The following is a piece I wrote for a postgraduate course in Creative Non-fiction during my Masters in Creative Writing. It was based on an interview with David Stephenson, aka, Harry Tangiers, trumpeter and singer for the Sydney band Waiting for Guinness. The interview took place in May 2005. I had intended to trim it and try to get it published, but I got caught up in other work and the window of opportunity passed. I thought I should include it here as the more online hits for Harry Tangiers, the better!
Waiting for Harry
I’m sitting in sun in the window of the Sir John Young hotel, gateway to the Spanish quarter, drinking my second schooner and keeping my eyes peeled for a lanky blonde scarecrow topped by a panama hat. Harry Tangiers is running late. He sent me a text to alert me to his tardiness and really I’m not fussed – already I’ve taken ten photographs of the old couple by the George Street window.
I feel a certain responsibility for Harry. Upon returning from four years in Europe, I picked up the Herald and read a review of a band called Waiting for Guinness, which praised the “sizzling trumpet from Harry Tangiers.” My heart leapt. Could it really be the case that my old workmate David Stephenson had taken on the nickname I gave him years before in order to distinguish him from other Davids in the workplace and transformed himself into a sizzling trumpeter?
I made a bee-line for their next gig and sure enough, there he was: Harry Tangiers, busker extraordinaire and now front man of the eclectic, gypsy punk, cabaret, folk and jazz outfit, Waiting for Guinness. In no time I was hooked by the band’s energy and attended several gigs over the ensuing weeks. Yet, in the post-gig chaos, it was difficult to manage more than a few brief exchanges with Harry and it was only natural that I seek an opportunity to find out more. Riding high on a wave of critical praise for their second album, The Show and a sequence of great live reviews from the festivals at which they have become audience favourites, I wondered whether Harry himself had changed.
At last Harry walks in, smiling warmly and offering both hands. “How are you, Mr Lucky?” he says, making me feel as though it’s me who’s the showman.
“I’m great, and yourself?”
I buy a round of beers and soon have reason to suspect that Harry is also on his third schooner. In the interests of sobriety I say, “Let me know when you’re hungry and we’ll head straight for the restaurant.”
“No rush,” says Harry, “there’s plenty of time for a few quality beers. And don’t worry about taking me anywhere fancy. If you’re determined to spend money on me, I’d rather eat on the cheap – that way you can buy me a whole stack more beers.”
We both laugh at this. I learned recently that Harry still busks to make ends meet and want to treat him to a bit of luxury. He occasionally struggles to meet the maintenance payments for his five year-old son, Zephyr.
“Hey, it was my birthday last week,” says Harry.
“That’s great, here’s to it.”
“Oh, cheers, man.”
We clink glasses.
“I have one of those books,” he says. “You know, of important things that happened on birthdays. I turns out that I share my birthday with Pier Paolo Pasolini – murdered by a seventeen year old bum-boy – with Rex Harrison, who was married six times, and with Rosa Luxemburg, the German communist revolutionary. All admirable people,” he adds with a wink.
“So tell me more about Harry Tangiers,” I ask. “Where have you taken him – what’s his story?”
“The real Harry Tangiers is an old, bitter, lantern-jawed man in the body of beautiful, slender, young man.”
We both laugh at this statement.
“The truth is that Harry Tangiers is a cranky bastard, but deep down he’s full of love. He’s just sick of the misery that’s served up to so many people on a daily basis, but he still finds plenty of time for chewing the fat in his own way.”
The Harry I remember was always “chewing the fat,” one of his favourite expressions. He was a glass half-full man for whom simple things were sufficient, and sufficiency more than enough. A cask of wine, a packet of cigarettes and a song to sing, he was a sensualist, enthralled by rolling his own smokes or sipping from a cold beer. The less Harry had, the richer others’ left-overs. I remember Harry as a curious blend of the reckless country lad, the north-shore gentleman and the debonair flâneur. I could never quite predict whether he’d lay one of his second-hand tweed jackets across a puddle for a lady, or jump onto the table in a pub and, swinging his glass, burst into a rendition of I got plenty of nothin’. His personality could be at least strongly hinted at by his eagerness to sing Karaoke and then by his choice of Old Man River. An English and music scholar and an indefatigable drinker, he often misbehaved, but mostly harmlessly. Harry’s idea of a good backyard barbecue was to jump in the flames and toast his handmade, cream loafers.
“I never really did anything wrong as a kid,” says Harry. “I never thought to shoplift or burn the house down or steal a car or even take up smoking on the sly. I was always a real goody two-shoes, you know. I didn’t really have the maverick spirit in me.”
He pauses to sip his beer.
“After university, things changed. I became a very angry man. When I was twenty-six, I had my beautiful son, Zephyr, and after that I went through a period of real anger and frustration because I thought I hadn’t properly spent my youth yet. The pendulum swung between manic joyousness and destructive, attention-seeking behaviour. It was a confusing time and I can’t say I’m proud of everything I did and said.”
“Give me an example.”
“Well, for instance, five years ago, I was playing in a Mariachi band for the Mexican Olympic team. I wanted to get my fill of the liquid fee so I drank all night and then swiped a bottle of tequila into my trumpet case. I set off for the Side On café and got even more tanked on the bus. They have these jazz jams there and I got up on stage and started playing drunken folk trumpet. I was tanked, but speedy, violent, manic tanked. The musos didn’t like the stuff I was doing so I decided to change instruments – I packed up my trumpet and came back with a chair. I jumped on the microphone and screamed ‘you jazz wankers are a bunch of relics,’ then I threw the chair into the audience and left.”
Harry shakes his head, though a trace of a smirk suggests pride in his perspective.
“When I woke up the next day, I said to myself, ‘you’re a dickhead, Dave,’ and went straight back there to apologise to them. Partly because I felt really bad, but also because I was supposed to be playing there that Thursday. I talked to the manager, who was a big, kind Scotsman and no stranger to the ills of the drink. So, while the owners are there cursing me, he just said – ‘hey, Dave, what was the matter with you last night?’ So I told him – ‘too much tequila’. He said ‘It was a full moon as well, but all the same, I’m going to have to bar you for life.’ Now, of course, they want Waiting for Guinness to play there, but luckily, they don’t seem to know I’m in it.”
Harry drags on his cigarette and exhales a cloud of sunlit smoke. I take the chance to photograph him again and am struck by the honesty of his face. It is a long, handsome, if somewhat skeletal face. He looks like a man who knows how to draw rough solace from life; a little lonely and selflessly noble, I imagine him wrestling, proud and undefeated, with the broiling vicissitudes of fate.
Another round is finished and I ask Harry if he’s ready to eat something. Already I’m feeling woozy from these unfounded lunch-time beers.
“No rush, man,” says Harry. “Let’s take a walk, we’ll find something.”
We set off into the glare of a clear autumn day. A faint haze of dust softens the edges of the buildings and through my squint, Harry appears as thin and elongated as a distant figure through a heat haze.
“How about the Hollywood Hotel?” I suggest, as we turn into Bathurst Street.
“Yeah, that’s a great place,” says Harry. “It’s one of the last bastions of chaotic, left-wing absurdism outside of Newtown.”
We walk slowly towards this great, bohemian dive and are both disappointed to find it closed. Harry shrugs and suggests we keep heading deeper into Surry Hills. After a pleasant stroll down Crown Street, our need for refreshment finds us choosing the Dolphin Hotel. The front bar’s appeal is enhanced by long, afternoon rays and I photograph Harry again, this time in silhouette. We order another round and try not to be distracted by the rugby league.
My recollections of Harry were as a singer and guitar player. His bass voice once graced the choral group Inominata, his angelic leer lending an inspired humility to sixteenth-century part songs.
“So when did you take up the trumpet as your main instrument?”
“It was economic need that made me settle on the trumpet. As a guitar-playing, singing busker, I was a dime a dozen and just scraping through. It worked in India and Brussels, but not in Sydney. The first time I busked with my trumpet I doubled my income.”
Harry thinks a moment.
“When Guinness started out I soon realised that the one problem with being a horn player is that there often wasn’t anything to do in a song – so I developed the pantomime. I wanted to have a continuous presence on stage, so I started acting it up. The style is the lovechild of Peter Garrett and Baggy Pants and the Nitwits if you get my drift.”
“You were saying before how angry you were a few years back. Do you think some of that anger is still there? Is it partly that which gives you the energy you put into your performances?”
Harry both nods and shakes his head.
“It’s a different anger, really. Mostly against politicians these days.”
“Not Jazz wankers then?”
Waiting for Guinness are not a political band per se and I get the impression they’re uncomfortable with being tagged a message band, but there’s no denying the content of many of their lyrics. Keeping out the Riff Raff on their first, self-titled album highlighted the hypocrisy and inhumanity of Australia’s detention policy, while the song George on their recently released second album, The Show, effectively constitutes a rant against the American president. Politicians from all sides of the spectrum come in for criticism. In the song Randy, Harry makes his feelings for the premier of NSW perfectly clear in the line “there’s no heart there, just a wallet full of cash.”
Harry sings with an angel’s voice, grazed and intoxicated in its passage over his smoky tonsils. His busking origins are prevalent in the lyrical sympathies of much of his material. The character of Harry Tangiers is a bum’s champion. In bittersweet, self-effacing songs such as Desolation Street¸ Gone Away, and Harry’s Song, the content is both empathetic and autobiographical; a celebration and lament for the daily rollercoaster of poverty and homelessness.
“You guys really give it everything when performing, as do the audiences. Does a lot of that energy come off the crowd as well?”
“For sure, but we’re pretty fired up even when there’s no one there. The simple fact is we’re all having a good time.”
On stage Harry sweats buckets. Distinguished by suit and hat, his performances are theatrical and anarchic, interspersing songs with rants and requests for liquid refreshment. Indeed, one of the band’s favourite tricks is to demand beers from the audience before continuing with the show. Playing like men possessed with an urgent desire to atone for all the Jewish weddings they have missed, the overriding vibe emanating from these seven musicians is one of good cheer and self-deprecating humour. The mixture of cabaret, gypsy, kletzmer, folk and jazz is accentuated by their fancy hats and costumes and eccentric stage names.
“So how did you feel when Serge left the band and you took over as front man?”
I refer to Serge “The Rockin’ Jew” Stanley who left the band in 2003 to pursue other interests in New York.
“The funny thing is,” says Harry, “that I always thought of myself as the front man. Guinness started with Dirk (Irk Krumhorn) and I busking. We had both been in a band called Flaccid Ashback and yet, when it came to busking, we didn’t know the same songs so we had to make a few up. When Serge came on board, I guess he really did take over the lead role, but he had a lot more confidence than I did. Serge was very much a front-man. He taught me everything about confidence. He taught me not to be afraid of my material.”
“Is there any one person you feel is a real driving force in the band? Yourself, for instance?”
“With Guinness the quality lies not in the solos but in the arrangements. We’re not about one big gesture, more the continuous gesture. As musicians we’re not top level, but as story tellers, well, that’s what we’re good at – Songwriters who can play instruments.”
“So what were your major influences as a musician?”
“I dunno – everything is the only answer.” He shrugs. “I really liked Billy Joel when I was ten. Then at seventeen I discovered the trumpet could be the lead voice in jazz. I really love this guy Bunk Johnson. He’s a melodic and conceptual player, human and genuine, not saccharine. I guess you could call him authentic. He used to say, ‘I only play as fast as I walk.’ I always liked that line.”
“Did you always have musical ambitions?”
“Yeah, among other things. I wanted to be a philosopher, and a teacher. Once being in a band was just a crazy idea I had. You know, Saturday nights were the time for getting on the juice and having crazy ideas. Now it’s gig night. Instead of having crazy ideas, I’m caught up in one full time.”
Four o’clock rolls around and both of us are well lathered. All of the restaurants I had in mind have closed after lunch and will not re-open for at least an hour. We buy a couple of bottles of white and set off down Crown Street. Hunger madness lends us dour expressions and we walk with a certain desperation, mouths watering and stomachs growling.
When we reach Cleveland Street and its circus of Lebanese restaurants, I suggest the banquet meal at Fatima’s, dreaming of garlic chicken. Harry agrees and we make for it, unblinking. We take a window seat and order pretty well everything. Relaxing with the knowledge that our meal is on its way, I fill the glasses and ask Harry about his son.
“Zephyr’s a beautiful boy. He’s turning six this year. He lives up in Byron with his mum now.”
“Is that hard for you?”
“Yeah, it is. I was actually going to move up there to be closer to him this year, but then things have really picked up with Guinness and so I’ve decided to stick around for at least a third album. It’s a tough choice and I spend a lot of time afraid of the consequences either way.”
He tells me more about his son as we drink wine and wait for our food to arrive. Staring at the crawling traffic outside, it strikes me that I have left out perhaps the most important question of all.
“So, Harry, I guess I should ask – are you happy?”
“For sure,” he nods enthusiastically. “I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend who I love and who loves me. Plus, there’s always philosophy to get me through. And with the band, you know, even if there’s no audience, we can still entertain each other. The con is, the remuneration is not great when split between seven people. But then, all I want is to be a bard, rich or poor. My family have given up on me getting a career that pays money, but they like what I do all the same.”
It is difficult to understand what has prevented Waiting for Guinness from achieving the same level of success as their contemporaries, The Cat Empire. Waiting for Guinness provide a much needed tonic to the Sydney music scene. Along with groups such as Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen and Doch, they have helped to generate the sudden and explosive birth of gypsy music and brought about something of a revival of interest in live gigs.
“Most of the gig venues have gone in this town,” says Harry, “but there’s still a core and we’re pushing as hard as we can to bring back live music to Sydney’s pubs. We’re trying to do it with humour and energy.”
Harry chuckles and gulps his wine.
“We make people sweat so much they buy a lot of beers, which is just what the publicans want.”
A moment later our food arrives and Harry’s phone rings. He asks if I don’t mind him taking the call, and indicate he should go ahead. As he answers the phone, I take the opportunity to photograph him again. I pretend I’m not listening to his conversation, but of course I can’t help hearing everything. It is a smiling conversation, warm and generous, full of a matey-ness that is devoid of machismo.
“You must get in touch with my cousin Col,” says Harry into his phone as he winds up the conversation. “He’ll take care of you. He’s a beautiful man.”
Somehow this last sentence seems to sum Harry up in one, and I feel my liking for him grow immensely. He is a prince amongst paupers, a true philanthropist who gives more than he takes. However long it takes for him to achieve the success he deserves, I feel it will be well worth the wait.