An excerpt from a short story by Paul A. George:
I take a walk with Julian in the morning. We stroll through palm trees, golden grass, skinny cattle and piles of iconic rubbish: Coca-Cola cans, plastic bags, Bintang beer bottles. Julian talks a lot but has nothing to say. It’s suits me; I'm not in a mood to talk. In my head I'm playing with words for a tune; 'the weather pierced our skin but we couldn't stop; the captain would have us shot'.
I’m not sure where it’s going and if it’s going anywhere. I don’t know why these songs always end up with nautical references either.
Julian's chatter is soothing background. Young thoughts spitting out unformed ideas about freedom and future. I nod and say ‘yeah’, 'hmm' at intervals that seem appropriate. I'm amazed at how words flow endlessly out of him; a listless stream of consciousness that filters through the palm trees.
We are walking to a bank so he can lend me some Rupiah. Tropical heat induces perspiration thick and constant on skin and clothes. The kind of heat that numbs feeling and thought. Where does Julian find the energy to continue his one-sided conversation? I’m pretty much over it when we spot a teller machine a way off. ATM cubicles in Bali have air-conditioning so we pick up the pace. Julian sticks his card in the machine. It thinks things over for a while, emits a few clunky digital noises and goes deadly silent. Julian finally stops talking.
Me: So what now Julian?
Julian: I’m not sure Paul, but we should soak up this aircon as long as we can.”
Penny-less, we sit in the cool air and contemplate our poverty.
In my head I play around with more words. I tell myself my song is about loss, about angst without focus, about apathy. Deep down, though, I know it's about a girl. It always is.
Out through the window I see a pretty blonde girl on a Scooter.
I shout, “Viktoria’!"
She slows, turns her head and looks very surprised.
“Paul, that can’t be you! What are you doing here?” She says. “Hop on. I’ll take you for a drink."
We wave to Julian. I feel no guilt. He’s staying cool.
She's zippy. Swerves through traffic, barely missing the stray dogs. I’m holding tight. Through my t-shirt I feel the perspiration on her back. At the bar my heart beat is up around 180. My face is covered in small squished bugs. The sunburn is setting in.
Tanned travellers and expats. Hipster Australians with trimmed beards, black singlets and built like surfers. Plump Germans. Neatly dressed Italians. The bar overlooks an extreme skateboard bowl. We order Margaritas and watch the skaters from a booth.
Viktoria is a dancer. She has a penchant for 80's rock music. She says she studied ballet when she was a kid in some poverty-stricken corner of Russia called Tolyatti. Now, she follows a Russian pop-star dancing gogo-style to music she doesn’t seem too happy to discuss. She tells me about some brief encounter with a Guns'n'Roses guitarist. She wants to learn to play an electric guitar. She dances the trendy, hedonistic nightclubs of Bali. She surfs a long-board.
Viktoria in a thick Russian accent: It’s not the Bali we knew before.
Me: What do you mean?
Viktoria: It’s all just Europeans wanting a watered-down Indian post card; yoga retreats, superfood smoothies and cocaine. We could be anywhere.
There’s a series of pictures on the wall; 1960’s black and whites of ancient Balinese ceremonies.
Viktoria: I wonder where there was more bliss? In those pictures or in this bar.
Me: You need another drink.
Viktoria has a strong sense of self, a dancer’s posture and certainty. It's a combination that infatuates and leaves you out of your depth. I don’t let it bother me too long. I get lost in the moment, the idea for my song has pretty much disappeared. Now It’s a short film.
I met Viktoria a few years back. Early twenties and in Bali for the first time. A club called Ku De Ta. She was dancing, we were playing. There was a mix- up with accommodation and Boots told me I had drawn the short straw. The rest of the band got to stay in one villa and I had to share with two Russian dancers. One was Viktoria and the other just as attractive. The band offered to swap.
Things seemed easier in Bali back then. We fell in love with the vibrant colours, the extraordinary politeness of the locals, the freedom. The cheap booze. Viktoria danced. We played. We held each other tight on the scooter. We stumbled from party to temple. She spoke broken Russian-English and struggled to understand my Australian accent.
Some of Viktoria’s Russian friends arrive at the bar. We drink more tequila. The Russians are on their way to a party.
"Come" says Viktoria.
I contemplate my Rupiah shortage, shrug it off and jump on the back of her scooter.
The monsoon flood reaches our feet. I fend off a Balinese guy on a moped who’s trying to snatch Viktoria’s handbag. We have a brief tug of war at high speeds in flooded streets. We arrive at the party shaken, soaked but triumphantly still in possession of the bag.
The guards out front give us towels. It’s another Balinese holiday villa. The Bali jail is just the other side of the wall. The crowd is sweaty, high and sketchy. I ponder the dichotomy of drugs that are freely available and the predicament of the prisoners a few meters on the other side. Someone says the MDMA was made by inmates. Am I the only one that sees the irony? I shake off the thought and try to enjoy the party. Everyone but me is in white linen; summery and shoeless like models in a brochure for wicker furniture. Me, I’m all in black; hat, motorcycle boots, too
Beside the pool, I’m nestled into a deck chair. I enjoy various accents of broken English. Viktoria says, “Play a song, Paul.” I'm extremely reluctant and I start to protest but she's already managed to form a crowd. We sit on a well-manicured lawn and I play an old American folk song, 'Green Green Rocky Road'. It’s an easy crowd to please. They clap and cheer. I sit cross- legged with a scarred classical guitar I found in the kitchen. Viktoria starts to dance. We meld into an almost comical version of a Flamenco Rhumba. I follow her with chords and rhythms. We find it, lose it, like fragments of a memory we share but can’t put together. The tequila is having its influence.
The rest of the night is politics, music, politics. This island has been battered from so many sides. Hindus killing Buddhists. Dutch killing Hindus. Tourists killing everything.
I watch Viktoria. She’s lounging on a Balinese day bed over looking the pool. She’s either drunk or deep in thought. Maybe both. I locate a bottle of wine and sit next to her.
She says: I’ve given up attachment
Me: To everything?
Viktoria: Yes to everything, and particularly everyone. Me: You sound like Jean Paul Sartre.
Viktoria prises the bottle from my hand: Don’t try and sound intellectual, It doesn’t suit you
Me: Do you think intelligence is unbecoming?
Viktoria curls around my leg: On you yes, you can leave that to the French and the Russians here. I like you as my rugged Australian type.
Me: I don’t think there’s one ounce of rugged in me.” Viktoria frowns: Hmm, that is true.
Time either caught up with me. Or got away. I’m sort of here, sort of not. I’m anything other than present.
A middle-aged French man says, "I confess we were just making fun of you.” He’s looking at my black boots and skinny black jeans. “I’ve been making a joke at your expense. Your boots had made quite a mark on this well manicured lawn.” I’m suddenly aware I’m the only one in footwear. He says he told his friends, "Ah, check it out. An Aussie red neck with a guitar." I laugh but I know he’s hit a social nerve. “I really thought to be fair I should tell you. You should also please remove your boots.”
I apologise. Big apology. I take my boots off. I say, ”Come on, I'll play you another red neck tune."
We sit together on a kitchen bench. I play 'Hang Me Oh Hang Me'. The Frenchman is Pierre, naturally. He waffles on. I catch something about Amsterdam coffee houses. His favourite band is Manu Chau. He hands me a Bintang.
Me: It tastes like formaldehyde.
Pierre: I’m pretty sure it is. Short pause. He says there's decent scotch
buried in a back room. Me: Thank the lord.
There’s a locked liquor cabinet. He opens it, fishes out Laphroaig, pours a couple of fingers each.
“Nostrovia" says Viktoria.
There’s a loud bang, screams before we get a first taste. Pierre grabs my shirt and mouths an urgent 'Shhh'. We peer round the corner. There are cops in uniform, party-goers shoved up against walls. Some Russians are screaming at cops. The cops are screaming back. Pierre whispers, “Back door.” We shoot the Laphroaig and follow him through. We heave a sigh of relief. No cops.
In the purple haze of pre-dawn I feel songs everywhere. Welded into the breath of branches above us.
We three squeeze on to Pierre's bike and speed off. Pierre says a little cash will sort out the problem back there. The sun is rising over Bali jail and the sky is a thick lolly blue. Up the road a bit I see a familiar figure: "Julian!"
I hop of the bike, wave bye to Viktoria and the Frenchman. Viktoria calls back, “Meet me for a drink tomorrow night.” I wave at her and Julian begins another stream of consciousness as we begin the long walk back to our villa.
Tales from the vortex
I'm not sure when, but something inside me walked away a month ago and nothing came back to fill the space. There was an unusual lack of weight in my body, hollowness and echoes where direct sound had been. I would perform with more conviction and attentiveness than ever before. I spent hours in the studio or in practice, but I wasn't really there.
I sit in the Studio, Covered in a Dressing Gown, guitar in hand and glued to a wooden chair. I stare out the window into thick, lush Australian bush. I'm not in the moment, but of it. Waiting for a tap on the shoulder, waiting for the form of a song. If you're lonely creating a song is Xanax, but only for a short while, there's your thoughts, your doubts, a come down and a lot of confusion. There's the highs and there's the disappointment. A love song becomes self loathing. Self loathing becomes personal triumph. Easy becomes impossible and in the end you have to lie to yourself; it's the only way you can be authentic. I've heard it compared to fishing, It really is just like fishing, though you have to fish without environmental concern; Throw back big ones, eat the little ones, pregnant ones. Then move on to another school.
My studio is messy and my conscience is constantly on my back about it, so I start to clean it. It's a convenient distraction. I spend more time looking at old photos and souvenirs than actual cleaning. I arrange my books neatly and read the first page of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's. Maybe there's inspiration there. It's part of a trick I use. You turn to a page on a book and write a song around it. To be honest I don't think it's ever really worked, but sometimes you get desperate. Truman Capote got drunker and his face got redder from book to book. Was that his price for staring at the thing itself? He went too far down a rabbit hole, crossed an unwritten line. Maybe it's safer on the peripheral, more of a journalist. Never sentimental never involved. Always convincing. I pass another book, Leonard Cohens 'Book Of Longing'. I'm not going to open that one, that's making it too hard, i'm not aiming for self flagellation today. I'm not a poet, but I can tell a story. A song can be either or both.
And this is where Ive been for three months, working on nothing, reflecting and scheming.
At the super market I hold a can of Kidney beans, I can hear a throw away song being played somewhere in the background. I think of how meaningless the exercise is, you can spend your life writing from your heart to have it spilled out in the canned vegetable isle. Bouncing off aluminium and flesh, never being absorbed. I tell myself it doesn't matter, this is a personal hunt, it's not about the kill it's the chase.
A while back I wrote a song in an explosion, it came from an argument with a friend and it just poured out. It wasn't mine, at least that's not how it felt. It took hold and abused any talent I had for it, I feel it wasted itself a little, maybe that's how it felt too.
I call a friend and ask for assurance
Do you have trouble writing?
What about words?
NO, I write every day, they just spill out, I can't stop it.
I don't think I get it right, but i'm happy with close, with passing. Now and then I do get it, there's a glimpse into eternity, to what feels and is right, a thing that can save, teach, entertain and equally importantly pay rent.
What follows are takes of inspiration, aspiration, melancholy and self flagellation