I may have been hung-over. Again. At least that’s what I put it down to. I was in New York, playing at Writers in the Round at the Village Green – an honourable and respected gig. I had been co-writing songs with the master of open tuning and the uncannily easy-sounding pop song (the kind that was unfeasibly hard to write), Jules Shear. He had written for artists who were, no doubt, the reason why I made music in the first place. He wrote ‘All Through the Night’ for Cyndi Lauper and ‘If She Knew What She Wants’ for The Bangles. They were just two from his list that impressed my socks off.
All class and no fluff. A spartan craftsman.
I felt both awed and inadequate at the privilege of sharing a songwriting credit with an artist of his calibre.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t also young and cocky. Instead of trying to learn from him, I tried to hide my inabilities in an aim to impress him when we wrote together, as if we could be peers. He had a good decade or so of songwriting and performing under his belt, and I was just shy of my fifth year as a wannabe troubadour. He would have seen it a few times before, I imagined.
He had taken me under his wing and there I was with my band, Frente, at the Village Green, playing our songs in the round with so many musicians of startling calibre, that I struggled to remember their names.
Was it fear that made pouring the entire bar into my face the night before seem smart, or was it just stupidity? I wished I would grow up, but it wasn’t going to help me right then and there even if I had.
We sang our songs in turn, one after the other, gave a small talk about the song’s origins before we played. Me slipping backstage when it wasn’t my turn so I could vomit into a bucket. The thing about singing, for me, was that whenever I did it, everything else melted away. Any physical discomforts, at least. Even the worst nausea or headaches, would cease to exist while sound came out of my mouth. As soon as I stopped, they’d be back. Stage fright was different. There was no cure for that. Offstage fright was the worst and was especially incurable.
Another thing about Jules. Great writers have friends who are great writers. That is how Carol King came to be in the audience. They were friends. The Queen of the Brill Building came backstage after the show. The lights were bright, the rooms austere and tiny. I could hear her dulcet tones, rising and falling in that comfortable Californian way, as she talked to Jules in one of the adjacent rooms. One minute she was out there somewhere in the hall, unseen and soothing to the ear; the next, she was standing in our dressing room doorway.
Besides hearing that she loved the show and wanted to tell us in person, I have no recollection of what she or anyone else in the room said, or even if anything else was said at all. I stared a burning hole into the dirty, beige carpet near my feet and felt the heat as it rose up my legs and into my belly.
Carol King! I was frozen. I was blinded by a great white expanse that took up all the space where she and my band members would have been, and not much else. Time stood still, or it went in a flash, I don’t know. Then she was gone and the words and the regret flooded back into the whiteness, as it returned to a more regular, dull-coloured space.
This happened to me a bit, during our time on the road.
I was shy. I was starstruck. I blushed visibly and easily. I was afraid of the unstoppable torrent of adoration that lay just behind my closed lips. Afraid that if I opened my mouth, it would gush forth and spew all over her, a metaphorical word version of the real vomit I had spewed into the bucket just a half hour ago. Afraid that I would be a red, sweaty, monologuing ‘faniac’. That if I even ventured a word of acknowledgement in her direction, I would explode like Etna. And so, I ignored her. That would be how it appeared. That I didn’t want to talk to her. That I had no interest. Worse. That I was self-interested.
Our first time in Europe, we supported Crowded House. It was the tour that launched their hit-laden, melodic masterpiece Woodface. Both the band and crew were so accommodating and friendly that it only served to exacerbate my shyness. I hid in corridors, while I got bandmates to go and check that no one was in the toilets or at catering, so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Mealtimes were a sit-down affair, which everyone attended, including me and my shadow of endlessly punishing internal dialogue. My shadow and I, we died a thousand deaths at the dinner table. The talk in my head was so loud that I made myself unapproachable, avoiding the chance of any actual conversation, by keeping my eyes glued to my place setting.
Nick Seymour, Crowded House’s bassist, teased me in a lighthearted, fond manner as one would their kid sister who was learning the ropes. We had met, earlier that year, on my first day ever in Los Angeles, California. I had been understandably overwhelmed. The scale and volume of the city had me agog. Our faux-French style hotel was overshadowed by the Beverly Center, a megamall in the shape of a giant brown box. People funnelled up and down, sliding on an escalator in a clear tube attached to the side of the building. Super-sized vehicles drove by on the wrong side of the road. The light and the air were different: traffic, smog, hair products and aftershave (and that was just the lobby). I loved it. I hated it.
Later that afternoon, as I stood mouth agape in the middle of this understated, and therefore obviously hip, bookstore-cum-cafe on Melrose, a man approached me. He inquired as to whether I might be Australian. I was flattered and asked him how he could tell, he replied with a smirk, that my mouth was hanging open wide enough to catch flies. It was Nick. I turned the colour of beetroot.
Now, on the Woodface tour, I avoided him. He would be on rollerblades, circling the theatre as we sound-checked, grinning while making some crack about my goofy shoes, then telling me to lighten up. His good-natured ribbing only served to illuminate the fact that I must have been too immature to be taken seriously. Paul Hester made faces at me and told jokes from a safe distance. His childlike nature and silly sense of humour set me at ease and I gravitated towards him, when I dared. He was expecting his first child; he was miles away from the home where he dearly wanted to be and was more like a sad clown some days. I could relate to that.
Sometimes, in a rare moment at dinner, I would stop acting like a wary, feral cat before a plate of milk and I would be rewarded with the pleasure of an anecdotal touring moment bestowed on me, by Neil or Paul, about some epic disagreement in Rome or a great concert moment in Paris. Every now and then, even Nick dropped the playful teasing and would tell me about his life in Dublin, or how he shipped a left-hand-drive car from the U.S. to my neighbourhood of St Kilda to cruise in. Their stories would have me transfixed and they were so generous and gentle, there really was nothing to be afraid of.
They were, and still are, one of my favourite bands and I spent most of my time kicking myself for being me. On our final night together, Neil Finn gave me a bottle of champagne and a number to stay in touch. I gave the bottle to my mum and stashed Neil’s handwritten note in my keepsakes, when I made it back home. Though I wanted it not to be so, I knew I’d never call and I never did.
I was living in Los Angeles when Neil Finn released his first solo album, Try Whistling This. I listened to it about six or seven times daily for over a month. On a visit to Austin, Texas to see my husband’s family, we caught a show of his. I wept with adoration and admiration. Neil was everything. A stand-alone songwriter. He sang to your innermost longings. He played music like he was breathing.
On our flight back to LA the next day, I spotted one of my old friends from primary school. It turned out he was working on the crew for Neil, and had been for quite a while. We spoke easily. He had been a friend to me when I had felt alien and alone at school. He still had that same, open nature and I felt comfortable.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of people headed towards our cluster of seats at the gate lounge. It was Neil, his wife Sharon and their family. Cool. I was cool. It would be nice to see him. He’d see me and we’d say, ‘Hi!’ I quickly rehearsed this easy exchange in my head. I kept my head up to allow the initial step of this turn of events to unfold easily.
He was deep in conversation. He hadn’t seen me yet, but he would. He sat down on the seat right next to me. He was still talking. He would turn and see me, yes he would. My mouth began to twitch. I was holding a smile, as though waiting for a photographer who just wouldn’t press the button. All natural expression drained from my face. I could do this. He’d turn and we’d say, ‘Hi!’
Any minute now.
I took a few rests of my face, by looking at the ground intermittently, as if I was thinking all kinds of interesting stuff and didn’t really need to be talking to anyone. Ever. People did that all the time. Just sat and didn’t have to be talking to someone. It’s not like you always had to talk to someone, right? There were times, natural ones, when you just sat. Not talking. It was normal. Not because you had no-one to talk to. Because you could, if you wanted to. You were a natural human being, just sitting and having a normal time of not doing any talking. I mean, my husband was sitting right next to me. I could totally talk to him right now. It would be natural. I could ask, ‘So what time is our flight again, dear-heart?’ he would answer me and I’d follow with, ‘Gosh, I sure am looking forward to it.’
That was how you talked to people. I knew how to do it. I could talk to people.
I was losing my nerve. I began to look down more often, until I just stopped looking up.
I thought about my friend, the one from primary school, and how he must have noticed that my entire demeanour had changed. He was probably chuckling to himself at the ‘Neil Effect’. He probably saw it all the time. He would notice it in me, because it was only minutes ago that our company was easy and I was smiling at him. Now I looked like I was seeing an octopus on the carpet, one that would eat me if I took my eyes off it, even for a second.
They called our flight and I was relieved. That lasted for all of a very short moment, as I realised… Of course, they were on our flight.
I spent the duration of the flight staring hard out the window, as Neil and his children took strolls down the aisle to keep themselves entertained. It was a small plane and I imagined that he was looking over at me from time to time, as he may have been told that I was there by someone on the crew (many of whom I remembered from Europe or knew me from back home). I was almost hallucinating from the hard sideways eye contact aversion, but it seemed to me that one time he was staring right at me. I stared away even harder.
Baggage claim was no better. The bags took their sweet time. Neil walked by me several times, toddler in hand. If I had imagined that he was looking in my direction from time to time on the plane, I was definitely not imagining anything now. I could feel his eyes, looking over. I could almost hear it. Is that Angie Hart? Nope, nothing to see here.
I was almost home and that was all I could think about.
On the pavement, outside the terminal, we waited for transport. And there he was again. I was very far away from that easy exchange that I had envisioned an hour ago in the gate lounge of Austin. Now I was determined to keep my cool and the only way I could do that was to sever any kind of tacit communication. Not even a nod. I would be an ice queen.
Although my face must have been as green as a Granny Smith apple, I did not crack.