Travel Australia with TISM, Rock Anarchists

Nailed to The Cross

Whenever TISM played Sydney, they holed up in one of Australia’s most notorious and “flavoursome” rock’n’roll districts, Kings Cross. Front man Humphrey B. Flaubert, with a rueful shake of the head, still wonders why.

“You’re a rock band. You’ll want to stay in The Cross.”
This simple travel agent’s assumption ensured that my first ten years’ memories of Sydney consisted of an area bound by about three blocks, in the heart of Sydney’s most celebrated, most folkloric locale – “The Cross.”
That’s because The Cross is rock, right?

Of course it is. Of all Sydney’s many tourist treats, from the world-famous Harbour to the bronzed Aussie beaches, surely nothing – hell, not even The Rocks – is as ROCK as that little stretch of Darlinghurst Road known simply as “The Cross.” That whiff of religion is no coincidence. It’s an Australian rock band Mecca. It’s mentioned in songs by Paul Kelly and Cold Chisel. And before that, its nocturnal underworld allure romanced ’60s rock icons like Billy Thorpe, and before them the great jazz musicians. Why wouldn’t you want to stay there?
I’ll tell you why: it’s a hole.


Our first gig in The Cross was in a broom cupboard called The Kardomah Cafe. We were supporting Big Pig, who (we were led to believe) were about to change the face of Australian music. They wore a fetching set of butcher’s aprons, were extremely serious about their avant-disco fusion – whereas our brand of funk was more your “footytrip-hop” – and my abiding memory is of lead singer Sherine at sound check spraying the lead microphone with Glen 20 after I’d finished singing into it. Ironic, seeing as I was the least germ-ridden organism within a 20km radius.


Sherine’s appeal was undeniable. By show time, a gang of muscly, spiky-haired women in biker chic had lined the edge of the stage. On we ponced in our geeky, unmistakably male glory, dressed like the Ku Klux Klan, doing star jumps to songs like “Warning: There’s A Long Wide Load In My Jockettes.” Within a minute the patrons were making audible threats and expectorating in our direction. This lasted for the longest 25 minutes of my (sheltered) life to that point, before we truncated our performance amidst a barrage of cans and booing.


Perhaps this rough initiation into the world of ROCK should have whetted a new appetite for “danger.” Strangely, that never really happened. Every time we played in Sydney, regardless of the venue, in we’d drive to The Cross, copping smirks from passers-by and particularly disgusted looks from women, who added seven guys plus one Tarago plus Kings Cross and arrived at the obvious conclusion. Soon we resorted to pulling grotesque faces so they would avert their eyes, assuming we were a “different” kind of party. But that quickly lost its appeal, along with the whole godforsaken dump of a place. Somehow, I never really discovered the romantic aspect of being bumped into by an opium-eyed prostitute covered in bruises and grime, yelled at by some Charismatic Christian on acid, or propositioned by a bull-necked bouncer promising me: “Crack a fat or your money back.” Nor the next-day delights of picking my way through the sun-kissed syringes looking for somewhere to eat breakfast that wasn’t either (a) a soup kitchen; (b) ridiculously expensive and so designer-chic-minimalist that I couldn’t actually figure out where to sit down; or (c) the Bourbon And Beefsteak Bar, which was only good for double-priced alcohol and the chance of a good kicking from a bunch of reserve-grade footballers.


The other great thing about staying at The Cross was our bed for the night, the Hotel New Hampshire. I was of course continually trying to crack jokes about the book and movie of the same name. But these would fall on deaf ears, as none of the guests had ever read a book, due to them all being in bands. Do you know what it’s like to be in a hotel full of people in bands? It makes you want to take drugs – not to “fit in”, but to counter the depression that comes from never seeing anyone who isn’t either hungover, on planet Zoobah, or covered in gaffer tape, leering menacingly at you because you aren’t in the road crew.


And if you think there’s a comrades-in-arms, honour-amongst-thieves brotherhood thing happening in the world of ROCK, think again. Every time the lift doors opened, you’d be eyed all the way in and up to your floor by a lift full of dickheads from Jesus Pots The White Ball, or whatever latest ROCK sensation happened to be in town and competing with you for the night’s crowd. The lobby was like the Safeway Deli department, with an endless stream of glum-faced bands waiting for their number to be called so they could go to the sound check, go to the interview, go to the photo shoot, go to the gig, go to the Iguana Bar, whatever. And after the show, you’d pop up the road to “Springfields” – a subterranean, all-night armpit where you could shoot pool, or whatever you liked, and yell pointlessly over jackhammer techno at Space Shuttle lift-off volume in the company of the same losers you just encountered waiting in the hotel lobby.


One such “comrade-in-arms” was Johnny, guitarist from the Powder Monkeys, befriended by our bass player Jock Cheese (a much nicer person than me). Johnny’s band played it hard. Not by the rules, man (ie, expensive private school education). Their persona was steeped in the great traditions of ROCK, straight out of the Kick Out The Jams rulebook, along with all its attendant “lifestyle choices.” He joined us at a table at a backpackers’ cafe as a Swedish wannabe actress served us bacon and eggs at the special Kings Cross 2pm double rate for people who, like, lead different hours, man.


Johnny sat back, surveyed all around him, and declaimed: “I just love The Cross. I love that feeling of Out There.” I briefly contemplated removing his sunglasses, bending them into a figure eight, placing them back on his head and enquiring if that was what he meant by “Out There”, before my better judgement intervened. He probably wouldn’t have noticed anyway.


Ah, memories. These days, to poor Napster-threatened record companies, ROCK means safety, reliability . . . go find a good-looking band to recycle what worked last time. Me, I’m just one of those older-generation squares who formed a band because they thought ROCK was about rebellion. About being original, making your own statement, doing the unexpected.


And The Cross? With its endless parade of clichéd bohemia, it’s everything you expect it to be. Everything that isn’t ROCK.

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