Australia journal - June 1999

Heron Island, day 1

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The fierce wind slammed salt water into everything we were carrying and everything we were wearing during the 200-yard dash from the boat to the reception area.  I had my backpack and a cardboard box holding my AC power converter; the latter was totally soaked, and starting to disintegrate in my arms.  My sorta-waterproof nylon jacket was totally soaked, and so were my jeans and shoes.  This was not at all what we were expecting.

Various resort employees mentioned that this was the worst weather here in 20 years, but everyone expressed optimism that it would blow through in a day or two.  We were booked in until Friday, so we were hoping we'd be snorkeling and reef-walking by Wednesday.  But Monday was a total loss from an out-in-nature standpoint.  We checked into our room, which had many comfortable features and ample light but no heating system, so in the late afternoon we bundled up in our sweaters and stretched out on the bed to read and write, lamenting the fact that we had oh-so-wisely left our cool-weather clothes back at the Marriott in Brisbane.  "We're going to the tropics!" we had said to each other.  "Even if it's raining there, it'll be nice and warm."

It didn't turn out that way.

We enjoyed a generous and tasty lunch in the restaurant, making conversation with some of our fellow arrivals.  There ain't much to do here when the weather is bad, but everyone seemed to have a good sense of humor about the situation.  I was happy I had a big fat biography of Thomas Edison to read and several days' worth of journal writing to catch up on.

Optimistically, we attended the snorkel indoctrination slide show, which whetted our appetites for the adventures that awaited us when the violent weather lifted.

We made our way through the Pandanus Lounge on our way to the dining hall, and I saw the little stage where Matt Zarb was scheduled to perform several nights this week.  I noted the well-worn acoustic guitar case and hoped I could make friends with this guy and borrow his instrument once or twice during our stay.  That nylon-string guitar I borrowed from Andrew's mother in Brisbane wasn't much fun to play, and there was a lot to do every day in Brisbane, too.  Here at Heron Island, during the worst weather in recent memory, I would have a lot more time to do creative stuff indoors.  Plus I hadn't played a proper guitar in more than a fortnight.

During dinner I went across the room to the larger coffee and tea station to see if there was a caffeine-free tea of some sort for Rita.  I got into a conversation with a friendly Australian fellow in his mid-30s with a shaved head.  He mentioned that he'd been here for two weeks and would be here for another; that didn't sound like vacation, and he didn't look like a midddle-class Aussie on holiday - so playing a hunch, I asked him if he was the musician who was playing in the lounge this week.

Indeed he was, and when I told him I was a semi-professional musician from the US he was very happy to make my acquaintance.  He's a big fan of Tony Rice and Chet Atkins, and I had seen a couple of familiar titles in his fake book, which was open on the stage when I stopped by for a peek.  I admitted I was hoping to persuade the owner of that acoustic guitar to let me play it a bit, and he said, "I have two - let's play together!"

As Rita and I were chatting with the couple at the next table - a husband and wife from Melbourne who had come up to the tropics to escape their far-south winter ha-ha - Matt joined us and we started the big musical mind-meld.  He explained that he had been a guitarist in other people's bands for many years, played a lot of very large gigs in that context, but had recently decided to set out on his own, to play acoustic guitar without sequencers and other electronic aids.  "I've got a homemade stomp box and that's it," he said.

"What does it do?"  I asked, assuming it was some sort of signal processor.  But Matt meant "stomp box" literally: it was a percussion device, a wooden box with a microphone in it and a compressor in the preamp, which he literally stomps on to create a kick-drum effect.  That and his acoustic guitar and harmonica are all he uses on stage.  He was thrilled when I told him I perform only with an acoustic guitar.  "People who have to stop between songs to start a sequencer just take the life out of music," he asserted.

Matt told me he was working this gig to help prepare for recording his first solo CD.  "My manager asked me why I wanted to come to Heron Island and play for Americans," he said.  "It's because Americans appreciate a good song.  They like the stuff I'm playing."  He likes having people recognize a James Taylor song or a Paul Simon song.

Eventually we adjourned to the Pandanus Lounge.  There was a trivia contest going on at the other end of the room from the stage, so Matt got both his guitars out and we sat on stools and traded tunes for a while.  We shared an interest in '70s singer-songwriter and country-rock type stuff - Eagles, Bob Dylan - and he was just thrilled when I started playing "Up on Cripple Creek, grabbing his harmonica and blowing some decent solos.  He played "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," and I picked some lead guitar along with him; he harmonized while I sang "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Peaceful Easy Feeling," and I harmonized with him on "Four Strong Winds."  There were a few people within earshot of our session, and they offered quite a bit of encouragement.

We must have played for an hour or so, including swapping a couple of originals.  Finally, when Rita couldn't keep her eyes open any longer, we called it a night.  Matt promised to put new strings on both his guitars and we agreed to get together the next day to work up some stuff for Tuesday night.

He also told me the terms of his employment here: passage, room and board, and $1200 per week.  He seemed to think it was eminently possible for me to get a booking there, and of course Rita and I thought that was a splendid idea!  We'll definitely pursue that particular fantasy, we decided.

The weather was still pretty nasty when we left the bar, but there was a bit of moon showing through, which we thought promising.  On the other hand, it was still windy and wet.  These lightweight, quick-drying travel jeans may never dry, I thought to myself when we got back to the room.

A few minutes after 11:00 (and remember, we set our watches forward an hour on the way here), we got into bed and started talking about our day.  We had gotten up at 6:30 at the Marriott in Brisbane; had breakfast in the Executive Lounge; checked out after arranging to leave much of our luggage here until our return on Friday; taken another highly amusing taxi ride; and then boarded a small, propellor-driven airplane for a fairly bumpy ride up the coast - an experience dwarfed in bumpiness by the bumpy boat ride and monsoon-soaking that followed.  What a long, drained trip it's been.

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