We assemble at Brisbane International Airport at 6am. Our friend Dave Kettley, from the New Christs, has emailed advice about flying on China Southern Airlines. The New Christs are hardy veterans of the European touring circuit. “Spread the load and definitely all go to the counter as a large group,” he writes. “Is your manager coming from Oz with you? The Staph?”
That’s me. The Golden Staph. Thanks, Dave.
“Make use of the extra person,” Dave’s email continues. “Pack as light as you can. Put your pedals in your bag but your leads in your case – they’re considered a strangling weapon and will be confiscated.”
We’re all at the counter, but my carry-on luggage is full of strangling equipment: computer cords, phone chargers and the like. Who knows what or whom I’ll need them for? I put the computer cords in my case, but forget about the others.
Thankfully, it doesn’t matter. Kelly, our customer assistant at the China Southern desk, doesn’t seem to like her job much but she’s incredibly cool. She checks our passports and her hand’s like a magic wand as she waves through everyone’s gear, probably saving the band a few hundred dollars in extra weight.
“It takes a disgruntled employee to do you a favour,” Tamara observes.
Rhonda, Stacey’s extremely lovely and supportive mother, has arrived to see us off. She and Stackers head for the currency exchange. They return with several hundred Euro and hand the wad of cash to me. I’m officially the keeper of the cash as well as the flame.
It’s about now that Gregor, HITS’ drummer, realises he’s stepped in dog shit – probably his own dog’s – and is walking it through the airport lobby. There’s a merino wool display there: a bronzed Aussie, bending to shear a sheep, surrounded by a large pile of wool. Gregor pauses to wipe his foot on the display. Well, there’s no grass around, I guess.
He goes to the newsagent, and emerges with a fishing magazine.
“The only slut I wanna bag is a Queenfish,” he says.He heads for the bar for the first beer of the day. It’s about 8am. I hit the duty free shop to buy a camcorder. Everyone else in the band has iPhones or Androids, but my phone is a piece of junk and I need something decent to record on myself. I buy a cheap-ish camcorder and, feeling daring, pick up a small flask of Chivas Regal: 200ml. I don’t drink much at the best of times.
We head for the lounge. I start fossicking nervously in my carry-on bag. It’s got so many pockets I feel like Howard Moon, from The Mighty Boosh. Howard Moon in a band full of Vince Noir’s.
I announce I have some Diazepam, handy for the two long flights ahead of us.
“Way ahead of you as usual, Andrew,” Richie says. Everyone already has Diazepam or Valium at the ready. My first attempt at procuring drugs for a band fizzles like flat beer. Gregor, by this time, is onto his third. We still have an hour before boarding.
We eventually file on. We’re spread out across the one row, me in a window seat, next to Gregor. He has another beer at the first pass of the drinks trolley, then another, and when it’s time for a meal he orders two more. The hostess politely tells him he can’t have any more, but she seems to forget that later.
I pull out Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Stackers has a copy of New Scientist and a tome on the history of women in rock & roll. Gregor has Modern Fishing and a dog-eared book on America’s war on drugs. The others settle in for the in-flight movie, A Dolphin’s Tale. Richie loves it and declares it among the best films he’s seen. He’d be a marine biologist if he weren’t a born rock & roll singer.
Gregor came to Australia from the North Island of New Zealand when he was about 20. He grew up in Dannevirk, birthplace of Queensland’s former premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and worked in a local abattoir there after finishing school. He’d started with the grim business of helping herd animals to their execution and graduated to making bacon out of the pigs. There weren’t a lot of employment opportunities in Dannevirk, so he split for Brisbane, where he works as a contractor for a phone provider.
His twin passions are fishing and his beloved bull terrier dogs. Three are tattooed on his torso, from chest to waist. These are the dogs to have passed through Gregor’s life – two have died, while the other was lost in a relationship breakup – while he is now the proud owner of a new boy he calls Lemmy McFlea.
He’s a sweet-faced, cherubic soul, but barrel-chested, with biceps like ham hocks. The best thing about Gregor is he genuinely doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks of him. I’ve rarely encountered someone so comfortable in his own skin. He walks through the world in what looks like a perpetual state of bemusement that not everyone is as free as he is. Tamara regards this attitude with wonder: “Science wants to know what’s up with that.”
I look down at his hands. They’re as gnarled and calloused as a woodcutter’s. He plays drums like a woodcutter, too: at the end of a HITS gig it’s a wonder there’s a kit left on stage at all after Gregor’s all but reduced it to firewood. Off stage, though, he’s as gentle as a lamb.
“Do you do anything to protect your hands before you play?” I ask.
“Nothing much. Getting pissed is the main warm-up procedure,” he says cheerfully. “It’s a fine line, though, between getting maggot and being too fucked up to play. I’d rather walk off stage and think, I nailed that, than let myself and the rest of the band down.”
There’s a pause. I confess to him I don’t really feel prepared for this journey. I barely know where we’re going. I haven’t even opened my French phrasebook. I’m just hoping to take it as it comes, basically, which is how the band mostly seems to get by anyway.
“Yeah, like a dog in a wheelie bin mate,” Gregor says. “Nose down, legs in the air, get into it!”
The hostess is back, carrying a tray of warm disposable towels, perfectly rolled like cigars.
“What sort of spring roll is this?” he asks. I think he’s kidding, but then he bites into it, before recoiling. “That’s no spring roll!” We all dissolve in laughter. I’m not sure if he’s just winding us up now.
TOWARDS the end of the flight I’ve polished off the flask of Chivas Regal. I show it to the band. They are impressed, except for Richie. “It’s only a baby bottle,” he snorts. He’s right: effectively, I’ve sunk a little less than seven standard drinks in 10 hours.
“You realise people on our Facebook page are saying we have to get you munted,” Stackers tells me.
“You gotta have mushrooms,” Richie adds.
“No. No way. I’m not having mushrooms.” Hallucinogens are so not my scene.
“Are you gonna shag a hooker?” Richie asks.
“No. I am actually seriously in love with my fiancee.”
“Hey, I have trouble even getting stoned,” I say, switching the subject back to the topic at hand. “I’m looking forward to Amsterdam. If I don’t get stoned there I’m never going to manage it.”
“Maybe you could eat a really strong hash cookie,” Stackers offers helpfully.
“Maybe we can spike his drink,” Richie says.
“We arrive at quarter to seven in the morning,” Tamara says. “We can’t even check in for hours. I say we get fucked up.”
“I’m gonna get off my head and go visit windmills and shit,” declares Andy B.
We’re on the descent now. China Southern treats us to an in-flight video of stretching exercises, badly translated into English. The exercises promise to banish our wind and align our meridians, or something. The entire band (except Gregor) being rotating their wrists, rolling their shoulders and craning their necks in unison. Two hundred and fifty passengers join in. New age music fills the cabin.
Finally the plane touches down at Guangzhou. A few Chinese passengers break into applause. It’s been a beautiful flight, distinctly lacking in turbulence.
Richie stares out the window. “It reminds me of that airport in Geelong,” he says.
“What, Avalon? Why?”
“Oh, I dunno. Just the grass.”
GUANGZHOU airport (Baiyun) is horrible. We’re waved off the plane and herded into a severely overcrowded bus which takes us to another terminal. Stackers realises she’s left her jacket on the plane. No one at the airport is keen on getting it back to her. There’s no reliable WiFi and the air conditioning is on the blink. Airport staff terrorise the unwary zipping around on what look like dune buggies, at speeds well over whatever the limit is for dune buggies at airports.
Gregor makes the most of this situation by catching a joyride on one of the buggies after giving the driver a couple of Australian dollars. Other than that, the only excitement for the next six hours arrives in the shape of an almighty kerfuffle outside what was to be our gate. A woman is apparently refusing to disembark from her flight. I can’t say I blame her. (“Nooooo! I don’t wanna go in there!”) A crowd of people anxious to board their own flight start yelling and banging on the gate doors.
A harried-looking customer service lady appears and is immediately besieged by less than gruntled passengers, many of whom start filming the scene on mobile phones and iPads. Eventually the woman is all but frog-marched off the plane. She’s a large-ish African lady and she’s not happy. But instead of getting her the fuck out of there, they just turn her loose in the crowd, which isn’t exactly a great idea because she’s in a mood to take them all on, lashing out in all directions. Eventually police are forced to step in and escort her away.
The show over, we collapse in an exhausted, sweaty heap. I’ve never been so glad to get on the next plane in my life.