OPENING THE CAN
We’ll we’re goin’ to
Two girls for every boy.”
JON: My mother had a saying, a real “pearl of wisdom”, which she laid on me once and I’ve never forgotten it. The note she left me on my pillow this night, I now have in the frame behind her picture. It had been a particularly bad day. The R’Jays, with Sandy Davis at the helm, had just been unfairly sacked from some pub that I don’t even remember now. The point was that, to me at the time, it was just about the end of the world, as we know it. Financially I was in a mess, the arthritis was getting worse and to top it all off, now we had been sacked! I found the note that mum left me on my pillow when I came home from the last night at this joint, pissed as a newt and feeling almost suicidal. The last words of mum’s notes were: “Never mind, darling. When one door closes, another door opens.” The “opening door” was none other than the door to The Canopus Room. This was the lounge of the Manly Pacific Hotel, affectionately to become known by all the Manly-ites as “THE CAN”. Sandy Davis, who was a local boy, scored us an audition with the manager, a semi-rotund, jovial and very smart Mike Devery. Mike was also quite high up in the Millers’ Hotel chain, which meant that he didn’t have to employ every band that entertainment co-ordinator, Johnny Wade, doled out to him. He was holding his own audition.
We arrived on a Monday afternoon in June
1963, in our new royal blue Thai silk coats, new tight black pants and
under-the-collar bow ties and a bag full of songs guaranteed to please the most
fastidious of hotel managers. During our stint at the Bondi Royal Hotel our
harmony singing was getting really good and we started to learn all the new
music that was on the charts at the time, Surf City, Little Deuce
Coupe and a bunch of other Beach Boys and Jan and Dean songs. Also, at that
time there were two versions of the Lennon and McCartney song From Me To You
being played on the radio, one by Del Shannon, whom we all knew and one by
a group called THE BEATLES, rumoured to be the “hottest new thing
We were sure which version we liked. The Beatles had a sound and an image that, given the chance, we could identify with: a band, without a lead singer, singing harmonies, two guitars, bass, drums and the occasional harmonica or ‘blues harp’, which Mike Lawler could play quite adequately one-handed while slapping the notes on the fingerboard of his bass with the other. Such an instrument is heard in the opening bars of From Me To You. This song was in our audition repertoire along with some schmaltzy, middle-of-the-road songs and some jazz to appease the more decrepit publicans.
Mike Devery sat quietly and, without saying a word, listened to almost our entire repertoire until we played our first jazz tune, “You don’t have to play that shit. Just play the music you like. I’ve had a jazz band in here for the last two months and I’m getting nine people in the lounge on a Saturday Night! Can you guys start on Thursday night?” We could have said, “Wait till we check our book,” but as we didn’t have one we said “ YES” right away! I couldn’t believe my ears. After virtually a year of playing barn-dances, jazz waltzes, Pride of Erin’s, gypsy taps, polkas, Latin American and assorted dago music, Maori songs and general commercial crap, this man was telling us to play ROCK’N’ROLL!! This is all that the “Surf Sound” of that day was - just rock’n’roll revamped.
We started Thursday night and by the end of the gig we had about fifty people. Friday night saw more than a hundred Manly-ites after the good word had got around. On Saturday night they closed the doors at with a full house of “surfies”, “gremmies”, “waxheads” and general ragers shaking the shit out of the dance floor with the latest dance craze - THE STOMP. The R’Jays were a success! And so was Mike Devery.
The Can decor-wise was very tasteful compared to some of the other monstrosities in the Millers’ chain. There were oak-panelled walls, ships’ barometers, compasses, etc. Large paintings of ships and a general nautical theme blended in beautifully with the stately Norfolk pines and the famous Manly Ocean beach. The beach was visible from the old sash windows, which were about chest height. For a small “gremmie” (“gremlin” or surfer girl) this was about head height, which was really handy as we didn’t want them falling out the windows when the place got packed! We had a “vulture-proof” stage with a railing, life buoys and the ship’s bell from the tanker Canopus, named after the Southern Pole Star and owned by Australia’s esteemed beer baron, Rod Miller. The staff were all very nice and loved our music. Some of the staff were Billy and Terry Nicholas, whose father Bill was Mayor of Manly during our stay, Kevin Wilson, “Trad” and big “Tiny” on the door. If the house was full, which it was every Saturday night, all Tiny had to do was stand in the doorway and none could get past.
Although it was mid-winter in Manly, it was mid-summer in California and the surf music just kept on coming- The Little Old Lady From Pasadena, Hawaii, Surfin’ USA (ripped off from Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen) - the list was endless. And while the Californians basked in the sun, from the icy fogs of the Mersey River in Liverpool and from all over England, scores of white-faced unhealthy looking Poms were forming bands with names like: Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Hollies, The Merseybeats, The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Brian Poole & The Tremeloes, Freddie & The Dreamers, The Searchers, The Animals and The Rolling Stones. It’s All Over Now and Under The Boardshorts, by the Rolling Stones, went straight into our ever-growing song list.
Beautiful, young nubile, teenage girls were in abundance, so of course I had to start going steady, didn’t I? After having had enough of the hooker scene with Irene, this time around I fell in love with Judy Webber, a beautiful, big-bosomed blonde from Balgowlah. Her father, George, was totally insane. I would sit and drink and fight with him in the kitchen, till the early hours, over what time I would bring Judy home. “I teach my daughters, never lie. Never lie I teach ‘em,” Blah-Blah on and on, raved the drunken George until I’d get so mad that I’d storm out, jump in my 1956 Ford Customline (very “Westie”), do a screaming wheelie and drive home to Strathfield, mumbling about silly old goats and “silvertails”.
I had purchased the Customline from Victor Ledwidge who had left his beloved Queensland to take over the management of a used caryard on Parramatta Road. I must admit he made a very good car salesman. I didn’t need much selling as I was already in love with the number plate - ‘COC 505’!
While I was romancing Miss Webber, a song came out, which, of course I had to sing: Judy, Judy, Judy (I Love You) by Johnny Tillotson. One would have thought that this would have put the seal on the romance but it didn’t. George had wedding bells ringing in his ears (among other things!) and I was eventually rescued from the clutches of the Webber family by the Manly Mayor’s daughter, Marilyn Nicholas or “Mazza”. We soon became fast friends with all the Nicholas family, with the possible exception of Dad (the Mayor). Alderman Bill Nicholas didn’t take kindly to visitors and would simply grunt - about a low B-flat. Consequently, he was christened “The Trombone”.
In July 1963, Millers’ launched their “Search For A Star” talent quest and Mike Devery decided to hold it on a Wednesday night. This gave us an extra night at The Can with more money. We now had Wednesday to Saturday afternoon. The new Wednesday was a roaring success as were all the others.
The next moth saw the licence of the hotel taken over by Mike Devery’s father, Nick. Nick Devery was an amiable walrus who seemed to like our music as much as his son. What’s not to like? It was putting bum’s on seats! Or, should I say, feet on the dance floor. His standard joke was “Can you boys play The Miner’s Dream Of Home?” We’d never heard of it, weren’t about to play it and really didn’t know if he was serious or not. Being, of course, a lot older than Mike, he was definitely trying to get some of that “adult music” into our repertoire but he had Buckley’s! We’d been given our heads at last and there was no way we were going to play that shit again!
One night, just for a lark, we put on a bit of one of the old floorshows we used to do in Canberra with the mimes Sh’Boom, St. George And The Dragonet and a couple of silly skits. One of the skits was The Balloon skit, which consisted of enlisting one of the better looking chicks in the audience to parade past Sandy, Michael and me while we were holding balloons. This was the entry test to an imaginary nudist colony. If your balloon burst, you’d failed the test! Leon was the announcer with a pile of notes in his hand. As the chick walked past by Sandy his balloon would burst, then Michael’s, but mine would stay intact. Until that is, Leon dropped his notes and bent over to pick them up, where upon my balloon would burst! How tatty! The Balloon skit was later adapted to be The Bell skit, using the ship’s bell that was on the stage. Each one of us would hold the bell-rope tight and the one who rang the bell.... well you know the rest!
Old Nick Devery loved the floorshow very much; so much in fact that he said, “Boys we’ll start into September with an extra night. Tuesday nights will be ‘variety night’.” Well, five nights in a week in any pub was hard to get at this stage of the game, so that suited us fine. We still played the Top Forty for the rest of the night so it didn’t hurt to regress a little and do the floorshows. Besides we really did enjoy them. After a while, of course, we ran out of new material and had to book some guest artists. The first of these was KAHU PINEHA.
Now, Kahu had worked with us before. We had done a couple of months at a strip-joint in Kings Cross called The Flamingo, where Kahu was playing piano with us and singing the jazz. Kahu was reported to be bi-sexual or ‘camp’, as it was known then so we were jokingly called “Kahu’s Camp Band”. He could only play the piano in F-sharp, which is not one of your most used keys, but he played quite acceptable jazz piano in that key. His other attributes (like most Maoris he had many skills; “Born with a guitar in their hands, y’know!”) were fire dancing and snake dancing. Not the trouser variety!
The ‘Variety Nights’ started with an Hawaiian Night starring Kahu. Everyone dressed in the appropriate clobber and we decked the place out with palm fronds. On the first night many things went wrong for poor Kahu. He nearly set fire to a girl in the audience, the diamond rock python escaped into the audience causing much screaming and general panic, and the carpet snake bit him on the back of the neck! Apart from all these disturbances, Hawaiian Night was a raging success and we had many more special events at The Can. While Kahu was hanging out with us, I can remember days sitting on the beach while he taught us how to sing some nice, four part harmony songs, with just him playing the guitar - in F-sharp, of course!
By this time Mike Devery had become, because of his own ingenuity and our phenomenal success, “the golden haired boy” of the Millers’ circuit. He was promoted to a high place at the brewery and father Nick continued on at the Pacific as both licensee and manager. Mike’s last act before leaving was to invite all of us to the Millers’ Ball held at the Oceanic Hotel at Coogee, the flagship of the Millers’ Hotel chain. Not many bands were invited as guests to the Millers’ Ball. His other motive for including us, apart from friendship, was to get us to play and show off our talents. As usual, we didn’t let him down.
Much to the disgust of the resident bandleader, Johnny Wade, they loved us and Mike Devery once again proved his success. He was a good friend to the band and I will always remember him for pulling us out of the 1962-1963 doldrums. The Millers’ Ball raged on through the night with most of us getting totally pissed. It was on the way home from the Oceanic, that the proverbial ka-ka hit the fan.
The Ford Customline was the first V8 I had ever owned. I loved it but I drove like a maniac. I blame myself mostly for what happened that night on the way home. We were going past Randwick racecourse on Alison Road. I was in the inside lane, with Leon and Michael as passengers. Sandy, in his Triumph Herald was in the middle lane and the fast lane was as yet, empty. Sandy started to burn me off. “Let him go, Jon,” said Michael.
“You don’t think I am going to let him burn me off in that heap o’shit do ya?” I yelled through a drunken haze, sticking the boot into the Customline up the inside lane. All of a sudden, up the fast lane comes our cellarman from the Pacific, George Glassic, in his Falcon-fucking-Futura, about to take us both on the outside. A traffic island came up, George cut off Sandy, Sandy cut off me, me mount gutter and me hit telegraph pole!
We hit at about 50 miles an hour and the Ford reared up on its front wheels and snapped the telegraph pole in two. All the musical instruments came rushing through the back seat from the boot. Leon banged his head on the dashboard, I broke off the ignition key with my knee and hurt my wrists while Michael continued on at 50 miles an hour through the windscreen. All I could think of was fire and getting out as soon as possible. Fortunately, my door was opened by Lonnie Lee, who just happened to be driving past on his way to Leon’s place, ironically just around the corner. I stumbled out a whole lot more sober than I’d stumbled in. Leon got out okay on his side. We were all in the front seat. Michael was already out - well and truly out!
“He’s cut his jugular!” yelled some fuckwit out of the “accident appreciation society”, which of course, had gathered to the fray. Fortunately, Michael was unconscious (or more so than usual!) and didn’t hear this piece of sound medical knowledge, otherwise he probably would have chucked in the towel right then and there.
We were taken to the hospital at Randwick. Leon and I were allowed to leave but Michael wasn’t. He had fifty-six stitches and was still finding pieces of glass in his head years later. Thank God, he wasn’t scarred and we were all lucky to be alive. I wish they still built cars like they used to. That solid Ford saved our lives. I learned some important lessons that night: don’t burn up the inside lane, or be very careful if you do, and don’t drive when extremely pissed!
“Pissed? I told you not to mention that, Leon!”
“We’ll see you in court, Jon!” said Leon and Michael.