Sunday, January 15, 2012

La Macarena ... whoooAH!

There is probably some fancy name for it; when a certain tune always reminds you of a certain other tune.  Every time I hear or hear of the now-legendary dance-pop abomination Macarena (Los del  Rio, 1994) I am reminded instantly of a certain, extravagantly wrought arrangement of a piece of J S Bach -  St. John's Passion, BWV 245 No.1 arr. H Courson.  I'll play it for you later.  But I'm also happily transported to two completely different places simultaneously, at other ends of the earth

I like to oscillate between these two memories only really linked by a single word association in my head.  They're both such happy memories.

Once upon a time I was a member of a still little-known organisation called SERVAS.  It's an Esperanto word meaning 'serve' as in 'to serve' and it was founded as a peace organisation in the late 1940's.  Basically, it's a word-of-mouth 'open door' network linking international travelers with a peace-minded agenda. It was explained to me that the idea back when it was founded was that if everyone had friends in other countries then they wouldn't let their governments bomb them. The idea is you open your home to Servas travellers from around the world - two nights only, unless you invite them for longer, no money is allowed to change hands, and the guest contributes to their stay somehow - and you get to stay in people's homes around the world when you travel.  It's not been shifted over from the old yearly-book-of-phone-numbers type production to the internet so it's still small.  And you have to meet, know, and be OK'd by someone in the organisation.  I came to it through a girlfriend's lefty academic mother.  It was ace, and boy did we meet some interesting folks!

Many years after joining I found myself in Sevilla, having travelled nearly 3 months now with my friends Tim, Beatriz and Anna, and having had I think only 3 or 4 days of respite in all from being a part of their family unit.  Requiring a break.  We'd been sticking together for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was for Tim's and my music partnership, and Servas is really a singles or couples-type arrangement so we'd been staying with friends, renting apartments or doing nights in hostels, hotels and the like.  (Although Tim and I did break out for a night and stayed with a very cool couple in West Hollywood). But I needed a break and was low on funds and there were a couple of people in Sevilla in the Servas Spain book.  The deal is, you need to ring a couple of days ahead at least and ask if it's convenient.  As a host you're supposed to be accommodating wherever possible.  One fellow was home, and happy enough for me to stay with him a night or so in his flat in La Macarena.

La Macarena is one of the neighbourhoods of Sevilla, around the old Almohad-dynasty city wall in the north of the city.  The boundaries are not precise, but the area has long been known by this name.  The most prominent landmark apart from the wall in the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza Macarena, (Our Lady Of Hope Macarena) in which resides a very famous statue of said Lady.  She's usually just called Macarena, and as a result this is a fairly popular Spanish girl's name.  It is the name of the girl in the Los del Rio song.  But my guy told me that the area got its name from the remnant wall, the oldest section of the original Moorish-era city wall which the Almohad-dynasty conquerors had called something sounding a lot like 'macarena'.  The locals call it la Macarena now anyway.  We could see it from his little balcony.  I wish I could remember his name now.  Started with an E.  

Anyway, he was also a musician but more than this, he was an amateur builder of harpsichords and showed me his current nearly-finished project.  His English was better than my Spanish, and we managed a good conversation into the late afternoon of my arrival, during which we'd chatted a lot about music in general.  Suddenly, he wheeled up from his perch at the harpsichord and following some mercurial inner impulse dived for the CD player and just said "you HAVE to hear this."

It had happened before and it has happened since that a piece of music totally floors me.  But on those rare occasions I am perhaps the most grateful to be alive that I ever feel.  I'm sure his name starts with an E.

I asked him to put it on again, and in silence once more we listened as this majestic rendition of one of Bach's greater moments filled the space at our backs; us sitting looking out over the palm-lined avenue along La Macarena as the lowering late-winter sun slanted under the day's clouds, rendering every line and edge sharp for the first time in a day of soft-focus drizzle, sparkling drops caught on leaves and the tiny rivulets running down the ancient rock walls alive with clear light.  Ernesto!  His name was Ernesto, and this was a great moment shared.  I wrote down the album name, and on returning to Perth I went to a specialist record store, ordering it especially from overseas.  

It was a perfect moment of being alive right then.  Nearing the end of my overseas jaunt, a little sad it was ending but looking forward to the comforts of home now.  Brand-new flamenco guitar made in the very heart of flamenco country, right there in Sevilla, to take home; a night away from the worn-in habits of being a touring family with child, glass of jerez in hand, and being astounded at this masterful reworking of the work of a master, looking out at the works of masters hence.  Free, full, all the planets lined up nicely.  It also introduced me to the life and works of Albert Schweitzer, whom I have come to admire in many ways, this album being an homage to his work in Gabon in the early 20th Century and his love of Bach.

Once upon another time, I was the main barman and maitre'd at the incredible Greenhills Inn; at that time right at the peak of its glory.  York is a small and very 'historic' little touristy hamlet we once lived in, not far from where we live now as it happens, an hour or so inland (East) from Perth.  Population maybe 2000.  If you head out further East, towards Quairading, about 20 minutes more and a deviation down a back road will take you to historic Greenhills, population 9 (at that time).  We lived there too, and loved it.  Once Greenhills was bigger than york, an enormous sprawling townsite with multiple drinking houses etc, the end of the railway that led to the Goldfields back when the rush was on. Then they put the main rail line through Northam.  And the gold rush faded and all the small claims were gradually subsumed by big companies.  The town began its decline.  It eventually became somewhat of a ghost town, and was used in the early 1970s as a film set.  This resulted in its becoming known more widely and soon a bunch of hippie squatters were occupying empty houses.  York is a socially conservative town, very white.  The first inland town of WA, and many bad things were done to the Indigenous locals to 'own' it.  A little of this mentality stayed on and showed itself in the decision to eradicate the 'undesirables' from the area by bulldozing every building not currently legally occupied sometime in the late 1970s.

When we lived in Greenhills, there were in the townsite 7 houses, the wheat silos, and the pub.

The pub had enjoyed a varied career, built in Greenhills' heyday with massive 14ft ceilings, ornate plaster mouldings and all those turn-of-the-century trimmings, and it had only a couple of years before been bought by a couple moved up from Perth.  John and Ashley were a self-consciously stereotypical flamboyant older guy/younger guy committed couple, having been together 20 years now and having made their money through John's elite hairdressing skills (he still did cuts one day a week in Perth for his exclusive coterie of "old Jewish ladies", and cut my hair - sometimes forcibly - as well), Ashley's former job as head of catering at Parliament House and via a succession of exquisitely tasteful renovations of Federation-era houses in the inner suburbs of Perth, during a decade when such real estate just kept going up and up.  Why did they buy it?  A dream.  A fantasy.  A vision.  It was also partly ruled by the whims and diktats of our own version of a dowager empress, Shirl; 80 in the shade and chain-smoking, her exact relationship to the boys was unclear but it seems she was some sort of foster-mother figure to a younger Ashley, who once had done it very tough as a boy on the streets. They made the place absolutely shine.

When we first moved to York and I entered the hospitality scene there, Greenhiils Inn was an established and busy wedding and function venue, and as a pub already notorious both for its weekend visitors from the city - and its debauchery.

During the week, I'd open the bar for about 4 hours a day only, from 3 until 7, and there would be before me over the long, long countertop a small collection of up to half a dozen farmers.  One must open for a minimum number of hours a day to maintain a hotel licence or else some days we wouldn't have bothered.  I would be dressed impeccably in black-and-whites, complete with black waistcoat (green pinstripes for the 'green' in Greenhills) and black tie.  Yes, for dusty old Greg Boyle from Mawson, who drove 40 kilometres to go to his local for a beer or 4.  Every day.  Even though he could've gone only 30 in a different direction, he liked it here.  I got to know by sound all the local farmer's utes as they came across the bridge or the railway tracks.  Some I saw most days, some once or twice a week.  Around and behind my farmers was a collection of Marilyn Monroe art and photography - Ashley was an utter Marilyn tragic.  And of course, the juke box.

During the daytime, we'd often have lunches.  I would start early then and with 2 or 3 other wait staff we'd serve a couple of bus-loads of usually senior citizens first a morning tea, then they'd go off on a scenic drive around with John doing his hilarious camp banter as travel guide, then back for a slap-up lunch of old-person food (roast and vegetables) done as with everything else impeccably well.  We would serve them preferably in the main dining room (we had to use the tacked-on more modern function room if there were too many), vivid deep green velveteen walls with enormous antique sideboards crammed with Royal memorabilia, especially of HRH QEII, the Queen Mother, and Diana.  John was the Royal tragic  We would serve tea not just in teapots using real leaf tea, but in a collection of novelty historic-house-shaped teapots that John had collected over the years.  Then the folks would as if by magic disappear. The silence afterwards was beautiful.  You might hear a cow.  Nothing at all bar washing up would happen until we opened again later at 3.

Upstairs were nine bedrooms, all decked out in gorgeous antique furniture and  which each opened on to the massive enclosing verandah through French doors.  No ensuites - that much was retained of the original pub arrangement, and of course there were massive cast iron claw-foot baths in the oh-so-tasteful period bathrooms.  We'd have a wedding or large function once or twice a week, with the twice-yearly Ladies' Nights when we'd get Collar And Cuffs or other male stripper troupes up would pack 300-plus country ladies in to the function venue to be served by an all-male staff.  We'd have to rope in some of the regular barflies to help.

But the Friday and Saturday nights were the thing.  

Juxtaposition, that was what made Greenhills the magic place it was at that time.  Two overtly camp gays in a beautifully-restored Federation-era pub with Marilyn Monroe, the Queen, brilliantly presented fine food but in massive country-sized servings.  In supposedly conservative homophobic backwards rural Western Australia.  A lush oasis of roses and fountains and a spa surrounding the massive but airy elegant pub; just across the road from the enormous concrete grain silos, and sitting in the middle of a sheep paddock in country lucky to see 600mm of rain in a good year, and then all in 3 cold months.   But it was the special mix of weekend clientele that made it hum.

York then was a weekender mecca; it used to have a Jazz Festival and a well-promoted country horse racing calendar, which kept it on the mental map of well-to-do Perthites and on the radar of tourist operators interstate as well.  Many old historic buildings, B&Bs, restaurants etc.  Lots of older smallholdings close to town promising an early-retirement haven in the bucolic countryside of the deceptively green, narrow confines of the Avon Valley; close enough to Perth's big-city facilities for comfort.  This was the dream of York, and Greenhills sought to cash in on the visitors bigtime.  Fine dining with John and Ashley's flair was the foundation and one reason I was such a good fit - I played the charming consummate professional, the unflappable maitre'd type who could be urbane and sophisticated and discuss the nuances of fine wine selection with the city cognoscenti, and equally be at one and ease with the farming types and rural college students that would blow through.  York was full of boutique accommodation options and their cashed-up middle-aged guests would drive or be bussed out to us for dinner in the dining room.  Exquisitely curated wine list, note-perfect service and food by a chef whose first desire was to own a McDonald's but who had an innate talent for fusing old-school Australian dining traditions with the new, in a way that was at once exciting and comforting.  We had to have special large plates to accommodate the enormous rib-eye steaks (with rib) from the grass-fed specially-bred cows down the road.  The city folks just adored the countryness of the whole thing, presented in an elegant, up-market, old-fashioned-service kind of way. And locals would come too for special nights out.  We won awards, Australian awards too, not just local tourism stuff.  So we'd have a single sitting of no more than 60 people for dinner, all the while sending out party snacks to the front bar where the locals were warming up.  The Marilyn bar was long and narrow; just the bar and bar stools, with a single row of tables against the back wall.  As our diners (including our upstairs guests, soooo glad they got a reservation considering how tightly booked we always were) finished dessert, they wandered out the front to ... experience it.

Dallas came in around 5 or 6 o'clock, to look after the bar solo for a bit as I increasingly spent time with the dining guests flogging the wine into them.  Dallas was not a barman (at first), being by trade an architect but he came with the perfect personality.  He was a good few years older than me and carried himself as if he'd been a born bar entertainer.  We'd play off each other, play good guy/bad guy and switch roles.  He'd play up to the women (any woman at all) being that dapper small-moustache sort of guy with a touch of camp to his demeanour but unmistakably hetero - a dandy.  Hyper, friendly, conspiratorial, classic version of the bartender that drinks and only gets happier, never drunk.  Actually, Dallas couldn't get drunk, but he could recite Jabberwocky in its entirety, in any state, at any time.  Our game was to a) sell as much booze as was humanly possible, b) ensure the party remained in full swing as long as legally feasible and c) see a).  We'd do all the usual bar tricks, push rounds of shooters, he'd pretend to snort flaming lines of booze I'd fling out across the bar, and so on.  All to the juke box, of which Dallas was king, holding the remote.  Thus if any patron racked up a song not to the moment's liking, he could skip it.

I am unsure when the bar dancing started, but it was just before my time (I think Dallas, who started a little while before me, probably started it).  What would happen is simply this - at some point, one of several likely tunes would come on the juke box and a critical mass of ethanol intoxication and the joy of the mixed bag of dusty farmers whooping it up, likely young local lads and lasses home for the weekend or up from the Ag College and the astonished and trying-to-be-cool-and-'local' city visitors would be reached.  Dallas and I would share a lightning glance with each other and two or three key regulars, and in a flash the bar mats were whisked of the long reinforced stainless-steel bar, patron's drinks were firmly pressed by Dallas and I into their hands OFF the bar and Dallas would leap up on to the bar dragging one or several lady visitors up there with him, to dance ...

 ...usually The Macarena.  That year it was big, up there with Mambo Number Five and other chart dance hits and guaranteed to get our crowd going.  Within the first verse the bar would be packed with allsorts, all 'doing the Macarena'; that ritual set of dance steps that everyone knew that year.    

Except for me.  I was backstop for teetering types, keeping the dance floor clear of drinks and selling, selling, selling.  Plus, my schtick was the Straight Guy with the Sardonic Mouth - everyone's special friend, but not a creature of the Crowd.  Ashley would by now be into his second bottle of white wine and my other job was to stop him giving away the profits in his general love for all mankind.  John would appear occasionally and remove large wads of cash from the till, and maybe nod in approval if things were going especially well.  Not sure if you're aware of this but in many parts of especially rural Australia people like to take their clothes off in such situations - especially the men.  I'd make a nice little pile for redistribution later.  It was the most fun I ever had behind the bar, those days lasted a year or so.  From then on the dancing would ebb and flow in bursts as the night wore long.

Meeta could hear it from our house a mile away, and would know from the last song heard on the juke box when I would finally finish cleaning up and make it home.  There are of course legalities about closing times, but we had let's say a flexible working arrangement with the locals and the law.

It was like an urban underground legend in a certain stratum of mid-1990s Perth society, the dancing on the bar at Greenhills Inn, the five-star dining, the outrageous couple you just HAD to know, and the quirky and friendly locals.  Dallas thinks that the movie Coyote Ugly copied from us - with the dancing on the bar at any rate.

This of course is that other place, a whole world away from that halcyon late afternoon in Sevilla a year or so before watching the sun play on the ramparts of the ancient city walls, listening to passionate sublimity as opposed to passionate frivolity.

It's why The Macarena does not drive me to musical despair - because it comes with an instant musical antidote in my mental architecture, and the dissociative feeling you get from 'being' in two places at once.   Both Golden Moments.

So what happened?  The Macarena (the wall) is still standing, mute testament to the enduring aspirations of long-ago conquerors, and I suppose Ernesto is doing something cool with harpsichords.  I still listen to that version of BWV 245 every now and then, when it seems a moment needs marking; a launch of something, a beginning.  It's a perfect prelude to something significant.

The special brew that made Greenhills Inn's salad days could not last, of course.  It was John, as it happened, that was the catalyst of the decline.  He fell seriously ill, and they had to sell. Despite attempts at keeping the business busy and vital it has changed hands a number of times.  It is for sale again now.  Meeta and I had to move on for other reasons; the lure of better money and city jobs called and we answered - or that's what we thought we were doing at the time.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Here's that track:  I saved it until last because I really want you not to listen to it with crappy computer speakers.  I implore you please, please to rip it or copy it or set it up on a good stereo or headphones and immerse yourself in it at a rather loud volume.  Just a little bit louder than you think it should be.  It's from the album Lambarena: Back to Africa.  Enjoy.

04 Track 4.m4a

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