of lines, smoked a joint. Denise appeared from somewhere, and it was obvious she and Cathy had already palled up. Later I saw Stan outside, standing near the bonfire, drinking a bottle of beer. I asked him if he'd seen Cathy.

“Oh yeah,” he said, in a way that told me something had gone down, but there was no way of knowing from his tone whether it was a good something or a bad something. I waited for him to say more, but he just bobbed his head to the music playing inside.

We played another set, another good one. People were dancing, and Bobby kept it funky – no endless stoned improvisations. It was one of those good times for a rocking musician – you look out, everyone's dancing, having fun, you're giving them the music, they're giving you their joy.

It went on for a long time. The lights were low. Plenty of people tripping, everyone was stoned on something. Across the room I saw Cathy and Denise dancing together, laughing, waving their arms in the air. Cathy leaned over, slowly, and kissed Denise on the lips. A long kiss. Denise pulled back, looked at Cathy, then leaned into the clinch.

We played till late. At three or four in the morning, the speed was burning out of me and I went looking for somewhere to sleep. I wandered into the main house, pushed on a random door. A weak beam of light was falling across a bed. There were people in it. I saw a smooth shoulder, glistening hair fanning out. A sleepy movement, Denise's face. Another movement, her breast caught in the shaft of light. Slender fingers stroked the nipple. Then Cathy's face in the light, smiling. Cathy looked at me then and held the look.

A moment at the crossroads for your faithful correspondent. Cathy, garden of athletic delights. Cathy, goddess of fire. Cathy, pure trouble. Denise, warm and good-hearted, fleshy and substantial. Cathy, and Denise.

Denise's voice, husky. “That you, Mel?”

“Sweet ladies!” I shut the door behind me. But that's enough for you, my filthy-minded little friends. Just take this tip from your old uncle: should such a circumstance befall you – I'm talking to the boys
the girls now – don't dilly-dally or shilly-shally. Pick that low-hanging fruit, you hear!

Next morning I awoke alone. I stumbled over to the window. Tents were dotted around the paddock. A couple of campfires were still going, smoke hung in the cool air. The bikey crowd were still carousing in the distance. The wooden rail around the old veranda had been pulled down, and two big ceramic pots either side of the front path had been smashed. Someone was cooking bacon.

I chopped up a line on the bedside table, horned it, got back into bed. Then a couple of Valiums to cool out a little. A flagon stood next to the bed – I took a big draft. Another minute. Better now. I went downstairs.

No sign of the girls. I went outside. The day was warming up, and the music had started again. People were swimming naked in the dam. A couple of nearby partyers, a boy and a girl, were sharing a joint. A bloke lay on the path, drinking from a bottle of beer, singing to himself. A girl was on the grass in front, sunbaking with her top off.

I looked towards the line of thick eucalyptus that surrounded the main paddock. Something going on over there. I watched more closely. Darting movements, flashes of blue – hard to get a fix on, though.

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