Paul Cumming: Body and Soul

Paul Cumming was a highly regarded Melbourne musician who suffered a car accident in 1991 that left him a quadriplegic. Against the odds he re-learned to play an instrument and began performing professionally again.

I n December 199o I came home to Melbourne after six months travelling in Asia. One of the first people I met was my sister’s new boyfriend, Paul. Cumming had a regular gig at the Prince Patrick in Collingwood and I saw him play there a number of times in December and through January. Elroy Flicker Wakes Up Rich was his band. They played a mix of blues, R&B and soul with Cumming on guitar and vocals backed by a drummer and a bass player.

Then, on February 8, 1991 he was in a car accident and broke his neck coming back from a gig on the Mornington Peninsula.

It’s hard to describe the degree of Cumming’s musical talent and stage charisma before the accident without resorting to cliche. There’s very little extant in the way of studio recordings or live video, but one grainy piece of film from a 1989 set with The Dirty Hanks gives some idea of the power of his vocals and guitar playing and the ease with which he put it all together on stage. Country music was not his dominant style, he had a broad musical palate, but this does give a sense of his extraordinary abilities as a musician:

The next time I met him was at the Austin Hospital in late February.


The bus stopped outside the hospital at the bottom of the hill. I walked up the first set of steps that led through the lower part of the hospital grounds looking for a sign saying Spinal Wards.

There were two beds in the room. One of the beds was empty. On the wall next to the empty bed was a Guns N’ Roses poster and a magazine sized picture of a red Trans Am. Paul was flat on his back in the other bed, closest to the window.

Who’s this then? He asked.

A second person stood by the window where the dividing curtain obscured him. He was very tall and dressed in a black leather jacket and jeans. He didn’t say anything.

Hi Paul. It’s Hugh.

Hugh. How are ya? He lifted his right arm, which was strapped in a splint from the elbow to the tips of his fingers. He could move his head a fraction of an inch in its brace and he turned to the left, rolling his eyes, to help him see better.

I moved a few steps towards the top of the bed.

That’s better, Paul said. It’s such a strange angle to meet people. Hugh this is Stuart. Stuart Speed - Hugh Martin.

Pleased to meet you, Stuart said. We shook hands across the bed. After the introduction Stuart said he was going to find a telephone.

When he was gone Paul said, Stuart’s my bass player ... Was my bass player, he corrected himself.

I had thought I should take something when I visited, so I had brought him a copy of 88 Elmira Street by Danny Gatton, and another tape with some of my favourites on it.

I took the tapes out of my pocket and then didn’t know where to put them.

What’s that you’ve got? Paul asked

Ah, yes. Little Feat and Paul Kelly. Know ‘em well. Don’t know Danny Gatton though. He told me to put the tapes on the side table. Your sister tells me you’re a guitar player, he said.

Yeah, I play a bit.

At that point Stuart came back followed by another man, and a woman carrying a small child.

Look who I found outside, Stuart said.

The man went over to the bed and leant down and kissed Paul on the cheek. Paul put his right arm, in its splint, on the man’s shoulder and said, Steve.

The man’s wife put the child down and went over to the bed and kissed Paul also. Steve lifted the boy up so that Paul could see him.

Paul said, Hi, Seamus.

I felt I was intruding now, so I decided to leave and I stood there waiting for a chance to say goodbye.

When Paul had finished greeting his visitors he said, Steve - Hugh Martin. Hugh – Steve McEwan, Colleen McEwan, and young Seamus. He introduced us with a couple of flops of his heavy right arm.

Steve shook my hand. Colleen said, Oh, you’re Rachel’s brother.

I watched Stuart hold a glass with a straw in it for Paul and wipe his mouth with a tissue afterwards. Seamus ran out the door into the corridor and Colleen followed, slowly.

I have a plan, Paul said to the three of us.

What’s that?

I’m going to play again.

He held his left hand in front of him, inspecting it. The fingers were bent flat on the palm, clenched in a sort of permanent fist. Watch, he said. He moved the left thumb so that it tapped against the knuckle of his left index finger. See?

Um, yeah. But how does that help? I asked.

It means I can hold a slide on my left hand and play lap slide, he said. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it and I reckon I’ve just about got the perfect guitar designed in my head. I have to. It’s the only thing I know how to do.

Cumming with his customised B-Bender

He told us about a type of guitar called a Parsons-White B-Bender. Stuart and Steve both seemed to know what he was talking about. He said it had been invented in 1968 by Gene Parsons from The Byrds and Clarence White of The Kentucky Colonels. It was a modification they designed for a Fender Telecaster. They fitted a lever that connected to the B string and was operated through the guitar strap, so that if you leaned down on the guitar while you were wearing it the lever at the back of the guitar, where the strap hooked onto, pulled the B string up a tone. Paul said it was great for playing country music but was meant to be played standing up. He said because of that he had to modify it further so he could play with the guitar on his knees.

It should work, he said. I’ve got the old Telecaster, and I’ve found someone mad enough to take the job on.


May 1991

After a couple of months Paul was allowed out of hospital for the first time and my sister took him to the Great Britain in Richmond to watch a band we knew called the Warner Brothers.

Never seen so many knees in my life, he said once he’d found a space for his wheelchair. Kill for a beer.

Stubbies were easier for him to manage than pots at that stage. He was able to hold the bottle, first in two hands and then by wrapping the bent fingers of his right hand around the neck so that it stayed wedged in his hand.

He took a long drink from that first beer and then leaned forward so that his chest was on his knees. He tapped the inside of his right ankle with his fist, then he sat up again by pushing himself with both fists from his knees, his stubby hanging out of his mouth. He beckoned me closer with a tilt of his head, and said, Can you get an empty bottle from the bar?

What?

I’ve got to empty my leg bag.

Oh, yeah, OK. I went and got an empty champagne bottle from the barman.

Let’s go over the other side of the room, Paul said.

I pushed him across the floor to where the room was darkest near the door to the women’s toilet, faced the chair towards the wall and said, What do I do?

Paul said, You should find a tube tucked up between the top of the shoe and my jeans ... that’s it. And there’s a little lever switch further along.

I found how the tube worked and filled the champagne bottle so the leg bag was empty.

One of the defining things about quadriplegia, particularly high level injuries like Paul’s, is that normal body functions can’t be controlled. The only way he could hope to have any kind of normal social life was to rely on people close to him to help with these personal matters, and that often meant physically carrying him in and out of venues and vehicles. In the early years after the accident it was his bandmates that performed these roles.

Later we watched the Warner Brothers from near the front of the stage. The room was crowded now and quite a few people recognised Paul and said hello.

I asked him what he thought of the band.

Their songs are great, he said. I don’t know about some of the arrangements though.

What do you mean?

It’s mainly the guitars. If you listen to what the lead guitarist is playing it’s always the same as the singer’s guitar. I mean that’s a waste of one guitar. The singer’s got a great solid rhythm style, but the other guy plays exactly the same chords when he’s not doing a solo. His solos are good, but he should be doing something else in the rest of the song. I know I’m being picky ...

Maybe you should be a producer?

That’s not a bad idea. Yeah, I like that.

After the band finished we put Paul in a taxi back to the hospital. As he was leaving I said, If you ever want anyone to play some chords for you when you get that new guitar, just let me know.


January 1992

One day, almost a year later. Paul rang. He was finally out of hospital.

Hi ya, Hugh.

Paul. How are you?

Been better. Trying to get used to life on the outside again. Look, the reason I rang was that I remembered what you said last year and I’m putting together a little ensemble and we need a rhythm guitarist.

Yeah ..? I tried to remember what I had said.

That’s you.

Yeah?

Yeah. I keep hearing these extra parts in my head. Interested?

You bet. Just tell me when and where.

OK. We’ve got a rehearsal space in the city, and we’re practicing at one o’clock tomorrow.


Inside the front door of the warehouse was a short passageway that led through the office area to a larger storage space at the rear. The offices were empty apart from packing boxes, a few telephones, and some chairs. The back room was carpeted. Boxes and tables were stacked around the walls. Sunlight came through windows set high towards the ceiling, in lines from the bars.

A drum kit was set against the end wall and a large black bass amplifier with a silver front was next to it. On either side of the drum kit, making a semi-circle facing the room, were three identical Fender Twin guitar amplifiers.

I put my little Fender transistor amp on one side of the room, next to a Twin. It looked ridiculous by comparison.

What is that? Paul asked. Studio 85. Transistor? Yeah, they don’t have much juice, do they?

Steve McEwan came in carrying what looked like a loose wooden box full of spare amplifier parts.

Where shall I put this?

Wherever you reckon, Paul said. Now, that’s an amplifier, he said to me. You wouldn’t believe it to look at it, but it works beautifully.

I thought he was kidding, and I watched as Steve put the box on the floor. When he let go the sides fell open so that the speakers were exposed, pointing at the ceiling. At some time it had been repaired with tape in an attempt to keep the sides together. Old bits of gaffer tape were stuck around the wooden edges. The top of the amplifier, where the valves and wires were, was propped on its side leaning against the speakers. Steve stood with the plug in his hand, looking for a power point. He found one and plugged it in and flicked a switch on the amp. Immediately a blue-orange light came on in the glass valves, glowing a pale, ghostly light.

It’s fallen out the back of a few trucks in its time, Paul said. But it never misses a beat. Even the bingle that got us hasn’t stopped that old Twin.

It’s making a fair hum, Steve said.

Give it a bit of a tap, Paul said.

Steve gave the piece of wood with the valves attached to it a gentle knock. The hum stopped.

Does anyone else feel like a drink? Paul asked.

The bass player, Stuart, and the drummer looked at each other and raised their eyebrows.

That’s a yes, Steve said.

Feel like a quick dash around the corner to the bottle shop? Paul asked.

They agreed it would be a good idea and they all put in a few dollars. Paul put in the most because he said he was thirsty and it would be good to have a few extra anyway.

Can you pass the guitar out of that case? He said. There should be a lead and a slide in there as well.

I opened the black guitar case and took out the guitar and looked at it for a moment. It was a Telecaster with a natural blond wood finish, but the modifications to the bridge and the addition of locking levers made it look exotic.

Wow. What a crazy looking thing.

Yeah, Paul said. And it sounds pretty crazy at the moment too. I haven’t quite got the hang of it. Sound like a moose on roller skates.

I put the guitar on Paul’s lap and took a cylindrical glass slide and a guitar lead from the case. I plugged one end of the lead into the guitar and the other into a Fender Twin and put the glass slide on the guitar where Paul could reach it.

There’s a plectrum in my pocket, here, Paul said, tapping the left side of his chest with his fist.

I felt in his pocket for the plectrum. Next to me the other guitarist was playing fast runs and phrases and warm-up exercises in a clean, ringing tone with his amplifier turned down low. The drummer kept time lightly with brushes on his snare drum.

There should be a roll of gaffer tape in the bag hanging at the back of the chair, Paul said.

I reached behind the wheelchair, into the cloth bag that was hanging between the handles and took out a large roll of black tape.

Good old gaffer, Paul said. Fixes everything. Can you tear me a thin strip, about six inches long? Yep, that’ll do. Right. Now. What I want to do, is to wind it round my thumb and forefinger so the plectrum stays wedged in there. He held up his right hand.

I tried once, but Paul didn’t feel comfortable with it.

It doesn’t feel solid enough, he said. He plucked a few notes. Yeah, it’s definitely going to move too much. Can you make it tighter?

I wound the tape more tightly around Paul’s fingers. He tried again and said that would have to do. He picked up the glass slide from the top of the guitar with his left hand, and turned up the volume control on the guitar. An elastic band was wound onto the knob so that Paul could adjust the level by running the outside of his right thumb against it and work the control with his fingers taped together.

He played a few notes and asked Steve to turn the bass control on the amplifier up a little. Right, he said. We’re ready.

But first, Paul said. Have you met everyone? He looked at the drummer.

Well I know Stuart here, and Steve ...

I’d like to introduce the band, Paul said.

They laughed.

That old one, Steve said.

This is Sim Martin, lead guitar, Paul swung his right arm towards Sim. And Hugh Martin - rhythm, Chris Molnar, harmonica. And Shamus Goble on the drums. Stuart Speed - bass.

They nodded at each other.

We were all there willing this experiment to succeed. Paul had been flat on his back for a year writing tunes in his head and he admitted he had no idea if it was going to work out, but it seemed like the time to give it a shot.

What do you reckon? Paul said. Should we try something new, or warm up first?

Stuart looked at Paul. It’s up to you. You‘re the boss.

Yes, I am aren’t I? He grinned. In that case let’s do something nice and easy to start. He looked at Stuart again. A bit of a funky blouse?

Stuart raised his eyebrows, Sure. Which one?

That Muddy Waters tune, You’ve Got To Love Somebody, the way we used to do it.

OK. In C?

That’ll do. Shamus, can you play a straight backbeat. He turned to me and Sim. Do you know it?

Chicago shuffle? Sim said.

I had no real idea what they were talking about. But I thought if I kept quiet something might come to me when they started playing.

Paul looked at me and said, Can you play the C ninth chord, up on the eighth fret?

I played a C ninth on the third fret.

No, not that one. On the eighth fret. Make a D seventh shape with your third finger on the B string, now put your little finger under that. That’s it, he said. C ninth. Now stomp that with one hit at the end of every two bars so that you connect with Sim’s line.

I played the chord a few times to get used to the fingering.

It has more bite in that voicing, Paul said. In a louder voice he said, OK. One, two. One, two, three, four.

They all started together, except me. I thought – I’ve only got to play one chord every two bars. But I couldn’t find where to play it. I played the C ninth chord up on the eighth fret anyway, and then the change came round and I recognised it was a G, so I played that and I thought I was doing all right. Sim looked at me and I remembered I was supposed to play the chord at the end of Sim’s line. I tried to focus on what Sim was playing. As soon as I did I realised I was nowhere near the place I was supposed to be. I tried to correct myself by leaving out the chord from where I had been playing it and putting it in where I thought it was meant to be. The change came around again and instead of playing a G I played the C because I thought I had found where it was supposed to go. Stuart and Sim both looked at me with faint smiles and raised eyebrows. Paul was sitting slightly in front of me, so he couldn’t turn round. But he shook his head and leaned back in his chair and raised his right arm. Immediately Stuart and the drummer stopped. Sim kept playing and finished off suddenly with a rapid burst of descending notes.

Something ain’t right, Paul said. He turned as far as he could to look over his right shoulder. Do you know where you are? He said to me.

Sort of, I said.

Try it, just against Sim’s line.

He counted us in. Sim started playing. Paul tapped the beat he wanted me to play on the top of his guitar with the plectrum in his right hand. I tried to play it in time, and missed. Sim kept repeating the line over. I closed my eyes and tried to feel where I should play. The first two times I got it wrong. I could feel myself going red. The third time I got it right and felt relieved that I could do it, but then I lost it again.

Try counting it out, Paul said.

I tried that. At first it made things worse because I found myself caught between where I was counting to and where I felt the chord should be played. It confused me and I made some wild guesses when I lost count, but then I began to get it right. I realised that I didn’t have to count the whole time, but I did have to know exactly where the count began from and keep that firmly in my head. Sim kept playing and after a while I got the part right each time.

That’s it, Paul said. The only thing now is I think you’re out of tune. He slid the glass tube off his left forefinger so that it rolled onto his guitar and stayed next to the strings. He flicked his left hand lightly so the fingers straightened a little and he leaned to his left to reach for the stubby of Victoria Bitter that was on top of his amplifier. The stubby was just out of his reach. Steve passed it to him. Paul drank the remaining two-thirds of the beer in one gulp and then burped, loudly, and said, Ahh, that’s better.

A wee bit of a thirst? Steve said. At that rate we might need another run to the bottle shop. He took another beer out of the box on the floor and opened it for Paul, then he opened one for himself.

OK then, Paul said. As we were, gentlemen.

The others put down their drinks and were ready to play. Paul counted in and they played the same song. I missed the cue to play my C ninth chord in the opening bars, but then I found the right place after that. I was amazed at how simple it was and how good it felt playing this one chord in the right place and following the twelve bar progression. As my confidence grew I began to relax and enjoy the energy of the band and was carried along by it. The music was loud and they were all playing hard. Chris was blowing his harmonica so that he would double over and sit up again as though he was a pair of bellows trying to force extra wind from his lungs. Steve was red in the face from singing hard into the microphone. I thought it sounded like he had a good voice, but I couldn’t hear him clearly above the band. We finished the song all together, at exactly the same time. There was a natural ending and they all anticipated it, except me.

I think we should do two choruses at the end there, to finish off, Paul said. Something’s still a bit out of tune, he frowned and looked at the floor as if he was trying to locate the source of the dissonance in his memory. He looked up at me and said, D’you want to check that tuning again?

I checked the tuning with the electronic tuner again and said, It seems to be OK.

Check the harmonics, Paul said.

The what?

Stuart put down his drink and his bass and went over to his guitar case and took out a small set of screwdrivers. I’ll show you, he said. He sat on a chair in the middle of the room with my guitar on his lap and the tuner on the floor in front of him. He leaned forward each time he played a note and squinted at the small instrument on the floor. It’s quite a long way out, he said. He used the screwdriver to adjust the tiny screws at the back of the bridge where the strings attached to the body of the guitar. Anything you played past the fifth or sixth frets would’ve been out of tune. He finished tuning the guitar and gave it back to me. There, just like a bought one, he said.

They played a song of Paul’s called Common Ground and Stuart played a line which sounded a little like the previous song without the same lazy skip in it. I sat out because Paul said there was a definite rhythm part he would teach me later. Sim and Paul played an interlocking guitar line that counterposed the bass. Steve started to sing.

I listened to Paul and watched the intense look of concentration on his face. He was hunched over the guitar, frowning at the strings. Every now and then he would make a face to himself in disgust at his inability to play what he wanted, and he would concentrate harder to bring his timing back together with the band. He just would not accept his own performance being anything less than what he knew he was capable of. It was as though being a quadriplegic was no excuse for playing badly

When they finished the song Paul leaned back in his chair and exhaled loudly. He started to sit forward again and his whole body went into a spasm. His right leg jerked up, almost horizontally, and his upper body was thrown back and sideways. Steve and Stuart, who were closest, both moved at the same time to catch him before he fell. Stuart juggled with both guitars until Steve set Paul upright.

I just can’t get the hang of this thing, Paul said. He said it softly, to no one in particular, but we all heard.

We knew how hard he was trying and how much he wanted to get it right. The six of us sat quietly in the room, watching Paul. The sun had moved behind the city buildings and there were shadows outside the warehouse windows. There were still a few more hours of daylight, but the room was dim. Paul rested his chin on his right fist with his elbow leaning on the guitar. He stared at the floor. He sat that way for some minutes and then Stuart said quietly, Paul?

Everyone was holding their breath to see what Paul would do.

He looked up, but did not say anything.

Do you want to do that one again? Stuart asked.

Paul shook his head and blinked, as if he had just remembered where he was. Yes. Yes we should do that again. I’ve got some charts printed out, he said. I’ve been trying to put all these things on computer.

Steve passed copies to Stuart and Sim and they played the song again. This time it sounded better. The drums and bass were tighter and Steve’s voice was clear. Sim and Paul played together against the rhythm and the melody and the whole thing was infectious. We finished a short time later because Stuart had to go to another rehearsal. He packed up quickly and said goodbye. After he left the rest of us sat and drank the last of the beer.

Well, what do you think? Paul asked.

Oh, yeah, Shamus said as he dismantled his drum kit. I think we’ve got something here.

There’s a bit of work to do though, Steve said.

My word, Paul said. Not least of all by me.

We need a regular rehearsal, Sim said. He wiped the neck of his guitar with a cloth.

What I was thinking, Paul said, is doing some research and development at my place with just the guitars and harmonica, so we can learn up the parts, and then put it all together with the rhythm section in a few weeks time.

We agreed that would be a good idea. I wrote Paul’s address on a scrap of paper.

Come over tomorrow night. And you guys, he said to Sim and Chris. I’ll try and get Stuart to be there.

I carried my guitar and amplifier outside and stood by the car for a moment before loading the equipment. The air was dry and still, but it was cooler than before without the bite of the sun.

I felt ridiculous that I had not been able to tune my guitar, let alone play. I figured Paul would probably say - Thanks, but we’ve found someone else for the job.


March 1992

Paul took a long drink from a stubby of beer and then dropped the empty bottle on the floor beside him. He leaned over his guitar and picked up the glass slide that was standing upended over the volume control. He played a few notes and then suddenly slid the glass high up the neck as he was gripped by a spasm. No one moved to help him, we were all too tired. He hooked his left elbow around the handle at the back of the wheelchair and stopped himself from falling. It was nearly two in the morning.

There was always a lot of talk before we started practice and I often wondered if we would do any work at all. Then we would have a break while one of us went to the bottle shop, or for fish and chips. We did work hard though, and I usually left with my head aching from concentrating.

On the first night Paul had given me a tape and a folder with print-outs of all his songs. The tape had five songs which had been written a few years earlier and recorded with his band the Shuffling Hungarians. The other twenty songs in the folder had been written while he was lying in traction in the Spinal Unit at the Austin Hospital. A couple were from his time with the country band The Dirty Hanks.

As soon as Paul was out of hospital he had set up a computer in the house and transferred all his songs to disk. The only musical instrument he used for writing was a small xylophone that sat on the table next to the computer in his room. When he needed to hear how a note sounded in relation to another he would tap the xylophone with the rubber mallet.

He printed the lyrics and the chords separately, with dashes to indicate bars. It was a rough guide to help him explain the more complex arrangements still in his head.

The room was dark. A dampness seemed to seep from the walls and the carpet throughout the house and everywhere there was a mildewy smell mixed with a sort of ancient animal odour. A lamp stood in one corner of the lounge room between the television and a packing box full of records. Vinyl records were scattered on the floor and the coffee table mixed with music magazines, plastic toys, unopened mail, scraps of paper, ashtrays, and empty beer cans. I strained to read the chords on the sheet in front of me and angled the paper towards the light. Paul preferred the lighting to be dim. One of the side effects of the medication that controlled his muscle spasms was that his eyes became sensitive to light.

Any more beer in the fridge? Paul asked.

Sim went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle. Last one, he said.

That’s OK, Paul said. I only wanted one anyway.

We had been working on a tune of Paul’s called When It Suits You. Paul was explaining what he wanted Chris to play on the harmonica and Chris was having trouble understanding what Paul wanted. Sim and Stuart played their parts over and over so that Chris could hear where he was meant to play and practice with them. I played along with the bass line. The three of us stopped at one point while Paul went through each note he wanted Chris to play. First he hummed the notes, then he took the harmonica from Chris and played it himself and said, Like this.

The Bootless and Unhorsed unplugged, with Stuart Speed on the double bass

Stuart left some time later. Chris was asleep in an armchair with his head back and his mouth open.

After a few minutes Chris groaned and lifted his head from the back of the chair. He blinked and rubbed his eyes and groaned again. He stood up and picked up his Gladstone bag with the harmonicas in it. I gotta go, he said.

What? Paul said. Just like that?

Yeah, it’s late man. I’ve gotta go. I can‘t do this. He stood there, holding the bag, looking uncertain and worried.

Of course you can do it, Paul said.

No, it’s no good, Chris said. I’m too slow. I can’t do it.

Well look, Paul said. I know it’s late. What about we just try again tomorrow?

No. It’s no good, Chris said again. I’ll see you later.

When he was gone Paul said, That’s thrown a spanner in the works.

He’ll be back, won’t he? I said.

I don’t think so, Paul said. That sounded fairly definite. I’ll tell you something about Chris. He might come across as a bit slow, but he’s the only person I know who’s actually jammed with Albert King, and he’s got the video to prove it.

The Albert King?

The very same.

There was a noise at the front of the house and the door opened and then closed.

Maybe that’s him back already? Sim said.

We heard footsteps down the hall and Steve came into the lounge room. Steve and Colleen, now with two small boys, were living temporarily with Paul in the St Kilda house.

Still at it? He said. I saw Chris out the front. He didn’t seem too happy.

He’s not, Paul said. I think we’re looking for a new harmonica player. You don’t know any, do you?

As a matter of fact I do, Steve said. Ian Collard.

Ah, yes of course, Paul said. Ian from Checkerboard Lounge Blues Band.

Invite him along to a rehearsal, Steve said. You won’t regret it.

I suppose that’s it for the night then, Sim said. He had packed his guitar and was standing in the middle of the room with the case in one hand and his little battery powered practice amplifier in the other, his head to one side and his eyes half closed. He put the case and the amplifier down and squatted next to Paul. He put one hand on Paul’s knee. It’s sounding really good, he said. We’ve just about got all the basics down, and I think it sounds hot.

There’s always some problem, Paul said. I should be used to it by now. Poor old Chris. I think we overloaded him.

Don’t worry about Chris, Sim said. If we can’t talk him into coming back we’ll ask Ian. Either way it’ll work out.

Yeah. I guess you’re right, Paul said.

I said goodbye also, and as I was leaving Paul said, Take Betsy. I had been playing Betsy when I came to rehearse at Paul’s because it was there and it was such a beautiful guitar. Paul said he liked to watch it being played, and hear it. I knew it was his most cherished possession; a classic piece of craftsmanship in its own right.

Really?

Paul playing Betsy, his Gibson 345. Photo: Ross Mortimer

Yeah. Play it at home and get used to it. We want to use it in the band anyway. Treat her nicely.

Sure. I will. Thanks. I said goodbye again and walked down the hall with Paul’s priceless 1968 Gibson 345 in a banged up old case with no handle and the back end torn up so the guitar kept threatening to slide out.

Steve and Sim were talking at the front gate.

It’s a hard thing he’s doing, Sim said. But I really think it’s going to sound good. We are going to have a problem with some of the guitar parts getting in the way of each other, though.

He seems to have a good idea of what he wants, I said.

He seems to ...

And they’re great tunes.

The songs are fantastic, Sim said. I’m just worried the arrangements may get a little complicated.

As far as I was concerned the arrangements were extremely complicated. Each rehearsal was like an intensive guitar lesson to me, but I had learnt more in the last two months than in the previous five years. I felt I had to work twice as hard as the others to make myself useful by knowing my part completely and picking up what Paul wanted played straight away so there was a minimal delay in getting the song together. And I could feel the difference in my playing already. My right hand was becoming stronger so the rhythms I played were more defined and varied. I could hear the different parts of a song now and feel where I really should be playing. Sometimes I still didn’t get there, but at least now I knew where it should be.

Sim said, It’s the only problem with having such a big band. I’m a bit worried we’re not going to be able to keep it sounding clear enough.


April 1992

I parked my car in Paul’s driveway and knocked on the front door. The verandah near the door was cluttered with empty cardboard boxes, a kitchen chair with no seat, two old turntables, odd shoes, a car tyre, tangled piles of speaker wire and guitar leads, and lots of old newspapers. I waited for a couple of minutes, but there was no answer. The blind was drawn in the front room.

I walked down the driveway at the side of the house. The blind was drawn in Paul’s bedroom so I walked further along to the lounge room window and peered in with my hands cupped against the glass. The room was empty. I went around the back and tried the door, but it was locked. So I walked back to the front door and knocked again, louder this time. I was reluctant to go and knock on Paul’s window in case he didn’t want to be disturbed. But then I thought of him lying there awake and alone.

I went back to the window where the blind was closed and knocked on the glass. I didn’t hear anything so I knocked again.

This time I heard Paul answer, Yes.

Paul, it’s Hugh.

Come in.

How?

Through the window. It’s not locked.

I opened the window and climbed in. The room was dark. A smell of ammonia mixed with the damp that crept through the whole house. I left the window open and opened the blind fully. The head of Paul’s bed was against the middle wall with a space on either side. His wheelchair was next to the bed on the side opposite the window. A blue plastic bowl with a tube protruding over the edge was on the seat of the wheelchair. I thought it might have been rude to wake Paul and perhaps I should leave and come back later. Paul was completely covered by a black doona.

He groaned from beneath the cover, Ohh, God.

I’m sorry if I woke you up, I said.

No. I’ve been awake for ages. I’ve been lying here feeling very strange.

Are you all right?

No, not at all. When I woke up, for a split second I thought - I can’t move, I’m paralysed. And I panicked for a second and then I remembered...

Can I get you anything?

Yeah. You could fill the water bottle that’s on the floor beside the bed.

I walked around the side of the bed where the wheelchair was and found the empty plastic bottle. I replaced the receiver on the telephone. I tried ringing, I said, but it was engaged so I thought you might have been up.

Could you put the phone up here on the bed? He pulled the top of the doona back a little so his face was visible. His head was flat on the bed so he was looking at the ceiling. When I leaned over the bed to place the phone within reach of Paul’s left hand, he said, Ah, there you are.

The kitchen sink was full of dishes with mould growing from old bits of food. A large open rubbish bin was next to the fridge. The bin was full and smelt faintly of rotting garbage. I carried it carefully through the laundry and left it outside the back door and then went back to the kitchen and filled the plastic bottle with water.

I took the bottle back to Paul’s room and stood beside the bed. Are there any straws?

There are some around somewhere, he said. Just pour it into my mouth.

He opened his mouth and I poured water in until he grunted that was enough.

Do you want to sit up?

I don’t think I could handle it just yet. Have a look on that chest of drawers and see if there’s any straws.

I found a half-empty packet on the floor behind the chest of draws and put one in the bottle of water and bent the top half from the crinkled joint. I put the bottle on the bed next to Paul’s pillow so the straw reached his mouth. Paul took a long drink and kept drinking until the bottle was empty.

When he finished he said, Ahh, that’s better. The legendary quad thirst is partly quenched.

More?

What I’d really like, he said, is a good cup of coffee. He said there was a percolator and real coffee in the kitchen and to make it strong in a big mug with a dash of milk.

I went back to the kitchen and flicked the light switch when I walked in, but the light didn’t come on. I put the coffee in the percolator and put the pot on the stove and then looked in the fridge to see if there was any milk and realised straight away that the kitchen globe was not broken. An overpowering smell of rotting meat filled the kitchen. There was water at the bottom of the fridge and flowery blue-green mould with wispy hairs growing on the sides and around the freezer compartment.

I filled the one clean mug with coffee from the percolator and took it to Paul.

Your power’s been cut off.

I know, he said. It happened the other day. We’ve still got gas though.

How the hell did that happen? I mean, everything’s rotting in the fridge and there are no lights.

I know, I know. By the time we actually had the bill in our hand it was too late. Even if we could walk we probably wouldn’t have made it.

You could’ve sent someone.

It doesn’t matter. The front two rooms still have power cause there’s two separate mains in this place. So we can run a couple of extension cords down to the back of the house.

Will that be enough?

Yeah, it’ll have to be. We got an eviction notice the other day too.

I noticed, not for the first time, that Paul regularly referred to himself in the first person plural. It seemed an indirect way of acknowledging how little physical control he had over his life. The simplest actions had to be done for him and he didn’t enjoy giving direct orders, so the “we” was a deflection as well as a form of persuasion.

I was still holding the mug of coffee. What are you going to do? I asked.

We’re not going to pay the rent, that’s for sure. What about that coffee?

I put a straw in the mug and put the mug next to Paul’s pillow, where the bottle of water had been, and angled the straw towards his mouth. He took a sip, but it was too hot. I sat on the wheelchair next to the bed. It felt strange sitting on the chair, as if I was wearing Paul’s shoes or some personal item of clothing. I thought about sitting on the bed instead, but that seemed still more intrusive.

We were silent for a while and Paul sipped his coffee through the straw. After a while he said, Y’know, she just stopped coming to see me.

Who? I knew who he meant.

Rachel, he said. What did I do wrong?

I don’t know. Nothing.

The last time she came to the hospital she said: I’m sorry, but I don’t love you anymore. I never did have much luck with relationships, he said. I miss being in love, though. I do love being in love. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it. It’s the most beautiful feeling in the world.

He groaned loudly, I have to get the band working, he said. Get out and play gigs. He paused for a moment. A mate of Stuart’s has got a flash rehearsal studio with a recording facility as well so we can do a demo, which’ll be useful. That’s booked for the week after next; five days. Then the following weekend there’s the chance of a gig at the Esplanade.

Working on arrangements. Martin, Doug Kelly (drums), and Cumming. Photo: Ross Mortimer

As Elroy Flicker he would play with anyone, anytime, for one of three conditions: that he get paid, have fun, or learn something. He asked no more than to fill all three. His own bands tended to be small and mobile so there was less room for dissent, a greater share of the pay, and when it came down to it, he just did not need a great deal of accompaniment.

But he could no longer be Elroy Flicker - guitarist for hire - so he would become Paul Cumming - songwriter, bandleader and slide guitarist. Under the circumstances it was a remarkable transformation.

And it was different in other ways now. There were seven people in his band instead of three.

Sounds like what we need, I said.

Yeah, it should nail the thing together. We’ve got the bones of everything down and it’s time to go and flesh it out. He sounded different when he talked about the band. His tone of voice changed completely and he sounded cheerful and confident.

There was a knock on the front door.

About bloody time that Shaun got here, he said.

Shaun? I stood up to answer the door.

Shaun’s me minder. You’re about to meet him.

I opened the front door and saw a tall fellow wearing a bicycle helmet walking around the house towards the driveway to go around the rear, and then he stopped and turn back when he heard the door open.

I thought there was someone else here, he said. I was going to jump in a window, anyway.

Shaun took off his bicycle helmet and held out his hand and said, G’day, I’m Shaun.

I went to the lounge room while Shaun got Paul out of bed. I sifted through some records on the coffee table and picked up a Charlie Christian album. Paul’s record collection was a library of some of the most seminal recordings in jazz and blues and he had the stories to match. A few nights previously he had been expounding on Charlie Christian who, he said, turned guitar playing on its head. He told me about how Charlie Christian came to join the Benny Goodman orchestra. John Hammond had tried to get him an audition, but Benny Goodman was not interested. So John Hammond put Charlie Christian’s guitar and amplifier on the rehearsal stage while Benny Goodman was out of the room. When Goodman came back it was too late to stop him. Goodman told the band to play a song called Rose Room, which he thought Christian could not possibly know. Charlie Christian responded by playing inventive solos over the chord progression and kept the song going for forty-five minutes without once repeating himself. Paul said that in the two years Charlie Christian played with the Goodman orchestra Benny Goodman made a habit of noting down the melodies that Christian churned out, and he would turn them into songs without crediting the guitarist.

I went and found a record called Live At Minton’s in a pile by the television. Then I looked for an extension cord so I could run power from the front of the house. I found two cords and joined them together and it was just long enough to reach to the stereo.

I went into the kitchen and filled the sink with hot water and found some detergent and washed the dishes while Christian played in the background. I wiped the bench when I had finished, but left the fridge. I poured myself a glass of water and went back into the lounge room.

I sat on the couch and listened as the saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and piano, took turns at playing solos. Despite the complex sound each tune had its foundation in blues and it was most obvious on the slower songs. Paul had told me that it was only by chance that the record existed at all. It was recorded in 1940 by a fan using an early tape recorder. There was not enough tape to record each song, so instead of just recording some of the songs he decided to record only the solos and not the heads. The head of a jazz tune is the beginning and end which is a recognisable melodic form; the actual tune. In between these structured parts each soloist takes his turn. At first I found it confusing listening only to the solos without the benefit of the head as an introduction, but the brilliance of the playing was enough. I had heard the record three times and I still wished the fan had taken more tape to Minton’s that night.

The door from the hall opened and Paul rolled in being pushed by Shaun. Ah-ha, Paul said. He’s found Live At Minton’s. Charlie Parker and Monk scaring the shit out of each other. They’d do that all night and Charlie Christian would wander down with his guitar after playing with the Goodman orchestra. Must’ve been some sessions.

Shaun pushed Paul so that he was facing me across the coffee table. He squatted next to the wheelchair and lit a cigarette. He took a deep drag and tapped ash into a beer bottle cap on the table in front of him.

Any chance of a cup of coffee? Paul said.

Shaun nodded and went into the kitchen.

Well, Paul said. I think I’ve found someone to move in here.

Who?

My old mate Steve Prictor. I was just on the phone to him and he’s on his way over.

That’s good.

Yeah, we go back a long way. Actually, now that I think about it, there’s the little matter of a month’s rent from a house we were sharing a couple of years ago. I seem to remember Steve doing a bunk with the money and going on a bender down at the pub for a few days. I’ve been meaning to mention that to him. Then again, now might not be a good time.

They heard a loud knock on the front door.

That was quick.

He was just around the corner, Paul said.

A minute later a skinny guy in a plain brown suit came into the room, walking slowly, looking up and down as if he was inspecting the walls and the floor. The legs of his trousers were too short and exposed bright orange socks in a pair of purple brogues. He had yellow hair that was straight and brittle looking and covered his ears, and he wore a wide green tie with a white shirt. He stopped and looked in the last room and glanced in the bathroom, which was next to the lounge.

Steve said hello. Paul said hello and tried to turn his chair around so he could see him. Steve stood inside the door nervously gulping air and blinking as if he had something stuck in his eye. His suit jacket looked a size too large and the sleeves fell halfway down his hands covering his knuckles. His face had cuts and patches of beard growing in tufts. It looked as if he had tried shaving without soap or water, and then given up halfway.

Paul introduced Steve to me and Shaun. This is the place all right, Steve said. Paul said it was.

Shaun went to the kitchen and brought out two mugs of coffee and put one on the table where Paul could reach it. He looked at me. There’s more if you want some.

So what do you think? Paul said to Steve.

I can start bringing stuff around right away if you like.

There was no more discussion than that. Steve said he would go back to the other house and start putting his things in boxes.

Paul said, OK, see you back here.

It might take a while, Steve said. I’ve got a lot of stuff to sort out. It’ll probably be tomorrow.

Paul said that was fine.

After Steve had gone Paul said, Well, that’s good. I’ve got a housemate.

Interesting dress sense, I said.

Paul laughed. He hunched his shoulders and closed his eyes. He put both hands up to cover his face and said, Yep, interesting is one way of putting it.

It was dark now and the only light came from a candle that Shaun had found in the kitchen and placed on the coffee table. Paul said there was a spare power board in the front room so they could plug in the two lamps. I found the power board and went back to the lounge room and plugged both lamps into the power board and connected it to the extension cord.

Paul said he wanted to hear some Howlin’ Wolf. See if you can find the Rocking Chair album, he said. It should be in there somewhere. It’s just got a picture of a rocking chair on it.

I found the record and held it up and Paul said, That’s the classic Wolf album.

When the music started Paul said, Turn it up, turn it up. He was smiling and squinting in concentration as he listened to the music. What a great sound, he said. Right. Now what we need is a bottle of cheap champagne, some white wine, a bottle of scotch, and whatever you guys want.

What’s with the champagne and white wine? I asked.

Doctor’s orders.

How’s that?

Beer is fattening. White wine and spirits are OK; less calories.


May 1992

O n the way over to Paul’s place I stopped at a bottle shop and bought a dozen stubbies of Melbourne Bitter and two bottles of Angus Brut champagne.

Paul was at his desk in the front room. There was a brick under each leg of the desk so that it was high enough to fit his wheelchair and he could get close in. He was working at the computer and the printer on the floor under the desk was clicking and whirring and feeding out paper.

I’ve just finished a new song, he said. Grab that paper when the printer stops.

I put the champagne and the beer down.

You shouldn’t have, Paul said. But I’m glad you did. There’s a glass on that shelf, next to the kettle.

I opened the champagne and poured Paul a drink and opened a stubby for myself. So, what’s the new song?

There are a couple actually. I’ve had them floating around for a while.

The printer stopped. Paul tapped the keyboard once with his right thumb knuckle and it started up again. May as well have a couple of copies, he said. He reached over to where I had put the glass of champagne and picked it up with both hands. Cheers. He gulped the glass in one go. Better have another one of them, he said. And we should probably get some more supplies.

We decided how much alcohol we needed and I went to the bottle shop around the corner. As I was leaving Paul said, Hang on, take this. He waved at a fifty dollar note in a jar on the desk. Get the best bottle of scotch you can find. I think we’ll need it later, and a packet of Camel Plains.

We sat in the front room and drank and listened to tapes on an old tape recorder. Paul said he was in a mood to listen to old blues. This stuff is real lo-fi, he said. He played Son House, the Reverend Gary Davis, Little Walter, Lowell Fulsom, Jimmy Rodgers, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, and Willie Dixon, and more whose names I did not know.

When we were starting to get drunk Paul said, Y’know we’re going to have a problem with this band.

What?

Well, having to pay seven people is a problem for a start.

You knew that.

Yeah. The real problem is going to be Stuart.

How?

Cause he’s such a bloody Rolls Royce everyone wants him. He’s got a national tour coming up in a month with Kate Ceberano, and he’ll be away for three or four weeks. He still wants to do this, but he’s going to be nicking off regularly to do other things.

So what are you going to do?

What are we going to do? Well I thought what we should do is start a blues band. We can knock it together in a couple of days, and it should be easy enough to get gigs.

I’ve got to ask you something, I said. Don’t get me wrong, I really love playing with you guys, but I don’t understand why you want me. I mean, there are so many better guitar players around.

That’s not the point, Paul said. What we needed was someone who was smart enough, and interested in the project, and not very good, and that’s you. He must have recognised a look of dismay on my face because he immediately said: Look, you’re better than you think you are. You should believe in yourself a bit more, you picked up all those tricky jazz chords I’ve been throwing at you, easy. We wouldn’t replace you with anyone now and besides we don’t need another soloist, what we need is a solid rhythm guitarist. Do you remember when you gave me that tape of Danny Gatton when I was in hospital?

I nodded.

I’d never heard him, Paul said. And he blew me away. I thought if you like this stuff then you know what it’s all about, and you’ll do.

And besides I was Rachel’s brother?

Well that might have had something to do with it at the start, but not any more. Look, we’ve had, what, three months of rehearsals? You’re doing fine. That first day was a bit awkward, but since then you’ve got everything right. We’ve already lost Chris because he couldn’t cut it learning arrangements. You’re good at that. You’re the heart of the rhythm section; the link. This band’s going to have the swingingest, groovingest rhythm section around. It’s going to knock people’s socks off.

I knew he was exaggerating my contribution, but I needed to hear I was doing something right. I felt my guitar playing had improved and I would keep pushing myself because I had a long way to go, but I was glad to have some encouragement.

We drank until we had finished all the beer and wine. Paul drank beer after he had finished both bottles of champagne. When all the bottles were empty we opened the Chivas Regal. We drank it straight without ice and it tasted smooth and burned in the throat.

Now, Paul said. How do you feel about playing bass?

Well, yeah, I’d give it a go. I mean bass is great, but I don’t think ...

You’ve gotta stop being so down on yourself. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got a good ear and a solid right hand, and you already know enough about chord construction. The rest you can pick up as you go along. You just play one note instead of a chord. Almost. Look, it’s about having the right feeling, learning to trust your intuition. Most musicians I know are self-taught. You’ve got to love it and want it. As the old song says: Body and Soul.

Do you want me to play bass?

This blues band we were thinking of. What we thought we’d do is get Shamus on drums, Sim, Ian and myself, and you playing bass. That way we can keep it in the family, and it’ll be a bit of a regular earner to make up for the other one. Steve’ll have to miss out, cause I reckon I’ll sing. He won’t mind, he’s got a few other things going.

Sounds like a good idea.

We’ll do the week of rehearsals for the big band while Stuart’s in town, and then well put the blues band together the week after that.

No worries. What’re we going to call these bands?

I’ve got a couple of ideas

What about using Elroy Flicker?

Nah, I don’t think so. Elroy was killed off in that bingle. I’m thinking of calling the 7-piece outfit The Bootless and Unhorsed. And then we’ll call the blues band The Nine Slab Riders.

The Nine Slab Riders l-r: Ian Collard, Shamus Goble, Paul Cumming, Sim Martin, Hugh Martin. Photo: Ross Mortimer

In the meantime there’s a big list of old songs to do, he said. Some of these things we’ve been listening to tonight, and much more besides. He was smiling now, eyes bright, leaning back with his right arm hooked around the handle at the back of the wheelchair. His glass was on the edge of the desk next to the computer. He picked it up with his left hand by hooking his forefinger over the rim and holding the glass with his thumb. There was about a quarter of a glass of whisky left and he drank it in one gulp and held out the empty glass for me to fill.

When he was satisfied at the size of the measure he put the glass on the desk and reached for the packet of Camels. He shook the pack once so a cigarette stood out and he took it in his mouth. Got a light?

I struck a match and held the flame for him. Talking about songs, I said. You’ve got a new one you were going to show me.

Um, yeah. I feel a bit shy about it now, but ... what the hell, grab it out of the printer.

I reached down to the printer under the desk and tore off the first sheet of paper.

It’s a very sad song, Paul said. Sort of a minor country reggae thing.

I looked at the paper. The song was called I Just Can’t Get Angry With You. Beneath the title were the chords, represented simply by the letters and a dash to show the bar spacing. I looked at them briefly, but there was no guitar nearby and I was not able to imagine the notes in my head without an instrument in my hands so I passed quickly over the chords and read the lyrics. When I finished reading I said, That sure sounds like a sad song. Who was she?

Rachel.

Oh. Well, it’s a sad song.

I reckon it could be a hit.

I’m looking forward to hearing it.

You could grab a guitar from the lounge room and have a shot at it now, if you like.

I’m pretty pissed, Paul. I don’t think I’d be able to get my head, or my fingers, around a brand new song right at the moment.


May 1992

O n Monday morning the telephone rang as I was putting my guitar and amplifier in the car. It was Paul.

We’ve had to postpone rehearsals till next week, he said. I’ve got to move house. Prictor found this great place and the old landlord is getting mighty toey about me moving, so I can’t put it off any longer. We’ve spoken with the other guys and they’re happy to make the same arrangement for next week.

Do you want a hand moving? I asked.

Thanks, Paul said, That’d be great. The more the merrier. I’m supplying the beer and pizzas.

I spent the afternoon packing Paul’s belongings into large cardboard boxes and ferrying them over to the new house on Ormond Esplanade, across the road from Elwood Beach. Paul sat in the lounge at the old house giving directions and telling stories and reminiscing with other friends who dropped by to lend a hand. There was Doug Kelly and Dai Jones, and Viv, the singer in The Dirty Hanks, and Dean, the sax player from The Shuffling Hungarians. Dean said he wanted to take back his records. I don’t have any of your records, Paul said. Dean went through the collection and found twelve that he said were his.

They’re not yours, Paul said. They’re mine. Dean took them anyway. Paul shook his head when he was gone.

A short time later Shamus Goble arrived. Shamus laughed when Paul told him what had happened. Dean’s got a bad memory at the best of times, he said. It sounds like he just saw twelve good records.

That’s what happened, Paul said. But there was nothing we could do and the only way we can get them back is to go around to his place when he’s indulging in his hobby and take them while he’s crashed out, and that’s a little difficult to manage now.

We packed most of Paul’s belongings into boxes and we made three trips to the new house. We had to leave the couch and the fridge and a few large pieces of furniture for another day. When it started to get dark Shamus went to the bottle shop to get more beer and Paul rang for a pizza. Viv left saying she had to go and get ready for the gig.

When she was gone Paul said, I’m doing a gig tonight with The Hanks. The first since back then. He sounded happy and excited to be getting back onstage.

Back with the old band?

Just for a session anyway. There’s a bit of a Country night happening at The Espy with a few bands. Should be a hoot. Why don’t you come down?

Well, yeah. I think I will.

All right! Any chance of a lift?

I laughed. We can try.

No problem, Paul said. Well have Shaun here, the human crane.

We drove in the back of The Esplanade Hotel, under the tunnelled archway and through to a courtyard that looked like part of an old stable. The courtyard was paved with a patchwork of oil-stained bluestones and concrete. Three cars were parked in a row along the wall opposite the arch. An old Dodge truck was parked under cover to the left as we drove in, its dull red bonnet facing into the yard. Two rusted forty gallon drums stood near the back of the kitchen. Cooking smells came from an open window.

Smells good, Paul said. I wonder if we’ve got time for a feed? Then he said: Thanks. I do like riding up front in a real car. It makes me feel normal. Not like those bloody wheelchair taxis where you face backwards and all the world knows there’s a cripple in there.

I parked as close as I could to the back door and carried Paul’s guitar inside and left it behind the stage in the Gershwin Room and went back to the car.

Shaun unfolded the wheelchair and clicked the wheels onto the frame. He had opened the passenger door and he placed the wheelchair next to the seat. Getting Paul into the car had looked simpler. Shaun had lifted Paul by himself because there was room for only one person next to the chair and the car. He had put Paul’s feet inside the car and had then grabbed him by the waist of his jeans at either hip, and hoisted him up into the car seat while I waited on the driver’s side to make sure Paul didn’t fall sideways inside the car. Getting out, however, looked more difficult because there was a greater chance of Paul falling straight out of the seat onto the concrete.

Shaun scratched his head. I dunno, he said.

Feet first, Paul said.

Shaun swung Paul’s feet out of the car so that he turned slightly in the seat and his feet waved in mid-air. Paul’s arms grabbed the doorway to steady himself.

Straight across, I guess, Paul said. Gravity is our friend.

OK, Shaun said. but I’m blaming you if we go arse over tit. He reached in with his right arm behind Paul and took hold of Paul’s jeans and held his waist tightly.

Paul counted, One, Two, Three ...

They swung together and at the last second Paul almost forgot to let go of the doorway, but Shaun held a firm grip on him and he landed with a jolt in the seat of the wheelchair. Paul caught a spasm immediately and almost tipped straight out, but Shaun righted him.

OK, Paul said. To the band room.

There were three guys in the band room. They looked up when Paul came in and nodded and smiled, but didn’t say anything.

Moments later Viv arrived and came over to Paul and put her arm around him and said hello.

How do you want to do this? She asked. Do you want us to call you up? Or do you want to just get up at the start of the set?

I might as well get up at the start. When are you on?

Second.

And there’s four bands?

Yeah.

Paul asked me to take his amplifier onto the stage.

Where do you want it?

Opposite side from the bass rig. Paul looked at Viv. She shrugged and turned away, as if it was a detail that did not concern her.

Andy Fitzgibbon (drums), Cumming, Martin (bass) with the Nine Slab Riders

I took the amplifier out to the stage and plugged it in. The stage lights were on. The room seemed to be about half full, judging by the noise of voices. The back half of the room was too dark to see, but there were people standing around and sitting at tables in the middle of the room and more sitting on the floor at the front near the stage. I went back to the band room to see if Paul wanted his guitar tuned. He was still talking to Viv. She looked up when I came into the room and seemed to be about to say something but then changed her mind. A guy with long blonde hair who had been standing at the other end of the room, came over and said to Viv, Let’s go. He wore a straw cowboy hat, and had a large hooked nose .

She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then nodded and stood up. He looked at Paul and nodded once.

Paul said: Fred.

I watched the first band from behind the stage. They were loud and they were the ugliest looking band I had seen. The singer was a skinny guy with a little pot belly which hung over a tight pair of jeans. He seemed to have no teeth and it was difficult to understand what he was singing. There was nothing smooth about the music, but they played with energy and the crowd got into the mood.

Before they finished I went back to the band room to see if Paul wanted a hand getting onstage. He was in the same place he had been before. There were four empty cans of Victoria Bitter on the floor near his chair.

I wheeled him through the door to the stage, down a slight incline, past the backstage storage area, and up through the curtain that provided a backdrop to the stage. The Hanks were all onstage already. I left Paul next to his amplifier and went back to get the guitar. I came back and put the guitar on his lap and plugged it into the amplifier. Paul rolled his fist at the band to tell them to start and he would join in.

The slide and me plectrum’s in the top pocket, Paul said.

I took them out of his pocket and put them on top of the guitar where he could reach them.

Can you pull my legs out?

I squatted in front of the chair with my knees against the front struts. I put my hands behind Paul’s knees and dragged them towards me so that he was sitting forward in the chair and able to lean over the guitar comfortably with his balance centred over the instrument.

The band were already playing in a standard 2/4 country time. Paul rolled the silver volume control with the rubber band tied around it, and slid unerringly into the line.

They sounded good. Viv had an authentic country voice, with the right sort of smoky edge and drawl. Paul played notes on the slide guitar that weaved around the melody, and the violinist and guitarist played chords and rhythmic chops with the bass and drums.

Fred, the bass player, stood in the middle of the stage with a scowl on his face wearing his slightly ludicrous cowboy hat. Each time a solo spot came round he would nod to the violin player or to the guitarist. Paul would look up expectantly, and then go back to playing the backing line. I could see Paul was having fun playing, because he smiled to himself every now and then when he thought he had hit something good, but it was obvious he was disappointed not to be given a solo. Music was Paul’s life and it had never been more obvious to me than now. It wasn’t just a full time occupation, it was literally his life. It could have been anything but he had chosen music. Or music had chosen him.

The band played three songs and then on the fourth song Fred nodded for Paul to take a solo.

He looked up, surprised, and then turned his guitar volume all the way up and played a beautifully atmospheric solo that suited the mood of the slow Merle Haggard song they were playing.

After the song was finished Viv said, That was Paul Cumming on slide guitar. We’d like to thank him for doing a spot with us. A big round of applause for Paul Cumming.

The crowd cheered.

I was standing near the front of the stage and I heard Paul say, Wait on, I’m just getting warmed up.

Viv leaned away from the microphone and said to Paul, That’s it.

You bastards, he said. You’re not getting rid of me that easily.

Viv nodded to the bass player who walked behind Paul and reached into the back of his amplifier and turned the power off.

Hey! You can’t do that ... He frowned down at the guitar. He put his right elbow on the top of the guitar and his fist against his forehead and closed his eyes. The band started another song.

When Paul looked up I caught his eye and he nodded at me slowly. I walked through the crowd to the front door and up the walkway to the band room and through to the back of the stage. I stopped behind the curtain for a moment and thought perhaps I should wait until the song was finished, but then I thought no and walked around the curtain and across the stage to where Paul was. I made sure not to look at any of the band members as I unplugged Paul’s guitar and propped it against the amplifier. I turned his chair around to wheel him across the stage and as I did I smelt the unmistakable smell of shit. I looked down and there was a small, sloppy pile on the stage carpet. Paul was leaning forward, with both elbows on his knees and his fists held to his face. Shit was coming out the back of his jeans and dripping onto the floor. I stepped over the first pile and pushed Paul slowly across the stage leaving dollops of shit in a line to where the ramp went out to the back room.

When we were in the band room I passed Paul a can of beer. Paul cracked open the can with his teeth and sucked the foam from the top.

Those bastards, he said. Just when I was starting to have fun. How could they do that?

I thought Viv asked you down to play the set with them?

She did, but that Fred obviously had other ideas.

What’s his story?

He’s a loudmouth, no-talent junkie. That’s his story.

In all the years I knew him that was the only time I recall Paul saying anything bad about anyone.

The rest of the band seem all right, I said.

Yeah. It was an extremely good country outfit, once. But the old bass player went back to Perth, and the old guitarist broke his neck.


W e were waiting to start the third day of Bootless and Unhorsed rehearsals at Adelphia Studios in Fitzroy. A full size pool table stood in one corner of the room together with a lounge suite and a soft drink machine. The band was set up in the opposite corner, and even with seven of us taking as much room as we needed we still only used a quarter of the floor space. The previous two days we had started later than planned, but we still did a solid day’s work. Today we were waiting for Sim, the guitarist, and Shamus, the drummer.

I wonder where that drummer is? Paul said. They’re temperamental things drummers.

Shamus arrived eventually, and Sim. The equipment was still set up from the previous day. We sat and talked for a while longer, just sitting with our instruments in our hands. Steve said he had some home brew Guinness that he wanted Stuart to try because he knew Stuart was a Guinness man.

Mmm, Stuart said. I had a few last night actually. But I don’t think I had enough, ‘cause I woke up feeling mighty thirsty.

Ian sat quietly on a stool turning a harmonica in his hand. Shamus was slouched at his kit with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. They both looked at Steve when he said Guinness.

Paul said, All right! That’s enough prattling. We’re here to do some work.

The music filled the big room. The dark blue carpet and the high roof run with oregon beams added to the atmosphere. The PA system was brand new and the sound was clear. We sat in a circle with five foldback speakers arranged concentrically before us, pointing outwards so we could hear the singing easily. Paul wanted backing vocals in most of his songs and he told Stuart, Sim, and I to set ourselves up a microphone and sing along. Paul didn’t sing because he said having no muscle control in his chest meant he couldn’t pitch his voice accurately enough.

We practiced three-part harmonies over particular lines. We would sing the line without accompaniment until we got it right. I thought my voice sounded weak on its own. I knew I could hit a note, but I had to search around hitting bad notes until I found it. When I found it I could concentrate on trying to remember it, and when the others joined in the overall effect was like creating a fourth ethereal voice. I could feel it in my chest when the harmonies were right and my voice would gain strength from connecting with the other voices.

Paul said he would turn us into a Doo-Wop group yet. You’re getting there, he said.

We learnt three more of Paul’s songs during the afternoon, including Just Can’t Get Angry With You.

Steve already knew the melody and everyone played along with the charts. It was a slow song with a powerful and dramatic tune. Ian played a haunting harmonica solo for the instrumental break, and when the song was finished no one spoke while the last E minor hung in the air and faded.

Stuart said, Wow.

Steve said, That’s a killer tune.

Paul smiled. Country meets reggae, he said. Shall we do it again?

We played the song again and it sounded even better than the first time. I strummed the chords on an acoustic guitar to the rhythm that Paul had indicated, and listened to the way the pattern fitted between the drums and the bass to create a rhythmic wave of music, a solid bed of sound with the slide guitar over the top and Steve’s voice ringing clear.


September 1992

Paul was admitted to the Austin Hospital with a critical case of septicemia in late June of 1992. The doctors said he nearly died. The Bootless and Unhorsed had done its first gig to a full house at the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda. A week later Paul was back in hospital. It seemed that while he could imagine a new role for himself as a musician, write great tunes, rehearse a great band, his body just wouldn’t allow him to realise it.

I walked along the corridor, past the nurses station. There were six beds in Paul’s room, three of them were empty. Alex, another long term patient, usually nodded a cheerful hello from the bed opposite Paul. For a second I wondered where Alex was, and why the bed was made up and the metal bedside cabinet empty. Paul lay on his right side facing the windows looking out onto the Burgundy Street hill in the steely winter afternoon. I walked around the bed so Paul could see me. His right arm was tucked up under his pillow. His eyes were closed but he opened them when he heard me.

Hi ya Hugh. He spoke slowly and his voice sounded thick, as though his mouth was full.

How are you?

Hanging in there. I’ve got a new song going, and I’m trying to make sure I remember it.

Seen any of the guys?

Stuart and Steve were in yesterday.

I brought the things you wanted, I said. Stilton, roquefort, kalamata olives, and the ingredients for a great salad dressing.

Thanks.

... Plus Magic Sam, Howlin’ Wolf, and Thelonius Monk. I put the CDs on the bedside table next to the portable player.

That cheese smells great, Paul said. So, what have you been up to?

Not much. Looking for somewhere to live at the moment.

There’s a fair sized flat at the back of my place if you’re interested. There’s no one in it at the moment. It’d be great having you live out there.

OK, thanks. I’ll have a look. Got any idea when they’re going to let you out?

Paul groaned. I’m going stir crazy here. The end of this week will be three months. I feel fine. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for early next week, but no one will tell me anything. When you ask them they just don’t answer. He paused for a moment. It was a sad day here yesterday.

What happened?

Alex died.

Alex was a few years younger than Paul but had the same level injury, C5 Incomplete, from a diving accident.

What happened?

He had a clot on his lung. Clots are a big worry when you spend a lot of time lying in bed, Paul said. He used to smoke joints out on the terrace in the afternoon. He went out there yesterday, came back, and an hour later he was dead. It could have happened any time though, that’s the scary thing. He was frowning, concentrating on a spot on the wall behind me. I don’t want to die in a hospital bed thinking of real food and a warm valve sound from a Fender Twin, he said. I want to go with my boots on. He looked out the window now. I’m not really afraid of dying so much as wasting what I could’ve had. I never realised it before the accident. I used to take so many things for granted and whinge about the rest, or drink myself silly. But now ... I just want to play.

I didn’t know what to say. After a moment I said, I’ve been practicing the bass.

Paul looked at me and raised his left arm in a bored stretch. That’s great, he said. We’ve got a tape of songs we want to do. You should take it and have a listen. The tape is in the drawer beside the bed.

I looked in the drawer and found the tape and put it in the large black portable player.

It’s hard to hear the bass line in some of these old things, Paul said. But it’s there. Willie Dixon thumping away on the biggest bass fiddle ever.

We listened past the crackles of age so we could hear the earthiness of the music and the way the players connected with each other in it. I’m glad I’ve got the Dobro, Paul said suddenly. When they let me sit up I can do some practice.

What Dobro?

The one the Transport Accident Commission paid for as part of our rehabilitation. It’s a pre-war National Steel Mark II. The real thing. In that cupboard over there. Have a look.

I took the case from the cupboard and opened it on the floor next to Paul’s bed. The body was polished steel with simple ornamental engraving on the soundboard. I picked up the guitar and felt the weight of it and the way it was so perfectly balanced in my hands. I tried playing a few notes with a slide I found the case, but the neck was square and too wide to play in the normal position. Paul explained it was for playing lap slide and the square neck sits on your knee. It was a type of guitar used most commonly in the Appalachian mountains to play the local folk or bluegrass, and occasionally by the real old style country blues players in Texas. The guitarist would sit with the instrument across his lap, or stand with it hanging in the same position like a serving tray in front of him. It’ll be good for recording and doing acoustic gigs, Paul said.

Bootless and Unhorsed unplugged on this version of the Eddie Boyd/Willie Dixon tune. Paul is playing his National Steel.

I put the guitar away and sat down again on the chair next to the bed.

It’s so bloody boring in here, Paul said. I’ve read my book, there’s crap on TV until The Simpsons come on, I can’t practice the guitar ... But y’know, I don’t feel as tired as I do on the outside. I don’t know what it is, cause it’s not the food, but I’m always tired at home. Even making a cup of tea is a strain. I guess its not having to worry about anything much.

He told me to look for a Sonny Boy Williamson tape in the bedside cabinet. There’s something I gotta play you, he said.

I found the tape and put it in the deck and passed Paul the remote control.

Chess recordings from 1957, he said. Willie Dixon and Fred Below on bass and drums, Robert Junior Lockwood on guitar, Otis Span on piano, and Sonny Boy. What a band! There’s one particular song I’m looking for, where the band’s cooking along, cause they’re recording live, and Leonard Chess stops them to ask what the song’s called. It’s bloody funny.

We listened and laughed when it happened. The song had been going for about a minute and was sounding good. Sonny Boy was not happy at the interruption. He said: Little Village, motherfucker. Small town. Call it what you like. Call it your mother. Chess said something about the difference between a small town and a little village. The band were laughing in the background. Take two was too fast. Take three was too slow. They had eight more tries at it, but it never sounded as good as the first one.

You’ve got to get it while it’s hot, Paul said. He turned the volume down with the remote control. There are some moments that click and it just goes off like a frog in a sock. These guys knew that. He raised his eyebrows towards the stereo. It’s like an addictive drug, it keeps you coming back for more.


Paul was sent home from hospital early the following week. He had lost a lot of weight and when we transferred him into the front seat of the taxi I was able to move him by myself.

The blues band rehearsed for a week in mid-September. Paul had been out of hospital less than a month. He played me countless blues songs and said, This is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to soak in these old things until they get into your skin and you know them back to front. It’s no good taking Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan as a starting point. That’s how white boys give the blues a bad name, trying to copy them. You’ve got to go all the way back to the source and then do it your own way. He played me a selection of styles from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta up to Chicago, down to Memphis and across to Texas. I’d have to say the Chicago style is my favourite, he said. I liked it all, but I said the New Orleans version with Snooks Eglin, Earl Hooker, and piano players like Professor Longhair and Champion Jack Dupree, was my favourite. Mostly I didn’t want to say the same thing as Paul.

I was living at the back of the house on Ormond Esplanade now, and we rehearsed in the flat during the afternoon in the large spare room that I wasn’t using. We sat on chairs in the bare room with the harsh afternoon light streaming through the large window. Shamus Goble played the drums. Ian Collard was there and Sim Martin also. It was Paul’s family of musicians.

I was nervous before we started. I’d listened carefully to the bass on the tapes Paul had given me and had worked out most of the variations. Where the recordings were too old to hear the bass clearly Paul had suggested a line. He was always very precise about what the bass should be doing.

Each day we played straight through making a list of the songs. After three days we had about forty songs. Paul said we would be the only blues band in Melbourne playing rhumbas. I struggled to concentrate on listening to the drums. I knew that the bass and drums had to connect as one unit but I felt I wasn’t playing where I was supposed to. Paul said, Don’t worry, you’re still playing like a guitarist.

On the third day of rehearsals Paul told us we had a gig the following week.

It’s a real blues gig, he said. The late spot at The Public Bar. From 1.00 AM till whenever. It won’t­ pay a hell of a lot, but it’ll get the band tight.


The phone rang early one morning. It was Paul.

Come into the house. I’ve got a video I want to show you.

You’re up early, I said.

Actually I’m up late. Prictor and I had a bit of a session here last night. He just collapsed.

The back door was open. Dirty laundry was piled just inside the door and the room smelt of unwashed clothes. I left the door open and stepped across the floor which was strewn with pencils and drawings of the Nativity and Mary with the baby Jesus. Paul was in front of the fireplace. On the floor around him were empty beer cans, and next to the fireplace a quarter of a bottle of Black Douglas whisky. Steve was asleep on the couch. He had a band aid on his chin and a thick bandage on his right wrist. Steve had a strangely romantic impression of himself as a character from a Damon Runyon story, or a Tom Waits song.

Poor old Steve’s been a bit unhappy of late, Paul said.

Are they his drawings in the kitchen?

Yeah. He’s doing some Christmas window display.

Bit early isn’t it?

Not for Steve. He gets keen on something and he’s just got to do it. I don’t know that he’s stopped to think when Christmas is ... Well, its only a couple of months really, isn’t it?

Paul’s eyes were a blur of bright red lines. He had a thick growth of beard and when I sat next to him I could smell the alcohol mixed with stale perspiration.

Can you pass me the remote? he asked.

He turned the television on and pressed play. You are about to see the original Elroy Flicker, he said.

The film ran for twenty minutes and was called Meet Mr Beat; written and directed by, and starring, David Cumming as Elroy Flicker. It had been made in the early sixties and shot on 16mm black and white film. The story was about a young man called Elroy Flicker who wants to be a rock and roll star. Paul said, This is where he came from; my old man.

Elroy Flicker as a character created by Paul’s father, David Cumming

There were some physical similarities, although Cumming senior lacked Paul’s height. It was intriguing to find this connection between father and son displayed in a movie where the border between fantasy and real life had become hazy. The father makes a film about wanting to be a rock and roll star, and the son lives the lifestyle, if not the ambition.

This wasn’t exactly a hit, Paul said. I think only a handful of people have ever seen it.

The main number in the film was a song called Gone Gone Gone.

Hey, I recognise this, I said.

Yep. Slightly rearranged by yours truly. It’s going to sound good with the Bootless.

When the film was finished I asked, What does he do now?

He runs a publishing company in Sydney. He’s had a few interesting jobs, my old man. He tried being a stand up comedian for a while; writing scripts for the BBC in the late sixties. He worked on the Tony Hancock show for a while. He tried being a professional drinker, and nearly succeeded at that. He had a radio show for a while … He paused. I haven’t seen him much in the last few years. He stared at the floor.

Steve groaned and shifted on the couch.

And he wrote Gone Gone Gone? I asked.

Yeah.

Any others?

Yeah. Heaps I think. Don’t know what he’s done with them.


March 1993

W e carried the amplifiers and guitars through the crowd at the Public Bar, around the pool tables, and into the back room where there was even less room to manoeuvre the bulky equipment and people turned and looked over their shoulders in annoyance. We left the equipment on the stage while Shamus set up his drums and we went to the bar where Paul was waiting and ordered beer.

Good crowd, Paul said.

But are they here to see us? Sim said.

We’ve been doing this residency for three months, Paul said. They weren’t here when we started.

And that was probably a good thing, I said.

What’s with you guys? It’s sounding good.

We nodded and said it was.

I’m just tired, I said. That’s all.

Better have a whisky then, Paul said. Better have a big one.

Paul waved to the barmaid and ordered three whiskeys. Sim said no, he wouldn’t have one, but then Ian arrived and sat on his amplifier at the bar next to Paul and said he couldn’t let it go to waste.

We sat or stood at the bar and drank the whiskey and looked around the room without speaking for a time. Both rooms had bare concrete floors with patches where old tiles had not been removed. The walls were a mix of finished plaster and exposed brick meeting in jagged lines like a coastal relief map. In the back room, where the bands played, shaded lamps mounted on the pillars gave off a weak orange-red glow that reflected in the faces of people in the middle of the room but left the corners of the room in darkness where couples sat and drunks slept on lounge chairs. It was the same each night. When the band started playing people would face towards the stage and others would wander in from the front room. Often the crowd would seem unenthusiastic, uninterested, joyless but still determined to have a good time. There was rarely any applause. Three in the morning is not the hour for polite applause. But there were noises of appreciation and the occasional shouted comment. The best indication of approval was if the crowd stayed, but there were other signs too. You could see feet tapping and knees shaking in time with the music, and faces smiling, and all eyes sober enough to focus intently drinking in the music and the smells of the room and the closeness of other bodies.

We’d better get into it, Paul said.

The Nine Slab Riders with Doug Kelly on the drums. Photo: Ross Mortimer

Ian picked up the amplifier he had been sitting on and carried it to the stage. I sat at the side of the tiny stage and tuned Paul’s guitar while Ian plugged in the amp and Sim set the level on a microphone for Paul saying, Test, one. Two, over, and then adjusting the treble or the bass control on the desk, or adding some gain or reverb until he was satisfied with the sound. Then he picked up his guitar and started playing by himself, ripping off lightning fast jazz licks with bluesy little bends and fast running chords in an impossible combination. He looked across at me and Paul and grinned and said, Just warming up.

Paul shook his head and said, That boy is dynamite.

Shamus and I lifted Paul’s wheelchair onto the stage and positioned him next to his amplifier. I sat the guitar on Paul’s lap and squatted in front of the chair and pulled his knees out so he could set his balance for the guitar. I tore a strip of gaffer tape and wound it around Paul’s right thumb and forefinger while he held out his hand, to secure the plectrum. I passed him the glass slide and went and picked up the bass guitar from where it was leaning against my amp beside the drum kit.

Paul played a slow melody, picking single notes that carried the suggestion of a whole song. Ian stepped onto the stage behind Paul and picked up a harmonica and stood, waiting. Shamus came from the bar with a stubby and sat behind his drum kit and put the stubby on the floor next to him. When Sim picked up his guitar again Paul stopped playing and looked across at me and Sim. Shamus clicked his drum sticks together four times to count the start and then he and I began playing. We used the same instrumental as an introduction each night. It had an easy swing feel from not playing the second beat of every bar. I repeated the three notes for eight bars without changing; D, C, A, and Sim joined in playing chords lightly on the same accents as the bass.

Paul began playing a line that he had developed as the head. We played around a twelve bar progression. Sim played a solo next, and then Ian, and finally Paul took one before going back to the head to end. After that we all stopped playing, except Shamus and myself. We kept the groove going while Paul said: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a night of authentic rhythm and blues, brought to you by us, just the way you like it. We’ve got a whole bunch of swinging things and real gems, and I should just say a word on behalf of our sponsors at this point. In a deeper voice he said: The band heartily recommends the use of Victoria Bitter, which you will find at the bar, and any donations in our direction will be gratefully received.

Shamus and I were still playing when Paul finished talking and he gave an arm signal like he was pulling a train whistle. We stopped, dead.

Got To Love Somebody.

Shamus counted, A one, a two ... a one, two, three, four.

When we had played this song with Steve singing and Stuart playing in the Bootless and Unhorsed it had been a cover version amongst a set of original songs and Paul had wanted to do it his own way. Now, with Paul singing, it was a shuffling old blues tune again and we played it as close to the original as possible. People standing towards the front of the stage moved to the music, swaying with their knees and their shoulders.

If you want meat, go to the market
If you want fish, go to the sea
If you want love, don’t go no further
Just come on home to me
You’ve got to love somebody
You’ve got to love somebody
You’ve got to love somebody
And somebody’s goin’ love you.

The timing of the song had caused me problems early on, but now I was relaxed and I knew where I had to be and it felt comfortable. The groove was there. Paul had been right, I did know enough and the secret was to trust your instincts, and to be the rock on which the song was built. I no longer felt tired and I looked at Shamus and the drummer was grinning and nodding that it sounded good. It did sound good. It sounded great and it felt great. For the first time I could hear the music all the way up. It was like lying at the bottom of a pool and looking up at the sun and the sky through the water; peaceful and colourful, washed in blue. I could hear all the layers of the music and the song as a whole, whereas before I had really only listened to my part and one other instrument, usually the guitar. We were a real unit and I was at the centre of the music, connected to all yet only one part of it.

We played a slow blues next and Ian played short fills, wailing and bending around the progression as an introduction, and then we brought it right down and Paul started singing. His voice sounded strong and although he couldn’t hit the high notes with the same authority of old his phrasing was as good as it had ever been. The song was called Eyesight To The Blind.

I stood at the back of the stage and closed my eyes and fixed myself in a space where each note from the bass was a slow, even footstep that the band took with me. We changed to the chorus, and Paul sang: Talk about your baby take one look at mine / When she starts loving she brings eyesight to the blind.

The room was now more crowded than when we began. I could see through the serving area into the first room where the pool tables were. People were leaning on the bar looking towards the stage, nodding and smiling. Behind them feet were tapping and other people made little stationary dancing movements holding drinks while they talked or watched the games of pool.

We started straight into I Just Want To Make Love To You. Paul didn’t say anything, he just began the line expecting the band to pick up on it. I looked at Shamus and the drummer gave a slow wait-a-minute nod and we let Paul play a few bars by himself before we joined in. When we did I played a simple, mesmeric bass line of three notes. The song could still have been Little Red Rooster or Mannish Boy, it was sometimes hard to tell until the singing started. But the bass, which matched the slide line, was the same thing repeated over and over. It was like a meditation. A simple formula of three chords swelling and moving with the internal rhythms of the musicians, repeated over and over, and you don’t have to be a technical virtuoso, you just have to love it: Body and Soul.

I felt the weight of the strings under my fingers and the way they snapped in time with the snare drum at the end of a bar, and I was in control. It was not the feeling of control I savoured so much as a certainty I had never experienced playing the guitar. It was a different thrill that came from listening to the whole of the music from the centre and being able to feel the power of that whole instead of tantalising slivers from only one part. It was as though the bass allowed me to see the complete picture of the song, whereas before I had been focusing on only one small part. I knew the colours well and how the brush strokes moved in that small part, but I had not known how they connected with the rest of the picture. It was an exhilarating revelation and I straightaway wondered if the others had experienced the same thing, and then I thought they must have and I was an idiot for thinking otherwise.

Paul nodded for the change. The room erupted. The shout was so unexpected it almost made me jump. Sim turned to me with his eyebrows raised, smiling. Everyone in the room whooped, or whistled, or yelled. It was quite spontaneous, and it was only because of the music. It was as though the change to the G chord after so long on the three note mantra broke a spell and lifted the crowd into action by the sheer force of melody. They kept cheering through the build-up in the chorus and then Paul motioned for the band to play softly and he brought the mood right down and sang the second verse.

The crowd cheered again in the second chorus, not quite as much as the first time, but enough so that I was sure the joyous looks had nothing to do with the band, except that we were performing the song well. It was the song itself that elicited the reaction and we were only channelling the music. The solos were all individual in style, but true to a sentiment. The original earthy, explosive energy was what they most wanted to capture.

At six oclock in the morning we sat drinking the last of the rider as the old cleaner swept the garbage on the floor with a wide broom. The five of us sat in a group in the middle of the room with amplifiers and guitar cases next to us and Shamus’s drums still set up on the stage.

That sounded pretty bloody authentic, Paul said.

Shamus was asleep on a straight backed chair with his arms folded and his head forward on his chest.

Ian and Sim nodded. Sim said, Yeah, we got ‘em tonight. They loved it. He stood up from his chair and went and picked up his guitar case. I’m going. I’m completely buggered. I’ll see you all next time. He picked up his Fender Twin by the strap on the top of the amplifier and carried both guitar and amplifier awkwardly towards the door. A couple of stools had been placed across the doorway to bar the back room from any drunks still playing pool in the front bar who might choose to wander in.

We called out goodbye to him and heard a muffled reply before he disappeared through the door. Shamus’s head rolled on his chest, but he didn’t wake up.

Paul leaned forward in his chair and sighed and said, Yep, it’s a mighty fine blues band now. He took a sip from his whisky and finished it, still leaning forward, with his head tipped back and to the side so the ice fell against his mouth. He lowered the glass to his feet and let it drop the few inches to the floor where it fell on its side and the ice spilled out.

It felt great tonight, I said. I reckon playing bass in this band, when it’s all cooking, is like being an umpire in a first class game of cricket. I hadn’t realised how drunk I’d become.

You’re out in the middle with the best view of the game, and there’s all this great batting and bowling going on.

Um, yeah, I think I know what you mean, Paul said. It’s like something I was reading about Charlie Watts, where he was talking about bass players he had played with. He reckoned with really good bass players it was hard to find one who was a good band player because they’re all too worried about being that good. I’m not into the cricket thing so much, he said. But Charlie’d get it though.

And there it was. I definitely wasn’t the best bass player. But I really did know how to be a good band player, and I had Paul to thank for that.

By the way, I think we’ll want you to play bass in the Bootless and Unhorsed now, he said. Stuart just has too much on.

Right, sure. I’ll give that a go, I said. What about the second guitar?

I’m thinking of asking Dan Kerr from Checkerboard Lounge. He’s keen.

Great.

Ian appeared not to have been listening and was staring over at the bar where the bar staff and a couple of the bouncers were leaning tiredly against the inside of the bar with drinks in their hands.

Are you right to get home? I asked Paul.

There’s a taxi coming at seven, he said.

I took the bass amplifier out to the street and came back for the guitar. I said goodbye and Ian stood up and said he was going too.

Paul looked at both of us and said, See ya later then. Shamus still did not wake up.

Outside the Vietnamese man who ran the hot dog stand was packing up for the night. Stallholders were setting up at the Victoria Market across the road.

On the way home I smelt the hot, dusty smell from the valves in the amp and hummed snatches from songs we had played, and tried not to think how hungry I was.

Paul Cumming died on August 9, 2017. A collection of his recordings is available here.