by Brenton Doecke
(for Guillermo and Iris, with thanks for The Beatles, Concierto en Madrid, 2 Julio 1965)
Melbourne (AUS), July 7th
For good or ill, in 1966 I was a student at Murray Bridge High School, on the eastern side of the Adelaide Hills. In those days, before they built the South Eastern Freeway and the Heysen Tunnels, you could only get to the big smoke via a long and winding road that included bends like the notorious Devil’s Elbow, where traffic was slowed almost to a standstill as you made your way down the road to Glen Osmond and then into Adelaide. The drive became even more dangerous when clouds settled on the hills and cars travelling in front of you would loom up like ghosts out of the fog. If you were driving home to Murray Bridge at night, you took each bend like a racing car driver, hugging the line in the middle of the road, and constantly making fierce calculations about whether you could pass the semi-trailer in front of you. The semis would double blink their lights if the road ahead was clear. You then accelerated in an effort to get past the semi as fast as possible. Everyone knew the story of Mrs Cowan and her daughter, Yvonne. They’d been down to Adelaide to choose clothes for Yvonne’s wedding, and Yvonne had mistaken the semi’s signal – the driver was flashing from left to right to warn that another semi was coming from the opposite direction – when she drove head on into the oncoming vehicle. For both Yvonne and her mother it was hello goodbye as far as their time on earth was concerned. Yvonne was driving a mini-minor, and rumour had it that they were both decapitated when the semi chewed up her car.
All of us in the A stream at Murray Bridge High School had one desire: to escape from Murray Bridge and its big town hall and town hall clock. Entry into a university or teachers’ college was our ticket to ride.
Murray Bridge High School catered not only for kids in the town but for the sons and daughters of farmers in the surrounding districts. Each day they were bussed in, so that in the morning Beatty Terrace – the street in front of the school – was filled with buses: one from Mypolonga, another from Jervois, and yet others from Monarto and Brinkley and Monteith. Mr Sellick drove a battered Kombi van carrying 5 or 6 kids from Pompoota, an old soldier settlement up the river. As well as farm kids, there were kids from the railway town of Tailem Bend about 20 miles from Murray Bridge. They had to be up at the crack of dawn each day to catch a slow train to Murray Bridge. They then lugged their bags from the station to the school. Everyday saw this rag tag mob of teenagers talking rowdily as they entered the school gates, when they made their way to their lockers and the school assembly that was held each morning in the large quadrangle, everyone taking their places in the rows marked for classes at each year level. The lines on the asphalt reflected the abilities of students as determined by IQ testing at the start of high school: 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 1E, 1F, 1G; 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E – and so on right up to 5A, the final year of high school. The number of classes at each level dropped off as students left school – farm kids to work with dad on the property or to take a job in the cheese co-op, the Tailem Bend kids to join the railways or to take up apprenticeships, Murray Bridge kids to work in a bank or in retail. This meant that those who stayed on until fifth year were a very select bunch. Prefects were chosen from their ranks and they took on the job of policing all the other students, standing at the main gate at lunch time to ensure that no one left the school grounds without a lunch pass, inspecting students at assembly to check that they were wearing the correct uniform. The prefects wore jackets that had gold braid, including on the lapels.
In 1966 I’d become friends with a kid from Mypolonga, and occasionally I would travel home with him on the bus for the weekend. His name was Rodney Smith. On the farm we’d do various chores, feeding poddy calves out of buckets, allowing them to suck on our fingers. We guffawed at the lewd sucking sound. We scrambled on to the back of an old battered ute being driven by Rodney’s older brother, Hugh – he was the eldest son who was destined to take over the property – pushing bales of hay off the tray for the cattle trailing behind us, both of us trying to outdo each other as we loudly sang Beatles’ songs. ‘Try to see it my way, Do I have to keep on talking till I can't go on?’ ‘Got a good reason for taking the easy way out. Got a good reason for taking the easy way out now. She was a day tripper, a one way ticket yeah. It took me so long to find out, and I found out.’ Rodney was John, while I was Paul. Our voices echoed against the cliffs on the other side of the river, ruffling the stillness of the river flats: ‘It took me so long to find out, yeah.’ We snuck off to have a fag behind the orange orchard, our cigarettes glowing in the encroaching darkness, the orange trees a witness to our fantasies. Before we went to bed we would take turns standing in front of the dressing table mirror in Rodney’s bedroom, combing our hair down over our foreheads. This time Rodney was Paul, and I was John. We were Mypolonga walruses.
In 1967 the Beatles brought out Sergeant Peppers. Ernie Stokes wrote on a school desk: ‘Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies’. At the end of that year Rodney’s father arranged for him to take up an apprenticeship as a furniture maker in Adelaide. At least he had a chance to escape to the big smoke, rather than fronting up to work each day at some tin pot factory in Murray Bridge. I kept on at school, and eventually found myself completing my matriculation, and then going to university in Adelaide. So in our different ways we both managed to escape the surveillance of the town hall clock. I only saw Rodney twice after he left school in 1967: once when I went to a lunchtime concert at the university, when much to my surprise he turned out to be one of the performers, playing guitar and singing songs that he’d written. He came up to me after the performance, when we exchanged addresses and promised to meet another time. He turned up at my flat one evening, a knock at the door making me wonder who on earth it could be, when he drove me to the pub on Eagle on the Hill, the last pub before the huge descent into the city on the old Murray Bridge Adelaide road, where we had a beer together. He then drove back down into Adelaide, taking me to a run down cottage in an old part of town where he was living with two other people, where he played Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and we smoked pot. ‘You breathe in, you breathe out You breathe in, you breathe out You breathe in, you breathe out You breathe in, you breathe out And you're high on your high-flying cloud Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you. This time it's found you.’ I wondered what kind of rite of passage we were performing, and whether it meant that we were putting John, Paul, George and Ringo behind us, exchanging our adolescent fantasies for new ones.
Years later I heard of him again, this time in Melbourne. I was teaching English in a secondary school in the northern suburbs, grappling with a new generation of adolescents, with their own fantasies and aberrant behaviours. He was the lead singer in a band called Le Club Foote. I’d seen him on television on Countdown, a rock and roll show that screened every Sunday evening. It was definitely Rodney. You can still see him performing on You Tube. The band apparently folded when he died from a heroin overdose. But perhaps I’m making all this up. Somewhere, across the universe, he may still be waiting for me to join him in yet another chorus of a Beatles song.
Le Club Foote - Party (1984)
Footnote (by the editor)
Some Aussie oldies from my record collection that Brenton would enjoy (maybe sharing a Porto):
Easy As Can Be. From It's 2 Easy, The Easybeats (1966)
Get out of My Life. From That's Life, The Wild Cherries (1967; ed. 2017)
I Want, Need, Love You, from Down Under Nuggets 1966-1967, The Black Diamonds (1966, ed., 2012)