I could tell by the expression on KerryAnne’s face that it was Christy on the phone. She handed me the receiver without saying anything. “Hello John, It’s Christy,” said the voice on the other end. “I’ve got some bad news. Maity died last night. He was in a coma all day and slipped away some time during the night.” We talked for a minute or two longer then said goodnight. Christy would now ring Chris and I’d ring Mick de Groot.
As I hung up the phone, a wave of sadness came over me. I picked up the enormous candle that I’d brought over from Yundi, sat it in the window and lit it, letting its light shine out into the darkness outside. Goodbye Sparrow! There was no shock, only this overwhelming sadness that another old friend was no longer there. I’d been expecting this. Three months earlier there had been another phone call.
That evening, I got a call from Chris to tell me that Maity was in the Intensive Care Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital. His kidneys had finally given up the ghost. I rang the hospital and they seemed to think he’d pull through and they were right. When I rang the next day, he was in the normal ward and able to take the call himself. We chatted and he sounded really positive. He only had one kidney left and that had overloaded but they had got it working again. The big problem now was his brain tumour which they couldn’t do anything about. He sounded almost cheerful when he was telling me about it.
After the call, I began thinking back over the years we’d spent on the road together. He’d always complained about his health but mostly, we didn’t believe him. He was a bit of a story teller and some of his tales were so outrageous that after a while everything he said was treated with suspicion. He’d been talking for years about “pissing blood” and his kidney problems and he would never use the urinal but always used a cubicle when he went to the toilet. His “Japanese bladder” was legendary and we got used to including the number of piss stops into the planning of any trip. As the bus driver, I got to know the location of nearly every public toilet in Victoria as a long trip could easily incorporate ten stops for Maity. Somehow though, there was something about the way he told us about his problems that seemed quite unbelievable yet time was to show that what he was saying was mostly true.
His first introduction of his brain tumour into band conversation was equally hard to believe, again due to the way he told things. This problem cropped up many times over the years in such a casual way that little notice was taken of it. Indeed, when we played our last show together just before I left for South Australia, he seemed in the best of health. Now four years later he was not well at all.
A week later, back in South Australia, I got a call from Christy. He told me all the details that Maity had skipped over. Maity had stopped playing about six months before as he could no longer play without a lot of pain. The thought of Maity not playing staggered me. All his life, you could never shut him up. He was absolutely fanatical about the accordion and spent hours every day playing it. In dressing rooms, motel rooms and even in the bus, he was always playing, trying new tunes or blasting dreamily away at the old favourites.
It was also his only source of income and since I’d left, he had been playing with several bands on a fairly freelance basis. Now, he was broke as his income had been lost. He was living with his mother, back at San Remo and was financially pretty destitute. A group of musicians had got together and decided to put on a benefit concert for him. Christy asked if I’d be willing to get together and play - as Cobbers, one more time. I’d sworn that Ron’s memorial concert would be our last but under the circumstances, how could I refuse. I agreed as long as we used Mick de Groot on bass as I felt comfortable with him and Norm was overseas at the time.
A band on the road is a type of family in the way that you all depend on each other and need each other to achieve your goals. Many families go their separate ways, or fight among themselves because they don’t share the same dreams. In this way, a band can be even closer than siblings and it breeds a fierce loyalty between members. There was no more loyal band member than Maity and now, it was time to even the score. That’s why I had to play on the concert. To tell the truth, I was dreading it. I was nervous as hell and hadn’t performed anywhere for over four years. Now here we were trying to recreate something that we’d left behind twice that long ago.
The next week, Christy rang again. A committee of fifteen people had been formed and everyone had taken a role in organising the day. They had arranged to have the concert at the Upwey RSL where there was a large area out back that spilled onto the garden. They had a large marquee to cover the stage and a separate one for an artists’ backstage area. The whole thing would be a kind of festival and already the day was filled with bands and musicians wanting to perform. Posters had been designed and printed which advertised the concert as featuring the Cobbers and they were going up all over the area.
I was busy trying to get everything settled in South Australia as I had decided to move back to Victoria on the 18th of June. The concert was on the second of July so I should be fairly settled by then. We realised we wouldn’t get much rehearsal but we felt that we could remember what to do. One problem was that I had volunteered Mick as the new Cobbers bass player and I hadn’t been able to catch up with him. The email I sent came back undelivered and his phone no longer had an answering machine. I was starting to worry but eventually, I caught him at home and he was delighted to be asked. He and Maity had really hit it off when we all played together in my band, then again, Mick gets on with everybody.
I told Mick I’d send him a song list and he promised to listen to all the old tapes he had. Walking round the house, I started humming the old Ian and Sylvia song, “Friends of Mine” and suddenly. realised that I was getting a message from my subconscious. It was a perfect song to sing at the concert for Maity. During his last call, Christy had told me that Maity was insisting that he was going to play with us. He was determined that if Cobbers were playing, he’d play his part. I was delighted at this prospect but had serious doubts as to whether it would come to pass. I told Christy that Maity should be on stage with us whether he could play or not. Christy also said that Tony O’Rourke was keen to rejoin the band for the day. Tony had played with us in the eighties, taking Christy’s place and he was a fine musician.
I asked Christy whether he planned to play the lagerphone, the rhythm instrument made of a broomstick and beer bottle tops that is so beloved by bush bands. He said it wouldn’t be Cobbers if he didn’t. He didn’t have time to make one so he was going to ask Dobe Newton from the Bushwackers to lend him his for the day. After all the years of fierce, if friendly, competition between the two bands, I thought this was quite amusing. Christy and Dobe had always been good mates.
On the day of the concert, I had a very bad cold and wondered whether I’d be able to sing at all. My voice was mainly a dismal croak. My throat was as sore as if I’d been gargling broken glass and I felt terrible. I woke to the sound of heavy rain on the roof. Damn! I was leaving early as we had all agreed that the only chance we had of a rehearsal was on the morning of the show at Chris and Alice’s house in Upwey. That was several hours away so perhaps it would clear by then.
It didn’t. If anything it got worse. I got to Upwey about eleven o’ clock and dashed inside to escape the rain that was now falling in torrents. Looking around the room, I was startled to realise how old we were all starting to look. What really brought it home was when Chris’s youngest son arrived with his girlfriend. When I’d last seen him he was still a boy. Now he was a man.
Christy had Dobe’s battered old lagerphone which he had lent willingly for the occasion. Not only that, he had autographed it and given it to Christy to sell at the auction that was to be a part of the fund raising effort. I was deeply touched at the gesture. We had a list of about ten songs that we had discussed over the phone and we began to work through them. We would keep it simple to minimise mistakes but had picked songs that had been audience favourites and had a bit of fire in them. Tony couldn’t make it for the rehearsal but I had no doubts that he would be fine at the show. As we worked through the list, I realised just how long it had been since we had last played together as Cobbers - nearly eight years but as the old favourites began to flow, the years seemed to slip away and the special chemistry that Cobbers had as a band began to shine through.
I was still very nervous, though I don’t think I showed it but I was beginning to believe we could pull it off. Then as we ran through “The Soldier’s Joy and The Mason’s Apron”, disaster struck. I had re-haired my bow but I wasn’t happy with the result. Suddenly, the bow hair let go and exploded leaving me holding what looked like a skinny feather duster. That was the end of rehearsal but I now had the problem of no bow for the performance. I’d planned to bring my daughter, Charlotte’s bow as a back up but in my haste had left it home. Christy made a few frantic phone calls and found someone who would lend me a bow for the show. I breathed again.
The venue was a bit of a challenge. In the summertime it would have been limited in the number of people it could hold but now in the dead of winter with the rain emulating a tsunami it didn’t seem like it was such a good idea. Amazingly, the place was packed despite the weather and everyone seemed determined to remain cheerful and have a good time. The good humour was infectious.
All around were familiar faces, mostly suffering from the ravages of time. Lloyd Holyoak was there looking twenty years younger than he is. Time’s ravages for him have been on the inside where they don’t show. Steve and Anne Brown, Blossom’s brother and sister, came beaming up to me. Their mother, Pauline, had been one of the instigators of the day and had worked tirelessly to publicise it. Generally, I was having trouble remembering the names that went with all those faces that I felt I should know but mostly, they came to me after a while. The one I couldn’t recognise was the sound man’s assistant who was talking to me as if I was a long lost friend, which it turned out I was. In the end, it was his wife I recognised. Brenda hadn’t changed much at all in the fifteen or so years since I’d last seen her. Some grey hairs and a few lines on her face couldn’t disguise the beautiful woman who had married our roadie, Johnno which led to his leaving us soon after. He was heavier than I’d remembered him but the voice and the smile hadn’t changed.
We were due to play “around” four o’ clock for a half hour set so we had a couple of hours before we were on. Tony arrived and I ran him through what we were playing. There were no shocks for him and I knew he’d be great. He had a regular gig that night but had managed to arrange things so that he started later than usual. Even so, he would have to be on the road by five o’ clock and he went to great lengths to impress this on Christy who seemed, as much as anyone, to be the stage manager.
Maity arrived, looking very frail. I decided not to get close to him as I knew the cold I was carrying could be lethal to him in his condition. He was helped on stage where he made a short speech of thanks to everyone then was taken inside to the warmth. His sister recognised me and came over to talk so I asked her to explain to him why I was staying away. There was a good Irish band on stage that I didn’t know and I went back outside to listen to them.
The day wore on. Between bands, the auctioneer managed to empty the pockets of the affluent old folkies among us. Some fine wine had been donated by Fergusson’s winery and one classic bottle sold for three hundred dollars. Dobe’s lagerphone was the star attraction bringing some furious bidding. Hopefully it would survive the onslaught that Christy was about to unleash upon it. Meanwhile, bands were coming on and off and it was getting closer to four o’ clock and, of course, everything was behind schedule. Tony began muttering darkly and exhorting Christy to keep things moving on.
At four o’ clock, they put another band on, much to Tony’s chagrin. “They’re only doing a couple of numbers.” Christy explained but as song followed song, we realised we would need to cut a couple of songs out of our performance. As long as we finished by five, all would be well. At four twenty five, the other band wound up and we got ready to take the stage. Then I became aware of a heated discussion at the side of the stage followed by another act being put on. Tony put his instruments away and left. I was very disappointed. For me, Tony was there at a very difficult time after Christy quit the band. I’d also realised that Maity was not going to be able to play and had been relying on Tony to fill the gap.
At ten past five, we finally took the stage. The usual procedure of plugging in and testing everything was shorter than usual. We were primed ready to play and figured the sound man would sort things out as we went along. Even keeping things simple, which meant we only played three instruments each (except Mick who was chained to his bass), it would have been a headache for most soundies but this one knew what he was doing and did it without any fuss. Maity was brought onstage in a wheelchair. He looked frail and this seemed to accentuate how tiny a person he was. Despite everything though, he looked happy and his eyes were sparkling. He was with us but he was not able to play. Someone brought him a blanket as even under the stage lights it was cold and damp.
We launched into a blazing version of “The Ryebuck Shearer” with Christy giving Dobe’s lagerphone a thorough hiding. From the first chord, the crowd was with us clapping and stomping along and a few of them roaring out the chorus. By the end of it, I could see that Christy was feeling his fifty nine years the same as I was but the adrenaline was pumping so hard nothing could stop us.
After one more fast number, I stopped the music and talked to the crowd. I told the story of the amazing coincidence of Maity turning up on Christy’s doorstep just when we were desperate for an accordion player. I told of the years on the road and of his loyalty to the band and his love of the music. Then I turned towards Maity and told him the next song was for him and we sang “Friends of mine”. I sang it softly, letting the microphone do the work and my voice held until the end of the song. The final words of the song, “But by all those roads my friend we travelled down, I’m a better man for just the knowing of you” came straight from my heart and you could hear a pin drop in the audience as it came to a close. Maity looked at me and simply said, “Thank you” but his eyes were shining and he had an expression of peace and extreme satisfaction. It was like he had waited all his life to hear this. Perhaps he had. That’s what the day was all about.
The bracket raced to its end with most of the songs sounding roughly like they should. Then, like the old days at the Dan O’Connell, the crowd was shouting for more. We obliged with a rendition of South Australia that was as fast as we had ever played it, long before we got to the instrumental at the end. Somehow, we managed to keep it up. I’m sure Christy hadn’t expected to be working quite that hard on the lagerphone yet like the perennial showman that he is, he almost drove it through the floor. The idea that he and I were racing, pushing each other to greater heights had always been what made this song work and we milked it for all it was worth then exhausted, we left the stage. I spent a little time with Phil and Jill Hogan and our mutual friends, Annie and Mary Reilly then headed home to nurse my cold. Maity also left to get warm. What happened after I left was related to me by Christy a few days later.
There was a big jam session planned for after the concert, inside the building but I decided I wasn’t well enough to manage that plus a two hour drive home. Later in the evening, however, Maity returned and brought his accordion. He joined in the session but he knew it was his last. Finally, he asked Greg Rough to help him take the accordion off. As Greg took the accordion off, Maity said, “That’s yours now. I can’t play it any more but I want it to stay here in the folk scene with someone who will appreciate it.”
The day raised just a little over twelve thousand dollars which gave Maity some comfort and peace of mind in the five short weeks he had left. The highlight of the auction was Dobe’s lagerphone which sold for five hundred and twenty dollars.
So, five weeks later, we all met again only to paraphrase Marc Anthony, we came not to praise but to bury him. Christy’s band provided the music for the church service with Lou Hesterman doubling on the church organ for the two hymns. It was a long service and lasted over two hours but nobody seemed to really mind. Apparently, Maity had written the service himself with the help of the priest who was an old musician himself. A lot of people got up to speak but for once I wasn’t among them. I found myself thinking back over the thirty two years since we first played music together and could think of plenty of stories from those years but none I wanted to share. Many of them related to idiosyncrasies of Maity’s that had brought amusement to long boring rehearsals or country miles but somehow, it seemed disrespectful to bring them into the funeral and I was content to listen to all those who were choosing to remember the finer things about him, such as his loyalty, talent and dedication to his family. His daughters all spoke and wrote tributes. They were a handful when they were growing up but they acknowledged that and spoke only of the wonderful man who had taken on the job as father to them and done it well. I saved my stories for another time - such as now.
Maity was not particularly well educated but he was interested in everything. As a consequence of this, he had to express an opinion on everything that came up in conversation, whether he knew anything about the topic or not. One day, Blossom was talking about an IQ test that he had done at work. They used to use these in some places to choose candidates for advancement or further training. Maity’s comment was definitely the last word on the subject. “My mate and me went for IQ tests once,” he said. “I did well. I got 69 but my mate failed!”
He was a very nervous passenger in a car (something I understand well) and he would sometimes come and stand in the door well at the front of the bus, gripping onto the handrail as if his life depended on it. The worst time I remember was when we played for the opening of the Dinner Plain Ski Resort. It meant a long trip into the mountains with chains on the bus wheels and a blizzard trying to blanket the front windscreen. Maity was too nervous to stay in his spot in the door well and his agitation was driving us all mad. His eyes seemed to be about to pop out of his head as he gazed down the mountain side, convinced that we were going over the edge at any minute. In the end, he curled up in the foetal position and went to sleep until it was all over.
His day came not long after. Tony O’Rourke was with us so it must have been around 1984-5. We flew down to either King Island or Flinders Island, I can’t remember which, to play for the cricket club. Our pilot had done the trip hundreds of time but his usual passengers were crayfish heading to the Melbourne Market. He seemed a likeable enough bloke and was well known at the cricket club where he settled down to a few beers with his mates. He then settled down to a few more. Chris pointed this out to me as he was concerned that the pilot was drinking at all when he had to fly us home in the morning and we watched in dismay at the end of the night as two of his mates carried him, unconscious, from the room, his feet dragging uselessly in the dust.
At nine the next morning, we waited nervously at the airstrip. When he finally arrived he looked bloody awful. We had a show that day at the Myer Music Bowl and we knew there were no other flights to Melbourne. We debated whether to refuse to fly back that day, thereby missing the show, or risk flying with a pilot who was well below par. Our sense of duty to our fans won out over our good sense and we climbed aboard. We took off well enough and climbed quickly through a fairly thick cloud cover. It was very turbulent just above the clouds and the little plane, which was fairly heavily loaded with five of us and all our equipment, was tossed around like a ping-pong ball in a washing machine. Instead of rising above this, we continued to skim the tops of the clouds while we banged our heads against the walls of the plane and worried about the thousands of dollars worth of instruments that were being shaken about. Our pilot finally explained that he had radioed to change his flight plan so that he could fly at this altitude. He figured that the turbulence was what was needed to keep him from falling asleep!
We certainly didn’t share his problem. We were all wide awake. Looking around the cabin, Ron looked grim but resigned. Chris, who hates flying at the best of times, was sitting, white knuckles gripping the edges of the seat, staring straight ahead and saying nothing. Tony was obviously distressed but was trying to hide it by talking in a loud and excited voice and I don’t mind admitting to being more than a little nervous. At last, through a hole in the clouds we saw Moorabbin airport directly below. Our pilot, seeing this, threw the plane into a steep curving dive that had us on the ground in less than a minute. Now I knew why the Pope always kissed the ground when he got off a plane.
And where was Maity through all this, the man who went to water travelling on the ground? He was sitting up front chatting away to the pilot about cray fishing, the islands and people or families that they both knew, absolutely oblivious to the idea that there might be anything amiss. Whereas we all crawled from the plane feeling shattered and Tony swore never to fly in a small plane again (“If I can’t drive there, I’m not going”), Maity bounced out as fresh and chirpy as a spring cricket. He’d had a wonderful flight.
All these stories were going through my mind as I sat in the church but as the time passed, each speaker added his or her tributes to build up a far broader picture of the man we called Maity than I carried in my memory. I found myself realising that I had never really appreciated him for what he was, a great little guy who was a better friend to me than I was to him. I knew him best as the musician whose skill playing behind me made me look good on stage. I knew I couldn’t replace him musically but the dominant thought at the time was of how, over thirty three years of what I had called friendship, I had never really got to know him as anything other than a musician. It gave me a deeper sense of loss for what might have been than for what had actually been taken away.
The priest talked about how musicians have a strong sense of spirituality as music is an expression of the beauty of God. Maity’s was certainly a special gift that came from somewhere well beyond human reasoning. His talent brought happiness to a lot of people though at times he carried a lot of sadness in his life. I hope he’s found happiness now. Goodbye Sparra! I’ll miss you.