Byron Bay. Sunday, 7.50pm
I hear a guitar progression rise from the dull, but pervasive, din that is Jonson Street on Sunday night. The electric riff sounds familiar, but my mind doesn’t yet connect the melodic dots to give the song a name.
I’m distracted: A woman with the most brightly coloured tattoos I have ever seen is arguing with a woman with the second most colourful tattoos I have ever seen. Their faces are red with emotion. They stand boot to boot, screaming at each other, rainbow arms flashing about, a phone falling to ground.
I cross the road to avoid them. I’m sensitive at the moment – no arguments please – so I dodge a doofin’ Transporter, wait on the centre line until the Gold Coast airport shuttle has rumbled by, then sprint (yeah right, S) to the far shore.
Here, outside the bakery, two men and a woman are chattering in excited Spanish. A young Japanese couple strolls by hand in hand, she texting deftly with one hand, he looking across the road to the colourful argument.
Here, despite the rainbow storm, the doofin’ Transporter and the animated Spanish, I hear more clearly the guitar chords moving about: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift…
It’s coming from up the street. I must find it.
This week, I went to a funeral and looked at a body. A dead body. I lingered by the coffin. The person I knew for many decades was gone. But there was his body, frozen in his last moment, empty now.
‘That’s it,’ I thought. ‘That’s what happens. To us all.’
Not exactly rocket science, I know, but not all epiphanies happen on drugs.
A crowd is gathered at the mouth of a lane that spikes off from the main drag. The sounds that call me spill like surf from that concrete canyon. I like electric guitars. I love to listen to them, especially when they’re in the hands of someone who understands them. I want to see those hands, so I push into the crowd.
A few days ago, at the funeral, when I saw my friend lying in a coffin instead of commanding a stage, it affected me. He’d been a powerful presence, imprinting himself on my life through his music. He’s dead now. The same fate awaits us all. All of us.
This realisation reached into me so deeply that an unacknowledged fear was acknowledged – and lifted from me with a sob. Along with that fear went denial and false hope. And gods and karma and rebirth and heaven and tunnels of light – all the desperate delusions. Life is what happens when you know you’re dying.
So, I’ve been empty for a few days – empty, but alive; numb, but awake. Now I find myself in Byron, walking around arguments, stepping past the man flaked out on the footpath, squinting into too-bright pizza joints, searching for the secret chord (that David played).
A young bloke leans against the laneway wall in an elegant slouch, one foot propped against the wall. He strokes the Gibson slung in front of him with a casual dexterity that only comes with youth.
He’s too young to know the reality of death, I reckon, but music whispers to him. It teaches him, as it taught my old friend. Music is eternal, if only for a moment, and fills our emptiness with beauty.
The young fella leans into the microphone:
I did my best, it wasn’t much,
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch,
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you,
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.