Fighting the bushfire

Fighting the Bushfire:
Reinventing the East Brunswick Club

A creative journalism thesis


Steinar Ellingsen

Submitted July 2007
La Trobe University


Part four: Fighting the Bushfire

Part one: “The end of an era, the beginning of another” | Part two: “Reinventing the East Brunswick Club” | Part three: Part three: “Long journey to the (new) East” | Part four: ”Fighting the bushfire” | Part five: “The year in review

After the opening night, Luke told me he hadn’t been able to enjoy himself too much at work. Before the show, he had talked up You am I to Pam and Pete as “The Rolling Stones of Melbourne,” to try and describe the importance of having a band of their calibre playing on the opening gig. Perhaps the analogy was a little overstated, but it was the biggest night the East Brunswick Club had ever had. The music was complimentary and the crowd thirsty, and Pam had kept hugging him all night and telling him how great everything was. For that particular reason Luke was a bit flustered. He had been drinking a few Cascade Lights during the night, sitting in the front bar to himself, taking a couple of minutes to escape the chaos and assess the situation. He had done many sold out nights before in different places, but it was a new world for him to run a venue with a kitchen and a bottle shop, in addition to the two bars. After we left the pub, we were sitting in the backyard at his new share-house having a smoke, both exhausted. “Light beer, huh?” he shrugged and was staring somewhat distantly into the ground.

There were only two more gigs in May, and things wouldn’t really start happening again in the band room until early June. It wasn’t going to be another sell-out until, perhaps, when Low (USA) was playing on the 7th. But then, there was always something that needed doing. Obviously, there were a lot of things Luke had to learn in the course of the process, and there was still a galaxy of things that had had to be done in the venue to really get it ready. Tens of thousands of dollars were being put into soundproofing the venue. Pam and Pete were applying to extend their liquor license from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m., and one particular neighbour was not very happy about the modern changes in his area. The pressure was on, and Luke was the chaos pilot. The onset was promising but challenging. Money was also waiting to be spent on proper air-conditioning to cater for 450 sweaty gig-goers, all privately invested.

He looked up. “You know, it wasn’t just one massive gig for me. I gotta do this again and again, probably another couple of thousand times.” It had felt like an accomplishment, but he didn’t want it to appear like a one-off victory, because it wasn’t. He couldn’t let himself be overwhelmed by one big show. He several times later explained a feeling of something like managing a football team that would have to play multiple Grand Finals in a year, without getting the glory of taking home a trophy. But more realistically, it was a bigger responsibility towards his employers than he had ever had before. Besides getting the venue going, the biggest task for Luke was probably to work in such a personal relationship with Pam and Pete. Working for a married couple – whose bed is under the same roof as their shared office – was a big change from working for a team of investors in the city. Pam and Pete have a beautiful refuge in North Gippsland, but they spend more than half their lives in the womb of the East. The large personal investments and the umbilical ties they had to the old pub were to become an occasionally heavy burden on Luke’s nervous system. At times, the confusion that came with the situation was too obvious, when trying to work out that golden compromise between what you want to achieve and what you really can achieve with the foundation you have. But, with a 3 a.m. license life would be easier for everybody – more trade, longer hours in a shift, and an extra day off per week. The arrangement would be better for everybody.

Solid trade

Come June, and 16 gigs were on the roster. A lot of people had commented on the decision to open up a new venue in the middle of winter, but with Love of Diagrams, Bluebottle Kiss, Wolf Eyes (USA), Gerling and Low coming up in the first month, things were shaping up and looking all right. The application to extend the liquor license was, however, refused by the council in mid-June. It caused heavy stress for everybody, but the target was immediately reset to have it sorted by the end of 2007. The Benjamins hired Marshall & Day to come and do sound tests to make sure their sound leakage was within the council’s accepted limits. It was, but certain improvements would have to be made to get the extended license.

One already troublesome neighbour immediately latched on to the possibility of creating havoc. He started a long nagging campaign via emails and sms, which could have meant serious trouble for the East. Police were called out twice in the first two months, but they found nothing wrong at the venue. On one occasion they even complimented the proprietors on the effectiveness of the sound proofing between the bars. “When it started with all the text messages from next door, it was just harrowing. He could have closed us down if we weren’t really keeping within the law,” said Pam in retrospect. A local councilman had also checked out the matter one night without finding anything to complain about. But our friend with the new hobby had no intention to call it quits. One guy working on the sound testing stepped down from the job, because he couldn’t handle the constant fuss. But no one copped bigger loads of the electronic ejaculations than Luke, obviously. In one particularly busy week, he received more than 15 text messages and a handful of emails complaining about noise from the venue. On one of the nights in question, there was no gig on and only about 20 people in the pub. The spiel continued for months, until the protestor eventually gave up, and moved house late in the year. Four humble Swedish students soon replaced him, and made the pub their second living room. The East had overcome another obstacle.

Around the same time, Pam told me, news was just in that a bunch of usual suspects were arrested on drug charges in a pub a couple of suburbs away. “You know those people, some of them were regulars we threw out of here 18 months ago. Half of them are in jail. One of them, he’s in for 7-10 years.” Needless to say she was glad to escape that kind of circus at the East, and she took it as another sign of a healthy change in their home.

Extended hours are vital

Pam would love nothing more than to decorate the place, but with a quarter of a million put into the roof alone, it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. There was still a lot more work to be done and a lot more money to be spent. But, ambitions were high and no one was going to stop the Benjamins from getting to their goal of extending their trading hours. Geographically in their vicinity, only The Retreat on Sydney Rd. had a 3 a.m. license and there was a lot of money to be made during the time that separates their opening hours. Probably, the particular time of night is also the most lucrative period in the night for music venues drink sales. One weekend in April, Ground Components and My Disco sold out both their shows. It was a massive weekend that would have gone forever if it could, hence the liquor license was the most important part of the East’s business plan. “Look how many people we’re putting out every weekend,” said Pam; hopelessly watching the crowd leave after My Disco. “There goes another couple of grand out the door. Sending them on their way down to The Retreat.”

Pam was generally satisfied with the general situation otherwise, and confident that the issue would resolve in the future. They would have to be patient, wait it out and keep sailing the ship on a steady course in the meantime. Try not to let the worries take over. Pam is very emotionally honest, and it is easy to tell how her day is going. On quiet nights she would walk behind the bar in the band room, between her office and the bottle shop, rolling her eyes. You could see the numbers reeling backwards inside her head. But there weren’t too many awful shows, except for a short period during the first couple of months, after which it was obvious that East Brunswick was not a very good area for emo or new metal. During the first year, the rate of 300+ shows had gone up significantly and quite a few shows had sold out. On those nights Pam would always stand on the side of the bar, hugging a cup of tea, and proudly admiring what was taking place in their old hotel. Her all-time favourite moment was when Airbourne came and played to a full house in November, and also shot a lot of footage for their Runnin’ Wild video at the East. Beer was floating wild and free in the air. It was massive. Going off. The night was topped when Joel O’Keefe performed his routine of walking through the crowd, climbing onto the bar and, with wide power stands, shredding a guitar solo. Pam immediately wanted them back for a double night. They where great: “great guys, great music, great crowd…” She absolutely loved it, and would probably have had them back every night of the week if she could.

Another sold out show helped build confidence that things were moving in the right direction. Fantastic, in Pam’s evaluation: “I have the best, going from Richard, Luke, Paul Martin, and to all of our staff. You know, at our age we should be looking at retirement, so we don’t have that knowledge that they bring to the place. And we couldn’t have come this far without any of them.” Pam dreamt that eventually the East would be “the best band venue in Melbourne.” They could do it, she had no doubt about it.“ Go the East!” they just needed that extended license.

Meanwhile, the Melbourne music press had agreed that it was generally nice place to go and see a show. Inpress’ ‘Howzat!’ announced it ‘Best first-player,’ and ‘Venue of the year’ at the end of 2006.[i] Apart from that particularly nice gesture, the general impression amongst the bar reviews were pretty much the same in describing the two worlds the East has to offer. The band room was described as exceptional and always featuring good sound, and despite the mildly chaotic and quirky feel in the front bar, it was still a nice place to hang out. The pub reminded one journo “of the pool room at her [friend’s] uncle’s place” (Inpress)[ii] while another said, “it is a makeshift jumble of furniture […] But like a student’s lounge room, it’s comfortable [and] at the EBC it’s all part of the experience and more often than not it still tastes good” (The Age).[iii]

“Fawlty Towers…”

Business was good and ran like a smooth operation most of the time. But a good business, like a good football team, will eventually have a bad day and play a bad ball game. And, one night in March everything went completely pear-shaped. On stage that night, Geoff Achison played two sets in his last show before relocating to the US to become a star with his blues guitar. Tickets were sold out.

I came in at seven and got three kegs up from the cellar and into the band room, and started setting up the bar. Soon after, Luke came in and said the pub had turned into a madhouse and I had to go out and help serving meals. 300 people had come in at once and all wanted dinner. Obviously this causes a bit of unexpected trouble, but knowing that the show was nearly sold out, perhaps we should have been better prepared for what was coming.

The pub was flat out with a lot of unhappy, generally 40+, customers. The staff tried their best to explain the trouble with limited capacity to the crowd, but there was not much change in the general mood of the place. “We have a small kitchen, with two people cooking their arses off. I’m afraid there will be at least 30 minutes to wait. 45, more likely. But, I promise you we are working as fast as we can, and we will get your food out as soon as humanly possible.” The apology, in a lot of cases, was not accepted. It was like they had come to the pub, expecting a cabaret venue with a kitchen like a Carlton restaurant. They’d rather not leave too much money, and the word ‘tips’ was not in their vocabulary. The crowd was further unimpressed when we had to stop taking orders for half an hour, because the rail in the kitchen was too full of orders to hold any more.

One particular customer turned out to be a monumental headache that night. She was a fine lady, no doubt. Her character was like a dolled up witch from a Disney cartoon with remarkably long and crooked fingers. She was a skinny figure in a long white jacket that looked like an imitation garment you can get for fifteen bucks in an Asian market store. Her forehead was wrinkled and her lipstick uncomplimentary: a classic example of an ageing woman trying desperately to look twenty years younger.

She wanted to invent her own meal and I told her that, sadly, we didn’t have the capacity to personalise any meals. We were just too busy. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she asked to see our wine list. I said I wouldn’t recommend the big bottle house wines, and at $6,50 per glass, she would be better off buying one of our semi-decent $20 bottles for her and her friend. It would even save them a few dollars if they were having a couple of glasses before the show anyway. She took a while to study the list, and then looked up at me with the frown of a lifetime. “Do you have Schweppes tonic water? If you do, I will have a gin and tonic.” It’s not that much to ask for, I guess, but it’s still pretty demanding. And, seeing there were at least another fifty people waiting behind her to order, I thought her etiquette not socially defensible. I checked the tonic water, which was Kirk’s, not Schweppes. She waved me over so she could see for herself, and then decided to have a glass of the house white anyway. Her friend ordered one of the same.

Five minutes later I was walking around the pub picking up glasses. I felt a skinny finger dig into my spine and heard a familiar voice behind me. “Excuse me! I do not mean to hassle you, young man, but this is the worst glass of white wine I have had in my entire life.” I nodded and apologised for her troubled disliking, and walked behind the bar to check the wine. There was nothing basically wrong with it. It was just not a good drink. And I had been quite frank about that from the start.

At 8:45, fifteen minutes late, the band room opened. Nothing was ready and by the time I got behind the bar, there must have been at least forty people waiting. The taps were off, the fridge was half empty and all the ice in the building had melted and frozen into a giant block in the freezer. The bar mats were piled up on one side of the counter, clean and dirty glasses piling up on the bar in a makeshift jumble, and there was no change in the till. The first customer ordered a glass of wine, and the gas bottle was empty. I opened a standard bottle of white and poured a glass. When I put it down on the bar I noticed red lipstick marks on the rim. I picked up a new glass and noticed another lipstick stain, and another, and another – which slipped out of my hand and smashed on the edge of the wine stand, when I noticed a gigantic old and rusty wrench had appeared on the bar next to the lemons that were waiting to be cut. It couldn’t possibly get any worse.

Only a second later, one of the local day-drinkers came stumbling behind the bar. With his knees swaying and a fat souped-up grin, he stood pointing at the crowd, slurring something completely incomprehensible. “Fawlty Towers,” I thought. Major Gowen had just arrived on the scene. I tried to connect the taps to serve a pint of Carlton to a thirsty bloke in a Hawaiian shirt. At least he was smiling, emphatically amused by the professional collapse. Luke came in with stress dripping from his hair, and pulled the tap out of my hands and told me to go and serve some people. In the grey clouds gathering fast overhead, a quick thunder broke out between us before I realised it was better to vanish from the scene, if only for a split second. The night had already touched rock bottom, and the general outlook wasn’t gonna get much better. Looking across the counter, at the waiting hordes, gathered like wolves around a sheep farm, I decided that the East was faced with a certified nightmare.

A little later in the night, after everything was finally half up to standards, I went to get some glasses from the band room floor. I got halfway through the crowd, and it was almost too packed to move. Suddenly, there was that awful voice again. “Just so you know it, young man, there is so much disappointment in this hotel.” She took out a bottle of perfume and sprayed some down her flat wrinkly cleavage. Swiftly, she swung her nose into the air. Third strike! A thousand thoughts rushed through my head at that moment, and for a fraction of a second I had an image of a little slap in the face. But, of course, you do not hit an old lady – no matter how nasty she is. I gently stepped on her foot and waived my index finger very close to her nose. “Listen, lady, I am aware of our troubles here tonight, and your very unnecessary remarks have already been taken into account. If you have anything more to say, write a fucking letter to the management!”

She had an uncertain violated look on her face, but tried to regain her posture by swinging her nose back into the air. I took one step forward, then jumped back at her and barked like a dog, hoping I managed an evil look about me. A few drops of stale beer were thrown from the stack of empty glasses I was carrying and onto the sleeve of her jacket, without her noticing. It wasn’t the proudest moment in my professional career, but I think of it more as a good-natured reaction to a bad situation. I like to think that we came to an understanding that the matter was best left to rest, and that we should carry on our nights to the best of our abilities.

[i] Jenkins, Jeff. ‘Howzat!’ Inpress 20 December 2006.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] ‘EG’ in The Age March 2, 2007.

Read more:

Part one: “The end of an era, the beginning of another” | Part two: “Reinventing the East Brunswick Club” | Part three: Part three: “Long journey to the (new) East” | Part four: ”Fighting the bushfire” | Part five: “The year in review

4 Responses to “Fighting the bushfire”
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  3. […] beginning of another” | Part two: “Reinventing the East Brunswick Club” | Part four: ”Fighting the bushfire” | Part five: “The year in […]

  4. […] · Tagged with East Brunswick Club, feature writing, Honours thesis, Steinar Ellingsen ← Fighting the bushfire Shame, Guilt and Disfigurement: Ethical quandaries in nonfiction writing […]

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