THE BRIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD

I always remember that dream-vision of a long cold country road stretching out straight in front of me and going on, disappearing into the blurred infinity of the horizon.

I feel that I’ve been on this road all my life and yet every time I see it again in my dreams it’s from the same viewpoint and I realise I’ve made no noticeable headway.  That’s when I feel weary and have to sit a spell and ponder it all. The only traffic passing me on this lonely road are the memories of my life flashing by like a huge over-loaded truck.

A truck thunders past and in the ensuing mist of dust I see my mum and dad. The haze clears and there they are. Unchanged. Smiling at me from across the road, and then gone. It makes me miss them so much I ache. Perhaps they were the only two people who ever really understood me. And loved me without agenda for what I was, and not what I was later perceived to be. All I know is, I’ve had to come a long way on my own. And that makes you strong. But every thing comes at a price and sometimes I wonder whether too much strength can make you as hard as a rock. And just as cold.

Another truck and I glimpse my first wife. Still beautiful and young and spirited. She too smiles at me but it’s different from the past. Her smile now exudes understanding, and empathy. Perhaps sympathic that I have been stuck here on this road for so long. She got away. And now knows the peace, wisdom and sunshine of the other side. I yell out, “We were too young, that’s all. And too poor. Nobody’s fault!” But she is gone in a mist of dust as another truck of memories flashes by and all I’m left with is her smile of warmth.

Why do I only see the dead on this road? Are they trying to entice me over to the other side? Sometimes I get so tempted I stand but at the last moment always remember something that compels me to sit again. And wait.

More deafening noise and dust. Then, there’s my Uncle Horrie who was never acknowledged by my family. An outcast for things beyond his control. I always liked him and felt sorry for his pain. He smiles at me and waves too. He seems so much more confident and at peace. Perhaps he is now sorry for me?

He yells out to me, “It doesn’t matter what they say about you. Over here, there’s only one truth. And it’s so clear to everyone there’s no need for words”. 

I stand again. Wanting to cross and escape all those who’ve knifed me in the back. The pain doesn’t come from the knife wounds but the realisation that friends would betray you. And that pain doesn’t ever heal. Some were bought by money. Some by fame. Some, just to see you fall.

I sit again.

Another truck passes and I’m distracted by the rumble and dust again. As it clears, I see my smiling Grandma as she nods to acknowledge my existence. She yells out, “You don’t talk to me enough, y’know?…You were the apple of my eye. And still are. I gave you your name. Frank by name, frank by nature. Keep telling the truth, no matter how much they hate it. And smile. They hate that too. Bye baby. See you soon”. 

I stand and walk a few paces onto the road, but an approaching truck forces me back.

When the dust clears I see a group of people but it’s my heart that’s the first to recognise them as it warms my entire body. I see my Uncle Frank, whom I was named after, who died before I was born. His sensitive nature taken by a war he had no right to be dragged into. But here he is, looking as young as he did in all those framed photographs my mother cherished until her dying day.  Then there is Uncle Bill who was always the beacon of integrity; Auntie Gladys; Uncle Arthur; Uncle Jack, Auntie Dagma; Uncle Alf and Auntie Daphne, Johnny Wheeler (still yelling out boxing tips to me and that I need a haircut); Brian Hickey (my first manager who believed in me); and Big Bill Stephenson (my boyhood football hero). They all look so pleased to see me and are yelling out things but I can’t hear what they’re saying. Too many voices and too much to catch up on. I smile back with a joy that makes my cheeks ache, as I wave like an excited child. The warmth that fills my body tells me I’m home.

I take a few steps onto the road, towards them, all reaching out with open arms to embrace me. Suddenly I see everything with such a heightened clarity it fills me with a deep sadness at all the mistakes I have made in my life. Seeing where I let someone down; seeing those I befriended who were never my friends to begin with; those I trusted who ultimately worked against me; all the times I was weak instead of strong; the times I was strong when I needed to be flexible; seeing the women who were lovely but all wrong, who would take me from my work and all the people I loved; and all the times I said “Yes” when I meant “No“.

I am so lost in these painful remembrances, that the next thing I remember I am back, sitting on my side of the road, and looking into that faraway horizon that may very well be just a theatrical backdrop for all it means to me.

I am weary from surviving too many life shattering jolts, too close together. Jolts that would’ve killed some, that have killed some, and yet I go on. Why? Must I continue on my way feeling that I have taken 12 rounds of the best Muhammad Ali could give at his peak? Why? In the dying words of my mother, “What’s the use?” And yet, still the jolts continue. What is the use?

Then I am crying, my head in my hands in case someone sees. Seconds later looking like I am wiping the dust from my eyes because, as Marc Jordan says “That’s how men cry”.

So here I am. Back at the beginning of this recurring dream. Weary but wise. Lost but found. Aching but hopeful. Waiting for God to begin the play-off music and not to blow my cue. When you gotta go, you gotta go, y’know?

Why am I still here and so many are gone?

Maybe it’s true that God calls home first those he loves the most.

A dear friend of mine who has a connection to the spirit world tells me, “You’re here a bit longer to complete a few more projects, and receive some praise, but most importantly, to save someone’s life”. 

Now, wouldn’t that be something worthwhile to cross to the other side of the road with?

 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

 

Photograph by Vanessa Allan.

DAY IS DONE

It's push and shove
And Christmas Eve
You stole my heart
Now I wear it on my sleeve
And I'm standing here
Where a boy once stood
When he dreamed of worlds
That lay beyond the woods...

Daniel Boone and Peter Pan
Davy Crockett and Spiderman
We fought together
Blood brothers every one
We used to save the world
Before each day was done...

It's winter now
On Nelson Street
The shadow men
Celebrating my defeat
Never been afraid
And not about to start
So they stole my dreams
Don't mean they broke my heart

Daniel Boone and Peter Pan
Davy Crockett and Spiderman
I fought beside them
Blood brothers every one
We used to save the world
Before each day was done...

And I'm wishing hard
On every star I see
That you'll find a place
In your heart for me...

It's Silent Night
And final drinks
I'm too far gone
To hear what anybody thinks
Now I'm walking home
Can someone tell me
Where that is?
Somewhere someone wakes
To a Christmas kiss

Daniel Boone and Peter Pan
Davy Crockett and Spider Man
I fought beside them
And with Zorro I would run
We used to save the world
Before each day was done...

Before each day was done...

It's done...


Cc) Frank Howson 1998






THE MAN IN THE BLACK HAT AND THE LONG BLACK COAT.

When I was a small boy living in St. Kilda, both my dad and mum would point out a man in a black hat and a long black coat to me. “You see that man, son?…Well he has been walking around St. Kilda for years. Long as we can remember. And he never seems to age. He must be a hundred years old!” Always intrigued by a good mystery, I from then on took great notice of this man. Over the years, as I grew to be a man, I would always look around at local markets, street performances, Luna Park, crowded Saturday night boulevards, and sure enough, there he would be. And as I aged, he always appeared to look the same. A middle aged man, neither smiling or frowning, just there. A face in the crowd. Being a romantic, I thought maybe he was the eternal wanderer. A soul who was chained to this life and the suburb he loved, and his limbo was to forevermore, or until God’s forgiveness was granted, wander aimlessly these streets in search of a meaning he had failed to dis-cipher in his life here.

When I’d see him, I’d always stand transfixed waiting to see if he’d return a smile, or a nod of the head, or just an icy stare. But no. Nothing. Expressionless. No eye contact. This was a man well used to being alone. His face looked like he was a foreigner. Perhaps from somewhere in Europe. Germany?…France?…Vienna?…Maybe he’d escaped the war and had left behind his loved ones, his home, his belongings…and like his friends he too had become a ghost. A shadow. A man cursed to wander this life as punishment for running away from his true destiny.

I too ran away from my loved ones, my home, my belongings…and for the same reason, perhaps. There were dark clouds forming and I’d been advised that I could be dragged into a swamp that, although masterminded by others, justice could be blind in such circumstances. I went to Los Angeles as, in some circles, my work was still respected there and possibly some jobs could come my way, which they did. For nine years.  I became a physician. A script doctor. Re-writing other people’s screenplays to make them better. No credit but the money was a living. Occasionally writing some songs that got into some movies. Writing my memoirs on my life in the movies business, well, all the parts that weren’t too painful to regurgitate at that time. The wounds were still too open and although time does heal, ones does remain maimed. It’s stated in the small print when we signed on for this life but one is always too preoccupied with excitement and hope to notice.

Although I had amassed a great deal of experience making 12 movies in Australia, the experience I received in L.A working with the legendary Arthur Hiller, Joe Eszterhas, Amy Ephron, Michael Richards, Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, Sally Kirkland, P.F. Sloan, John Grimaldi, Heath Ledger, Eric Burden, Bernard Fowler, Terry Reid, Waddy Wachtel, Rick Rosas, Sherry Lansing, Phil Jones, Michael J. Pollard, Stacy Michelle, John Savage, Helen Mirren, Jackie Lomax, Wade Preston, Creed Bratton, Damion Damizza Young, Peter Burke, Eric Idle, John Capek, Barry Robinson, Mike Smith, William Friedkin, Thea Gill, Jack Tempchin, Patricia Clarkson, etc., etc., etc., took me to a whole other level. How could you not learn something?

Nine years went by like nine months. The last two years in a haze of a personal heartache, the theft of an idea that I lived to see the thief make millions from as well as get honoured with the highest award a country can give for such an original idea, and the subsequent spiral from meeting too many people who weren’t really there.

If it hadn’t been for the kindness and humanity of Barry Robinson and Mike Smith, I most likely wouldn’t be here today. So if you want to blame anyone, you have their names.

So one day,  as the result of a turn of events, I returned from across the sea to my birthplace, St. Kilda. The first lyric I wrote as a result was…

This is my country, these are my friends, this is the place my journey ends, I stand before you my heart in my hand, a refugee in my homeland, I did my best, I fought my war, I’ve seen enough to want no more, May I lay my weary baggage down to walk inside your door? Send out the word that I’ve returned, my face is lined with lessons learned, I thought my day was almost done, but here I am, your prodigal son…”

Some time later, encouraged by my friend Richard Wolstencroft to dip my toe into the icy water again, I began a new film, “Remembering Nigel” – a film about a group of people remembering a man they once knew who is now deceased. Trouble is, everyone’s opinion of this man and their recollections of him are so diverse and conflicting you soon realise nobody knew the poor bastard at all! And the more they speak of him, the more they reveal about themselves. It is still deemed too original for most distributors to release into a marketplace filled with movies for 14 year olds.  It is an epic account loosely based on my life, heightened here and there for either comedy relief or dramatic punch. It is also a movie that connects with most people on a very deep, profound spiritual level. Well, that is, if you still have a spirit in this mad world we survive in.

When making this film, it became obvious that we’d have to see some funny flashbacks of Nigel. But in order to retain that underlying message that we are all Nigel, how best to capture that? Well, seeing I was directing, it was easier for me to portray Nigel as I was obviously on set all the time, so, whenever we had some downtime or an actor was running late, the crew and I would knock off some Nigel flashbacks.

Whilst in preproduction, I was out in Chapel Street one day and saw a shop with a huge half price sale on. Not intending to buy anything but a bit of time on my hands, my instinct steered me into the store to browse. And there it was. Only one left. And miraculously in my size. A rather uniquely cut long black coat. I knew instantly this was Nigel’s everyman attire. I scooped it up, and then it became obvious a black hat was needed, and that we’d only ever shoot Nigel from behind and never see his face. The black hat and the long black coat would be to Nigel what the Lone Ranger’s blue suit, white hat and mask were to him. As Martin Landau summed up when he saw the rough cut, “Everyone who’s ever felt misunderstood in their life, will see themselves as Nigel”.

Which brings me back to the man in the black hat and the long black coat who wandered St. Kilda for years, and who I actually saw again whilst filming Nigel’s death on St. Kilda beach one rainy overcast day. Or perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me. But I swear I saw him in the distance walking away along Jacka Boulevard that grey misty late afternoon.

After we wrapped the filming and it was all in the can, as they say, I, in the habit of wearing the black hat and coat, continued to do so. Only recently did I have the epiphany that I have become, around St. Kilda, the man in the black hat and the long black coat. Sometimes I see people pointing me out, perhaps a few here and there know of me or my work, or maybe a father or mother are saying to their child, “You see that man?…Well he has been walking around St. Kilda for years. Long as we can remember. And he never seems to age. He must be a hundred years old!”

So perhaps I have been recast as the eternal wanderer. And my journey has a long way to go.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2017

 

photograph by Vanessa Allan.

THE HOPE

When I was a small boy, shortly after being pushed into this world through blood and tears, I  began to dream. These dreams weren’t like normal ones in my sleep but rather, much to the consternation of my teachers, during my awake hours. Some of these dreams were bigger than me. And a few would turn out to be so big they would eventually run me down. In time I took this to be a sign from God who lets us know, now and again, that there is a price for everything in this world.

I would pay for mine with a broken spirit reflected in a broken voice. A humbling condition that also teaches one that the true road to God is through humility.  It seems that you can only reach Him by looking up.

I strolled the dirty, broken streets of my youth looking down at the pavement locked in these dreams. In some of them I was Davy Crockett laying down my life for a noble cause.  In others, I was Zorro and my hair was perfect and I always got away unharmed to fight another day.  I found that these dreams could actually get you through your life, even on a zero budget. All you had to do was find a park bench, close your eyes, lift your head until you felt the warm comforting rays of the sun, and let your mind go off to exotic locations and scenarios.

It was good to be young in those days. Without TV and the internet and (c)rap and the Kardashians we had no idea what we were missing. Or how good we had it. Each day was all we owned and it was amazing how much we could fit into it.

I dreamed that I would be bigger than my dad in height and temperament and wealth, and I lived to achieve all that and to discover how meaningless it was. Especially the wealth. It is only in the hard wisdom that I fully see how big was father was. In spite of all his flaws, or maybe as a result of them. For no one gets to be perfect on this lonely journey and to attempt the conceit of striving for it will break you and those you love until you all splinter and disappear in different directions. Take it from one who tried.

So many were lost in action by my failed campaign.

Like a war, some dreams can kill you, maim you, or render you insane from shell shock. There is only so much horror one can witness. Some of us are so mad we get up, dust ourselves off and go on, no matter what we have lost. For to look back at what we have sacrificed following our dream may render us rigid with fear from the monstrous wrecks we have left strewn in our wake.

Over the years our dreams, like us, become less complex and more realistic. And, if we have learned anything at all, we have learned to say thanks for each simple one that comes true.

These days I do feel like Davy Crockett at the Alamo, weary from a very long battle that one can’t run from as there are too many eyes looking our way for direction and an example. But like Davy must’ve learned in those final lonely hours, there is no glory, that comes much later and is spun by the myth makers, there is only blood, sweat and tears. And an intense feeling of loss paid for those fleeting moments of inner warmth that made us feel one with the universe. Perhaps that warmth was hope. A hope that maybe some of it meant something to someone. And if so, maybe we were for a time bigger than ourselves and perhaps, if that’s the case, the dream will go on. And maybe someone much wiser and stronger will one day clench in the palm of their calloused hand the golden ring. I truly hope so.

 

(c) Frank Howson

 

MADMEN IN THE WILDERNESS

I saw a crazy man in the heart of the city cursing the people he passed, cursing the buildings, cursing someone long gone, cursing God for this Purgatory.

People reacted in different ways. Some froze and willed themselves to be invisible, some scurried away in the opposite direction, some watched in that detached zombie way people stand transfixed at car crash sites, fascinated by the sight of real disaster and yet non-reacting as though watching a movie play out.

So what does it take to make someone just crack one day? One huge life tragedy too much, or a series of small ones too close together that defy our idea of logic and fairness? Perhaps if we raise our voices above the rumbling wearing down drone sound of the busy city traffic, God will hear us?

Why does our Maker withdraw his grace and allow us to free fall through darkness and scorn so far from home? Or are we meant to always be alone in search of ourselves in others, a perilous journey not for the fainthearted. Or the dreamers.

Maybe the crazy man in the street had been chosen to heed his inner calling to join the wild throng and it is therefore in the madness that lies the ultimate truth?

Was Don Quixote mad because he chose to see the world as it should be? Or were the people who gathered to ridicule and laugh at his expense the mad ones?

John Lennon, during his time, was called mad by many, especially the press and the conservative establishment. But his brutal death at the hands of, ironically, a mad man has now elevated him to the status of martyr and messiah. Today, his human flaws have been sanitised to fit what is acceptable in the gospel of his life. The nobody mad man who shot him for a shot at immortality got a life sentence, while the famous mad man got death. And then in death, rose again.

When you look closely at it, most of our true heroes in history were called mad during their lifetimes because they attempted to do something different. To shine a light into the darkness that most of us are afraid to acknowledge. To take us where we would never have dared go if not for them. To make us think and, more importantly, to make us feel. In achieving this, a great many of them paid with their lives so that we may live.

So next time you see a mad man or woman in the street, spare a few seconds to ponder the forces that shaped them. And perhaps in those seconds we may awaken the humanity in ourselves.

(c) Frank Howson 2017

GOD FORGIVE THE MAN WHO STEALS FROM HIS FRIEND

God forgive him, Lord, he knows not what he does. Unable to sleep, haunted by ghosts of all opportunities gone, still he goes on living not a life, but an existence. And the clock that cruelly ticks into his impending old age, treating him with the same snobbery he has shown every one of God’s creatures, is the only constant in what he has come to call his world. He is comforted only by the woman who won’t go away. In his youth he only dated the daughters of rich daddies, in the hope that he may eventually get access to Big Daddy’s hard earned fortune so he could fritter it away on his meaningless life. His chosen girlfriends were princesses with a range of two looks 1) Stunned deer look #1, and 2) Stunned deer look #2.

Now he has settled down with the only one who can tolerate him and live with the realisation that this too is her life sentence.

Some people are too refined to call him out when his hand is in their pocket. He takes this to mean that they are dumb, but no, they are three steps ahead and indulge him in this game as they silently grieve for his lowly evolution. Mistaking their looks of pity for forgiveness, he is doomed to have to return here many times scoring a crumb of enlightenment each visit. Some would call that hell.

He has read every book ever written on the art of the deal, seen every classic play expertly performed, and yet has learned nothing of the human spirit. To him it is as unfathomable as the concept of Eternity. Friendship is as complex as Socialism

Some have witnessed his best work and bear the scars. The man sent to jail for doing nothing but trusting that his word was true. The other man who lost his home and family based on a promise and a handshake. The banished woman who watched her parents die from the residue that their retirement fortune had been stolen from them.

Arrogance comes before a fall the ancient scriptures tell us. And man’s arrogance is on display everywhere from the skyscrapers of Manhattan to the wars fought for nothing. It is true we get the world we deserve. But how strange to finally wake to its harsh reality.

I pity the arrogant person for I know what awaits him or her. The path to God is through humility. And if you don’t humble yourself, God will surely do it for you. Whether that comes in losing your money, your house, your loved ones, your health, a limb, your voice, your way, whatever – you won’t leave this life unscathed. In the words of that modern poet, Jim Morrison, “No one here gets out alive.”

Hopefully, when that time comes you will leave this condemned place spiritually wealthy.

(c) Frank Howson 2017

RADIO DAYS

I loved listening to the radio when I was a small boy. My ear pressed up against the speaker of the mahogany radiogram, a furniture feature in our modest living room.  All those amazing artists whose voices shaped my life, i.e., Guy Mitchell, Rosemary Clooney, the young Elvis, Buddy Holly, Harry Belafonte, Anthony Newley, Eddie Cochrane, Patsy Cline, Sammy Davis Jnr., Little Richard, Jimmie Rodgers, Bobby Darin, Johnny Desmond, Louis Armstrong, Helen Shapiro, Johnny Horton, Ned Miller, Burl Ives, Johnny Ray, Tommy Steele, The Ink Spots, etc., etc. An eclectic bunch, and I loved ’em all.

My mum said I had an acute ear for voices and as a party trick she and my dad would challenge the guests to put the radio on and I would guess the singer within a few bars.  I was four.

My parents were slow to get their own television set so unless we visited relatives on a Sunday we had to settle for listening to the radio. It was our only outlet for news updates, music, plays and comedy sketches. Oh, and serials. I’ve always felt so sorry for my mum. She was addicted to a daytime radio soap opera serial entitled “Doctor Paul” – it ran for a phenomenal 4,634 episodes and my mum listened to 4,633 with rapture. I could’ve been hanging from a rope in the bathroom and she wouldn’t have noticed. Unfortunately she had to go out one day for a real doctor’s appointment and came home to the devastating news that she had missed the final episode. I tell you, the grief I witnessed from that poor woman rivalled Jackie’s after the J.F.K assassination. She never did find out what exactly happened. So I guess she shared that with Jackie too.

Those radio plays and serials were magic and a real art form, creating a visual world in our minds using just voices and effects. Orson Welles learned much from his radio days and brought a lot of his sound tricks to his film-making. If you close your eyes and listen to “Citizen Kane” it is as aurally interesting as its visuals.

When I was 14 and a child no school room could teach, I ran away and never went back, no doubt much to the relief of my teachers. My mum, who always took my side when I was in trouble and despairing, accepted my decision without judgement or debate, and took me into the city to try and get me a job as an office boy at radio station 3DB. She knew I loved music and the entertainment business so in her intuitive wisdom she felt this was the right starting point for my future life. And that I would learn a lot. And so I did. For the rest of her life my ambition was fuelled by my efforts to repay her faith in me.

As fate would have it, 3DB were not looking for an office boy at that time. Another lesson learned – success is all about timing. So, not taking no for an answer my quick thinking mum walked me a few blocks to radio station 3UZ. And yes, a meeting with destiny. The general manager, Mr. Lewis Bennett, a man of such class and distinction he has had a lasting effect on me, gave me the once over, liked the fact that I dressed like him in a nice suit, polished shoes and a bow tie, and gave me the job. I smiled at him with tears in my eyes as I felt the joy of finally being accepted in the outside world after years of humiliation and rejection in the then cruel school system. The warm inner joy I felt at being wanted and appreciated made me work my guts out for $16 a week so as not to let Mr. Bennett down. Sometimes he even sent me his leftover lunchtime crayfish sandwiches, and I sat in my chair in his secretary’s office, and slowly savoured them bite by bite, feeling like a king. And silently giving thanks for how lucky I was.

That job imbued me with many lasting ethics – the pride of working hard, not letting anyone down, being on time, not leaving until the job is done, being polite to people, the unselfishness of always presenting a positive attitude even if you’re down, and not taking the job for granted but, instead, always remembering that you have that job because someone had faith in you.

I learned so much in my three years at 3UZ that it’s too much to detail but, because it’s so ingrained in me, even today I may do something, or give a young person advice, and then realise it’s a lesson learned from those radio days.

In those magical days of the Sixties, dee jays were gods. And I worked with the best of them – Stan Rofe, Ken Sparkes, John Vertigan, Allan Lappen, Don Lunn, Graham Cherry, Sam Anglesea, Noel Ferrier, Mary Hardy, Jimmy Hannon, etc, etc, etc. We will not see their like again. Because, like a rare vintage wine, those days are gone.

But some of us remember.

(c) Frank Howson 2017