It’s Saturday evening. Only four sleeps to go till the first performance of “CHRONIC” at Melbourne Cabaret Fest. I am in the usual state of high anxiety and restlessness. I have just jammed a needle into my left thigh containing a medication called Humira, designed to stop my immune system attacking itself. This is part of a fortnightly regime for me.
The original name of the show – as it appeared at Melbourne Comedy Festival earlier this year – was Chronic Illness. I have come to detest the smell of rubbing alcohol. It is a sure sign that I am about to be stabbed with something. Although I have been injecting myself with this mysterious elixir for over 2 years I am still hit and miss with my aim. There is a big welt on my thigh that shouldn’t be there. Anyway, enough of this…
It has been a good year. It began with a rock and roll tour of Northern NSW and Queensland with my 4-piece band Luke Escombe and the Corporation. We had our first experience of playing the type of rural pub where musicians with university degrees get murdered as a practical joke by men with ponytails. It was fantastic. We played like Spartans, bonding together and cranking out blood and guts blues and roots till the wooden shack shook and the tin roof crinkled. The floods nearly caught up with us at our Brisbane show, where I got paranoid from smoking some local hydro (out of politeness to the venue owner who insisted we play stoned or not at all) and envisaged the rhythm section getting hacked to pieces in the backstage area by masked brigands. The venue was underwater by the next day, but we were safe into the night, me and the current national Jazz guitar award winner in my Ford Focus and the bassist and drummer following behind in some sort of white station wagon loaded with drum parts.
The best thing about the trip was the time we spent in a studio up in the Byron Bay hills, staring each other down through the glass screens and trying to come up with something befitting the band we thought we were. The result was our first single: Drop tha Bomb.
Melbourne Comedy Festival was my first foray back into the world of theatre since my early teens. I gave up acting after the cruel joke of a late puberty and the onset, at 14, of an ailment called Crohn's disease. Eight months of steroid treatment deprived me of my slim, equine looks and a change in the drama department at my school meant that all the lead roles were now going to the members of the swim team. Auditions began with shirts being unbuttoned. I found solace in the electric guitar and developed a strong sense of shame about my body.
The preview showing of “Chronic Illness” at the Butterfly Club on March 19th was a ragged affair. I was dead on my feet as the first punters entered the room and blacked out for long sections of the performance (me, not the punters). Snatches of random stand-up, written ten hours before in an airport lounge, were coming out and flying around the room like bats. Giant sweat patches were appearing on my light grey trousers. I was melting under the hot lights, staring into the faces of my friends looking for flickers of enthusiasm. It was a brave show, if nothing else. Fortunately the critics were kind, glossing over the barren patches and praising the true stars of the night: the songs themselves.
People ask me if I get nervous before shows. Not really. Or at least not in the way they mean. Performing doesn’t scare me at all. I like it. But I do get anxious about the technical elements of the show – all the strings that might make break, the leads that might suddenly decide not to work, the lighting rig that might choose this night to swing loose from its bolts and brain me – those things scare me just a little. I have learned to banish these thoughts from my mind and focus on positive mental images – warm, full rooms of happy, smiling people, delighting in my every word – but my subconscious feels the lurking anxiety and spreads it out across my body in small ripples of unease that rub the sides of my torso while I am loading up the boot of my car with my equipment. It is then that I remember why it is that I put myself through all this anguish: THE SONGS. They are my children. I love them. I will wrestle death in a pile of stinking mud and drown for them.
The songs of CHRONIC, were written on my sofa, at a time when my sofa was my entire world. For the first half of 2009 I was too sick to leave the house. Worse still I was on some antibiotic that had delivered paralysis into my left wrist. I couldn’t hold a note on the guitar for three months. Instead I composed using drum loops and the most basic bass lines, creating dimensions in the groove with a native American shaker my parents had been fleeced into buying on a trip to the Grand Canyon the previous summer. There was also that ridiculous keyboard: the Concertmate 470, bought for $5 from a little girl in Bondi at a yard sale. An instrument so absurd (it has the notes stuck on the keys, but they are in the wrong place) it went on to grace the Chronic Illness DVD cover. These were the tools I used to write a bunch of lewd, highly personal songs that were never intended to see the light of day. They were small happy faces to cheer me up through long, dark months, with titles like “Hot Bitches”, “Hard 2 B a Pimp”, “Damn Girl [Poppa Cap in that ass]” and “Jerk ya Coq” – an infectious novelty tune inspired by my boisterous wife-beating next-door neighbour and the remorseless subwoofer on his tricked-out Subaru. These songs became my lifeboat. It is a delight to be sharing them with people. I am so proud of what they have gone on to achieve.
I hope this stream of consciousness makes a little bit of sense. After all of this, sometimes I find it hard to form adult sentences. “Drop tha Bomb” was something of a hit on the radio waves, and the music video has introduced a steadily growing audience to the fact that I no longer have the slightest sense of shame about my body. 11 nights in a gastro ward surrounded by old men with plastic poo bags will do that to you. It only takes so many forced enemas to destroy the clingy part of the ego forever. Good riddance to him, he was not helpful.
Oh, last bit of good news, the NSW government have awarded me my first ever arts grant to take these songs to the Edinburgh Fringe this August. Can you believe that? Hopefully they won’t revoke the funding once they see the music video for “Drop tha Bomb”.
Please come and say hello at the show. It helps me remember that all this is real.
Drop tha Bomb video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs1u2G9M_uA
www.lukeescombe.com / www.facebook.com/lukeescombemusic / www.twitter.com/mrescombe
CHRONIC plays in the Lamond Room at South Melbourne Town Hall on Wed 20th and Thursday 21st July at 8pm. Tickets are $33/ $30
Book tix through http://www.melbournecabaret.com/lukeescombe.htm