Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river . . .

A long time ago now, more than thirty years, I became an habitué of an Auckland nightclub called Jilly’s. Funny, I can’t even remember where it was though I retain a clear image of the inside layout. Somewhere off High Street perhaps, down towards Customs Street. We’d go there late, after a gig or a show, and stay later; the attraction was the band. At that point they didn’t have a name, they were just called the Jilly’s Band. Put together by Dave McCartney, ex Hello Sailor, whom at that stage I’d known for ten years or so; we used to hang out around town with a gaggle of other 20 year olds in the early ’70’s. Dave had teamed up with Paul Hewson (Dragon) and they were writing songs together in preparation for going out on the road. Paul Woolwright was the bass player and Jim Lawry the drummer; Beaver used to come in and sing with them most nights and I seem to remember a sax player was well – was his name Walter? They were hot. A really good dance band. They’d play two or three or four sets a night and no-one would leave until they finished. There was an upright piano that Paul played and people would buy him drinks, exotic coloured cocktails of all descriptions, which he would line up along the top of it: an abiding memory of those wild nights was the upright piano rocking on the stage while that row of drinks bounced and slopped along – but somehow never spilled. I used to go there with a friend, Sue, who was their Number One Fan. She was older than me, at that time separated from her husband and estranged from her two kids; a lot of people thought she was crazy but I didn’t find her so. She was strange, yes, with her tarot cards and her premonitions and her conviction that David Bowie spoke through the radio directly and personally to her; but no stranger than a lot of people are and, this is perhaps the important thing, not someone who ever threatened or abused or tried to put others down. Sue loved to dance and she would always be the first on the floor when the band began to play. They regarded her with a sort of amused tolerance which she persisted in seeing as actual respect if not veiled worship; but it’s also true that it’s fans that keep a band honest and if Sue lost the vibe and stalked off the dance floor, as sometimes happened, the band took note and remedied things quick smart. Later,when they did go out on the road as the Pink Flamingos, I went with them as their lighting roadie; while Sue continued to haunt the dance floor at their gigs at the Gluepot, the Windsor Castle, the Rhumba Bar, wherever. Why am I recalling all this now, here? It’s because of a song. Last week I happened to play a Cowboy Junkies compilation I made up once and on it is their version of Neil Young’s Powderfinger. Dave used to cover that song at Jilly’s and his was the first version of it I ever heard – I still think it the best though I don’t know that he ever recorded it. It’s one of the great songs of North American history, like The Band’s The Weight and half a dozen Dylan numbers that are roughly contemporary; that is, songs from what Greil Marcus calls that old, weird America. As with The Weight, there are screeds of gobbledegook about it out there on the web but all it does is emphasize the imperviousness of the lyrics to interpretation. I’ve had it in my head for days now and this post is, I guess, an attempt to exorcise the ear worm – which will no doubt fail . . . just think of me as one you never figured . . . 


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2 responses to “Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat coming up the river . . .

  1. throughhisown

    On the Saturday night following the demise of Hendrix (1970) we hired a sound system and played his music from the Albert Park band rotunda. I remember the first to begin dancing was a Sue (a redhead) a recent “escapee” from Lake Alice Hospital. Just wondering….
    The most notable event of that night was the minor riot that occurred when the council turned the power off at midnight.

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