Still Life in Forward Motion: A Rock Memoir #4 – All for the Praise of Men

All for the Praise of Men: How it all started

It’s all my Mother’s fault. She didn’t intend to, but she turned my sister and I onto music. She was hoping to give us a well rounded education. She would take us to the Art Gallery, and lug us kids around. And we would grow to have favourites at the National Gallery of Victoria. Like Cleopatra dropping a diamond and gold ring into her champagne to drink it in order to show how rich she was. Or the older woman with the skull at her feet to show that she had since passed. Or the Frederick McCubbin’s “The Pioneer” triptych, we would sit and drink in the story told in three panels. In the first panel, the wife was in the foreground wistfully thinking about her future as her husband built the campfire in the background. In the middle panel, they are in the middle of an argument, the man sitting on the felled trunk of a tree, homestead in the background, and the wife standing and holding their young baby. In the final panel, the grown son visits his parents graves, and the trees have been cleared and we can see the beginnings of Sydney in the background. I’ve always found that painting so haunting.

My Grandmother would take Leah out to the theatre, instilling in her a lifelong feeling that if one goes to the theatre, one must go out to a cafe first, and buy chocolate coated almonds at the confectionary stand in the lobby. Grandma also showed us that once you’ve reached a certain age, you can confidently push your way to the front of the cue, and no one will dare breath a word. Take that fifteen minute intermission with hundreds of people lining up at the same concession stand!

It was a while before I was allowed to go and get a similar hankering for chocolate coated almonds which has also lasted until this day – just look at my rider (that’s the contract an artist’s manager sends to venues, it often has strange demands to make sure that the venue actually reads the contract). My good looks peaked at about three until Kindergarten. I was young and blond, and every scary looking adult wanted to pat my head. And, I was supposed to take this attention with good humour like other children, however, I took it as a great insult, as I considered myself of equal standing to the adults around me (I wasn’t, I didn’t know anything about the world – I was just arrogant). So, I would either yell, kick or scream at any unsuspecting adult who would try to put their strange hands on me. I was a bit of a horrible child. Thus there were no chocolate coated almonds and theatre tickets for young James.

I instead stayed home with my father. He wrote sermons and I played with my dolls. He would go next door to the church, and I’d follow him in there, and muck around. Playing in the back, sneaking a few dry communion crackers and feeling sacrilegious. I’d pick up the office phone and listen in on my father’s conversations. I also played around with the church organ and sang a few simple children’s hymns that I’d learned. A parishioner getting counsel from my father overheard and recommended that I get music lessons and join the church choir.

Now, Dad, who had been forbidden from pursuing anything creative in the Brethren, especially music, had decided that he would let his children, within reason, pursue their hearts desires. So, my sister went into acting, and I went into music. Dad was and is a smart man, so we were never allowed to be centre of attention, so, Leah would always get a minor role in the church plays, while the granddaughter of a church elder Dad was trying to please would get the starring role. The same thing happened to me. I’d accompany other singers, and other musicians, but, I’d never sign lead. Which, at the time caused endless frustration and tears. I realise now that Dad was playing politics, and also keeping us from the prying eyes of gossip (as much as possible). So, that’s how I often came to accompany the Church’s Queen Bees as they made their recitals for the Lord (and as my Nanna would say, “the praise of men”). Many of these women were able to carry a tune, but as they were singing to the Lord, would often drift in and out of their ranges. So, the burden was placed onto me, as a boy singer, to carry them through those rough patches as their backing vocalist. This was before we had microphones with autotune and pitch correction inbuilt into them. So, I’d have the audio board in front of me, and I’d mix the sound live, softening the microphones of the Queen Bees, and increasing my own. Sometimes, it would be a bit rough, and the Queens would complain to my Father, so the following week, there was no sound board, and they’d be screeching through the Rivers of Babylon. Then, the blame would be put onto me for sabotaging their joyful song to the Lord.

Luckily, when I had time to sit down and rest, I realised that I absolutely loved performing, not just being back-up, but performing and getting the applause. The praise of men, as my Nanna would say.

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