By Nicole Skeltys
Taking the load off
Its January 2008. I am curled up on the couch, its very late. Down the other end, Mark is drooped in a corner, a guinness parked close by. We’ve just spent a few hours in Mark’s home studio, laying down guitar parts for The Jilted Brides’ album. Now we were fading out into the wee hours watching a classic rock movie DVD, our reward for a job well done.
This DVD is ‘Festival Express’, a documentary I’ve been wanting to see for a while. In the summer of 1970, a rock festival traveled across Canada by luxury train, stopping to play at festivals in Toronto, Calgary, and Winnipeg. Enticed by the promise of a mobile party, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Ian & Sylvia signed on to the tour for far less than their usual fees. The documentary shows all these artists at the height of their powers jamming and partying with each other non-stop on the long train journey. At the festivals, they let loose with intense performances, on no sleep, many intoxicants and facing riots by disaffected youth who wanted access to the concerts for free.
In the lounge room darkness, the TV provides the only flickering light. The images fade in and out of my consciousness. I’m tired and beery. So is Mark. But there are segments where our eyes widen, we shift, gather ourselves up. Janis sings a version of ‘Cry Baby’ that is stratospheric in its emotional reach, in its unearthing of every conceivable bit of heartbroken yearning. Mark’s eyes brim with tears; his divorce is still not far enough away. The Band launch into ‘The Weight’. I find my eyes not moving from the drummer- he seems so ‘real’, so passionate. His whole youthful body is driving the song along, his voice strains so earnestly over the threadbare lo-fi ’60s PA “Take the load off Annie…put the load right on me”. I think he means it.
Now, its August 2008, and its very late again. I’m sitting in a large, rustic pine log kitchen and everyone is drinking the free band refreshments, Coors light. A thin, white haired old man with shining eyes and a youthful face, leans across the table and starts to roll a joint. I finally lean across and try and make myself heard above the chatter. “Levon, do you might if I take a picture?” He looks up at me kindly. “Not right now, honey” he says and winks. Then continues to roll the papers. I smile and lean back again. No, I guess I wouldn’t want my picture taken right now either.
The old man is Levon Helm, the drummer from The Band. He is 68. There was a time when it wasn’t clear if he would ever be able to sing again. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late ’90s, was apparently advised to undergo a laryngectomy, which he refused and underwent a long period of radiotherapy treatment instead. Earlier that night, he and his house band had brought the house down – his own house in Woodstock, where he hosts what are now world famous ‘traveling medicine shows’ – The Midnight Rambles. His band numbered anywhere from 8 to 10, horn section, percussion, two gorgeous lady singers (including his daughter). And he could still sing, a testament to his courage in the face of terminal illness – he carried his last song, ‘The Weight’ with as much conviction and energy as he did as a young man in 1970.
I had had cancer last year, breast cancer. And if, when I started the treatment, one of my nurses had leant across the radiotherapy machine in room C2 at the Peter MacCallum Institute, winked at me huddled under my green hospital gown and told me ‘not to worry, honey’, within a year I would be in America, sitting in the kitchen of one of the most inspiring musicians in the history of rock music, I don’t think I would have believed her.
How I got to Woodstock
I was in Woodstock because I was an artist in residence at one of the oldest artist colonies in the US – Byrdcliffe. The Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts colony was established on seven farms in 1903, the utopian vision of a wealthy Englishman named Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead. Whitehead was heavily influenced by Ruskin with whom he had studied, and he left England to search the US for the perfect site for a utopian community. He and his followers eventually decided the pastoral beauty of the Catskills was the perfect place to establish their early commune.
But I knew nothing about the history of Woodstock when, in December 2007, I first started to collaborate with a Sydney based photographer and film-maker friend, Tanya Andrea Stadelmann. Thanks to the digital panopticon that is Facebook, where everyone’s emotional states and situations are under voluntary 24 hour group surveillance, Tanya and I could see by each other’s daily status updates that we had a lot in common, including disillusionment with the Australian arts establishment, a love of ’60s/ ’70s psychedelic music and films, and the desire to make major changes in our lives.
On the day after Christmas 2007,Tanya flew down from Sydney, and over mint juleps in the sweltering post-Christmas Melbourne heat, we sat on the coffee stained couch in my Melbourne group household, and tossed around ideas about how we could escape our dead-end situation in Australia. Within days, we had hatched a wildly ambitious plan: we’d start a musical act, tour North America and make a film.
For sure, we faced a few hurdles: we didn’t have an album, Tanya hadn’t sung for 15 years, we had no contacts in America, owned no video equipment and had hardly any money. But what we had going for us was a kind of Withnail and I fantastic desperation, a vivid imagination fueled by joblessness, despondency and intoxicants.
For some reason, I fixated on the idea we should start our quest by trying to get accepted to play at the New Music West festival in Vancouver, Canada, in May, one of the biggest showcases of its kind. To be in the running for this, we had to submit tracks to the organizers by the 31st January. I look back now on what followed and our frenzied activity to achieve this deadline seems comically surreal, like a Loony Toons cartoon on fast forward.
First, our duo needed a name. ‘The Jilted Brides’ suddenly presented itself to my consciousness late one night as somehow capturing the exact essence of whatever it was we were and whatever it was we were going to sound like. I knew heartache was going to be a major theme, given I had also broken up with my partner, then lost my mother, in the 12 months prior to my cancer diagnosis.
Beaver-like, I finished off a swag of already half-completed songs then laid down most of the instrument parts in my backyard studio. Tanya and I worked around the clock recording vocal takes, sweating profusely, dizzy with the suffocating January 100 degree heat and our mint julep hangovers.
Tanya whipped up the now compulsory MySpace site, claiming primogeniture from another rival UK Jilted Brides who appeared just days later but didn’t even have any tunes yet. I organized for a photoshoot, persuading a photographer friend and a make-up artist to take press shots in my lounge in exchange for beer and mint juleps. Their instructions were: “Make me look like Bobby Gentry and Tanya like Brigid Bardot”. Easy for Tanya who is, in the words of one journalist, ‘a Swiss blonde bombshell’, a lot more hair teasing and false eyelash activity was required for me to approximate ’60s girl glamour.
Then, on the 31st of January, we had a debut album, ‘Larceny of Love’, a website, and a press kit. I pressed ‘submit’ on the Sonicbids promoter drop box button for the New Music West festival. For good measure, I also sent off our EPK (electronic press kit) to venues in New York, and to the organizers of Terrastock, the world’s biggest psychedelic music festival, to be held in Kentucky in June.
Sometime during all this, Tanya showed me faded photocopied pages from an old directory of American artist colonies that someone had lent her ages ago. I could scarcely believe what was I was reading – apparently there existed places an artist could go for weeks, months at a time and you could work on your art and pay no, or almost no, rent, and sometimes you would even get fed! I’d never heard of such utopias in Australia. My gut feeling that America could be the magical solution to my life problems started to feel slightly more rational. A quick Google showed that there were dozens of colonies in picturesque locations scattered around the US. The problem was, the deadline for summer residencies had already passed for a number of them, and for the remaining ones, submissions had to made within the next few weeks.
This set off another Loony Toons episode as Tanya and I scrambled to oil and polish our long neglected biographies and portfolios, paid a local visionary artist $500 to whip up dazzling psychedelic artwork for our album and website, and struggled to write convincing sounding submissions outlining our intention to use our time as artists in residence to make no less than a full length film of our (as yet non-existent) North American tour. We fired off 8 submissions to colonies all over the US.
Then we waited. Meanwhile, Tanya started to apply for jobs ushering people on and off the ferries that take people from mainland Australia to Tasmania, our island state. I started to investigate cleaning jobs, and eventually an agency offered me work cleaning bathrooms and picking up rubbish at Melbourne airport. Every second Monday, I took Tanya to the local welfare office to put in her dole form, her only form of income since her melt-down last year. I would sometimes spot other musicians standing in the long queues.
But on the morning of 5 April, the cosmos decided to pull us back from the brink of a winter spent shivering in low paid jobs on wharves and airport terminals. I sat groggily at the dining room table, and logged into my email, my usual morning ritual. I gave a yelp. I ran outside to the studio (in which Tanya was now living, next to piles of my recording equipment and old analog synthesizers). “They want us in Woodstock!!” I half-screamed. Tanya’s eyes bulged. “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it” she kept half-shouting back. But it was true. Byrdcliffe offered us our first artist residency, for the month of September. This was followed within days by more acceptances from other colonies: the Montana Artists’ Refuge, in Basin, Montana; the Espy Foundation in Oysterville, Washington; Soaring Gardens near Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Sustainable Arts Society in Blue Ridge, Georgia.
Then, perhaps even more incredibly, the New Music West festival in Vancouver told us they wanted us to play. We were offered dates at venues in New York. The prestigious, the ‘extremely hard to get into because it is so cool’ Terrastock festival offered us a place on one of their stages. Somehow, without us having played a single gig, a North American tour had actually materialized.
The final Loony Tunes sequence played out as T and I frantically sold off piles of our possessions on E-Bay in order to raise the airfare money. Tanya bought a Sony 1 chip handycam for $300, the means by which our road movie documentary was to be produced. By 13 May, we were flying to Canada, the last of our cash tied up in the digital handkerchief of a joint account, our bulging suitcases and an Indian harmonium, The Jilted Brides’ signature instrument, nestled in the cargo hold. On the long flight over, we accepted every complimentary drink, felt the immense weight of the last few months’ efforts start to leave our muscles, and occasionally burst into incredulous giggles in anticipation of all the adventures that now surely awaited us…..