In my dreams I remember music more than people. If God was working today I’m convinced he’d be a professional musician. Probably playing trumpet in a swing band in a dodgy RSL club in Yarraville or strumming a guitar and singing an old folk song by Peter, Paul and Mary about peace, love and hammers. I use to think friends and family are all we needed in life but now I don’t believe that, now I believe only in music.
I remember standing on Halsted Street in Chicago not knowing where to go. It had been a strange holiday, not what I had expected exactly. Most holidays aren’t. New York wasn’t what I thought I needed and neither was Montreal. I was searching for something that trip, something I’d lost in my late thirties. Something I wanted back. There’s this thing with travelling, it unravels the springs inside you, letting your soul loose and imagination free to roam uninhibited.
I recall standing on the footpath, city map in hand, wondering where I should go next. A doctor I went to when I was on worker’s comp in Sydney told me once ‘when you are unsure of what to do in a given situation then best do nothing.’ For some reason I’ve never forgotten that, so I stood there holding the Chicago city map and didn’t move.
I don’t know at what point I started to drift, maybe it was the music coming from a nearby bar that had prompted it, but drift I did. My mind shifted into an altered state of absolute relaxation, a state of chemically free bliss brought on by the tribal beats in the music reverberating through my body, every beat teasing my eardrums. A commotion was happening in a tiny bar on Halsted, and my senses appeared to open up to the sensation.
As I stood there drifting, my boyhood was paraded candidly before my eyes in technicolor flashbacks; an occasional sour note in grainy R.K.O black and white, thrown in for good measure. “You can change your future but you must never forget the past” I heard Grandma chuckle as she buttered a scone. I saw myself in my grandma’s backyard in St Peters playing with wooden pegs while my mum hung a week’s worth of family smalls on the clothesline. There’s something about panties, bras and Y-fronts blowing in the breeze on a hot day that always makes me smile. I remembered the day I locked my mother and my grandma out of the house for eight hours, giggling the entire time until my uncle Kenny came home, jumped the fence and let them in. I was sent immediately to bed and given no pocket money that week.
I drifted again, this time a few houses up the street to Christine’s place, where we sat on the lounge cuddling and I had my first kiss. I remember Christine taking my hand and placing it up and under her school uniform. It is those days of raspberry cordial, teenage dreams and family that that come back whenever I hear a song by the Carpenters playing on the radio. Those days, when I was younger.
I dropped the map and bent down to pick it up. The music coming from inside the bar was very loud so I decided to go in. I walked straight up to the barman and ordered a Budweiser. There’s something about a DJ spinning records that has always fascinated me, to this day I can sit alone anywhere in the world and listen to a good DJ and never feel the need for social contact. I decided at some point this God given gift was to keep me safe and out of trouble. It gives me a sense of contentment that most people struggle to find in day to day life, foolish people who put their faith in loving someone else… but not me, I have put all my faith in music.
“Do you believe in God. I was watching you from the DJ box. You were enjoying my set. Do you believe in him?” I didn’t answer. “Have I offended you or something? Maybe you think I should get back up there and just spin tracks. Do you live in Chicago?”
“I believe in music, nothing else” I responded. “I’ve tried believing in other things but it just doesn’t work. I’ve been let down by other things, people mostly I guess. I am never let down by music. So, I believe only in it these days. Does this make me a coward?” I asked him, finishing my Bud. “You know that’s a strange question for a DJ to be asking? So, what do you believe anyway?”
“I believe in America and Budweiser beer of course. First thing in the morning I always believe in a good coffee, strong black. I believe in God. He created music for everyone to enjoy, not just you. I gotta get back behind the deck. Nice chatting. Enjoy your flight.” He smiled a cheeky F.U. smile and left. Enjoy your flight? How did he know that I wasn’t from Chicago? Must be my accent I decided. I ordered another beer at the bar and sat nearest to the stage right speaker. I drank, listened to the music he was spinning and started to drift.
I was thirteen and living with my mum and stepdad. I had suggested our kitchen table for a sneaky game of poker while mum was out. I remember dealing the deck of cards and smoking, feeling out of place surrounded by my neighbourhood friends. I tried my first and my last cigarette that day while mum was out shopping. I nearly choked to death. Smoking was never going to work for me I decided. The music changed tempo, I drifted towards the sky through endless silver cloud and landed feet first at a set of gates with the sign Rainbow Depot hanging in midair. Inside the gates I could hear an orchestra warming up and walking towards me was the DJ from Chicago drinking a Bud. He pushed on the gates and stood open armed as if to say ‘Sing For Me.’
“I’m a tenor ” I confided clearing my throat and immediately started to sing Che Gelida Manina from La Boheme. I sang in a voice I’d never heard before, hitting notes I never dreamed I could hit. When I’d finished we stood comfortable in our quiet time, much like lovers setting up house for the first time somewhere in a big city. He broke the silence with his strong Chicagoan accent.”How well did you love?” he asked. I didn’t answer or wouldn’t. Instead I fidgeted. “How well did you love my friend?” Still I didn’t answer preferring to get lost in the melody line of the music coming from the orchestra beyond the gates. “This is not a competition. At Rainbow Depot there is no right or wrong answer. There is no failure here, not in this place. There is only the symphony. Can you hear it?” Indeed I could hear it, I have heard it all my life I thought, sometimes while doing the dishes as a kid with mum, occasionally while having sex, leading me closer to a place yet to be discovered. “How well did you love?” he prompted again. “Not very well I think mister DJ. Oh, there has been times I’ve done okay. But, at the end of the day, once the shit is left to settle and the band has gone home, I don’t think I’ve done well at all. But, if you compare me to other people I’ve done alright. Alright does sound a little underwhelming though. You said something about there being no comparison but that, I think, is a very idealistic position for you to be taking and …” The DJ cut me off mid sentence. “Stop. I said this is NOT a competition. And, as a general rule there should be NO comparison. How well did you love is all I asked. It is the easiest of all questions, yet you stand in this safe place with no answer, only comparison. Tell me, what do you feel under your skin?” There was no getting out of it, no changing records, not even a murder on the dance floor could save me. I had to answer.
“Okay. I’ll tell you. Under my skin I believe not all people are created equal. I reckon there are a lot of really fucked up things happening today that most people aren’t aware of or even give a shit about. I stress. I think sometimes, not every day, but sometimes I think we are all doomed to die if the young generation is left in charge of the office, even just for five minutes… and I believe wholeheartedly in the power of chocolate to make you feel better after a break up. But, mostly mister DJ I believe in music and a God that can dance.”
He finished his Budweiser, turned to leave, stopped at the gates. “A God that can dance? Good on you, good-on-you. At least you’ve got something to hold tight, most don’t.” He did a little foxtrot and shut the gates.
I was back inside the bar on Halsted Street, the bartender came over and asked if I wanted another Bud. I declined the offer and left. Outside I sat on the curb and listen to the rhythm in the music cut through the cold night air. I sat for a long time alone not needing anyone, lost in the music. He was a good DJ I thought, taking me to places I’d only ever dreamed of. I waited until he’d finished his set, catching him off guard in the carpark as he packed albums into the boot of his car.
“How well did YOU love Mr DJ?” I asked him. He looked up a little surprised but kept packing. “Are YOU from Chicago?” I continued. Still no answer came. He shut the boot, got into his car, turned the keys in the ignition. The car radio came on, 98. 7 FM Chicago. A symphony was playing.
“What’s that playing?” I asked. “That music, I recognise it.”
He looked me in the eyes, no one spoke for what felt like eternity and then…
“You can’t know it. It’s an unfinished symphony. Mine,” he confessed. “I’ve been working on it between gigs. It’s a work in progress, Woo Wap Da Bam. I started back in London when I lived near the Angel. It’s called The Symphony of…” But before he had finished the sentence, he drove off.
In Melbourne I dream about Chicago often, when I close my eyes I hear his car engine idling through the walls of my St Kilda flat and I can just make out the unfinished symphony playing in the distance. It’s usually turns out to be nothing more than static from Barry’s TV set next door. Static that sounds like music to me. An unfinished symphony beckoning me to a bar on Halsted Street with a DJ spinning orchestral tracks at Rainbow Depot. How well did you love he’d asked? I don’t know how well I’ve done so far. I tried my best I guess. What do I believe he smiled, looking up from the deck, as I shut my eyes. I believe I mustn’t compare. Well, at least I’ve learnt that. In the end that’s gotta be worth something.
Originally published in the MWSG Anthology 2017.