A LITTLE BIT ABOUT BERN
HOW I GOT HERE
My first public performance happened at Holy Trinity primary school in second grade. Each kid had to recite a poem. I asked if I could sing instead and gave them my best version of "Norwegian Wood". If it wasn’t age or nun-appropriate, I assure you I was unaware, but I had spared them a take on "Foxy Lady" so they should be grateful.
By the age of ten, my brother Pete and I were filling 60-minute cassettes with our own concoctions of sometimes Everly Brothers-like song snippets, sometimes owing more to the Goons’ musical mayhem. Then we would make Mum, and whichever other hapless Hayes happened to be in the lounge room, sit down and listen through the whole inane thing followed by retiring back to the bedroom to start recording again, going over what we had just finished.
The week I started high school the music teacher said she would be giving guitar lessons on Mondays at lunchtime. My brother Mick, who had just finished school and started a job, let me take his Maton classical to school with the promise that if I kept up lessons for the year he would buy me my own. The lessons went poorly, not by any fault of the lovely Mrs Boynton, but I did meet the magnificent Jon Deeble, the only other would-be guitar student, and we proceeded to do our own thing to the best of our untrained abilities. By the end of the year I had improved a little, written my first two tunes (one love, one protest, both derivative) and my brother Mick bought himself a new guitar and gave me his old one before setting off to London. That was where the music was.
It dawned on me slowly, after a get-to-know period, that Narrabundah High was riddled with musicians; most of them into blues/rock and roll and oozing skill and attitude. In art class, where students brought in their own albums to play, I had to be careful not to enjoy The Best of Bread in any kind of visible way; you didn’t want to fall in with the wrong crowd. In a hotbed of musos who were up for jamming I just wanted to sing songs and I’ve always felt the blues is more fun to play than it is to listen to. Jon and I did our one and only show together at Queanbeyan High on music excursion (though many years later he was often a guest on stage between the Shout Brothers sets, doing his live sculpture creations using plaster and cloth). It was harrowing. I tried out for the school musical, which was "Bye Bye Birdie" that year, and again I froze on stage, losing the lead role by a hundred nautical miles to the insanely competent and proportionately confident Stephen Washington (aka George Washingmachine). Still, I got to play in his backing band, and not for the last time either.
I had become best friends with Simon Wrigley and we formed a musical duo called either Simon and Bernie or the other way about. We played our own songs alongside the covers that had given us our love of music. By year four of high school we were hitting the jam nights and getting invitations to play the multitude of wine bars that were the go in Canberra at that time. We soon had a circuit of three shows a week and I left school to concentrate on music and to not be at school. I realise now that this condemned me to a lifetime of playing music, as I have remained unqualified for anything else. I had decided that if I hadn’t cracked the big time by the age of 19, I would retire. I then extended that to 21. Then I retired all hope of success, and quite properly so because at that age, you are past it. The thing I forgot to stop doing was playing music and writing, but it was strictly for fun and without ambition in that retired kind of way.
Band life (I played with In One Ear, The Shuffle, The Gadflys and Secret Seven amongst other shorter lived outings) took me increasingly to Sydney to perform and by the early 80s it made more sense to live in the Harbour City. We moved up en-masse: The Gadflys, The Falling Joys, Secret Seven and eventually The Plunderers who had initially gone south to Melbourne. It was nice to arrive with a community, but the live work and the wearing out of Hi-Ace van engines was so thick on the ground in those days, there was barely time to stand back and admire the backdrop. We carried our own PA and lights and broke away from the formula of the day which had been to blind the punters with the size of your rig, no matter how small the venue. This meant we travelled unaided by road crew and got to drink the rider ourselves. It was also almost a paying pastime. Those would be the good old days.
The venue that we kept coming back to was the Sandringham in Newtown. The publican gave us all regular shows, but the combo that eventually took up a Sunday residency was the Shout Brothers: three Hayes’ and our dear friend Pete Velzen on drums. When we were in good form that was a heavenly band to play with. We all had our other projects. I got to play bass with The Tall Shirts and went from sound guy to bass player with the wonderful Club Hoy. Pat and Pete had the Falling Joys and Stevie had The Plunderers and later The Whitlams, but I think we all felt the need be at the “Sando” on a Sunday afternoon, as much to be with the whole disparate Newtown mob as to play music. When I had occasion to visit the Punters Club in Fitzroy it had a very similar feel.
Stevie and I were given the vacant Tuesday night spot to do a duo. We called ourselves the Gruesome Twosome and we drank a lot of scotch. Within a year it started to sound tight. Till then, we relied on Stevies’ sense of humour. I think I could have happily carried on doing that routine forever. When we lost my brother Stevie to suicide in ‘96 our worlds came to a heart-crushing halt. My girlfriend, Club Hoy mainstay, wife-to-be, Julia, somehow held everything together and is still doing it 20 years later. We made a kind of cathartic second Shout Brothers album (the first one is called Colossus ) called “Indelible” with younger brother Justin reluctantly filling Stevie’s spot.
Sometime after this, Stevie’s partner in the Plunderers, Nic Dalton, asked me to do a solo album for his indie label Half a Cow, the result of which was “Every Tuesday Sometimes Sunday”. Being a hard-nosed business man, Nic felt there should be a contract and there was and it was for three albums and now, four albums and sundry other releases later, no-one has ever signed that contract.
It’s too late to worry or come out of retirement now so I might just keep accidentally playing my favourite songs because they are why I love music and keep trying to write tunes that can stand up alongside those songs.