Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
Fighting the Bushfire:
Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
A creative journalism thesis
Submitted July 2007
La Trobe University
Part two: Reinventing the East Brunswick Club
When I made my first visit to the East Brunswick Club, I was less than impressed by the place. The façade was faded green and yellow on the old three-storey hotel, towering over the north end of Lygon Street. No music inside. A handful of half-drunk, middle-aged tradies sat around a table in the front bar without talking. All were wearing blue overalls, some sporting yellow Day-Glo vests underneath. A couple of loners were hugging pots of Carlton at the counter, staring blankly at a big screen TV sitting on top of a tall fridge showing replays from the last round of footy. The room smelled stereotypically of stale beer and week-old cigarette butts.
On the far side from the door, behind the bar, the bottles and shelves appeared to be falling off the wall that was randomly decorated with an array of… stuff, I guess. Above the shelves hung a black and white photo of a healthy-looking 1971 Mustang convertible called Benji. An old Carlton Draught poster in a wooden frame featured a bearded old man leaning on a bar holding a pint: “I Allus has one at eleven” – a good way to start the day. Next to this installation a black leather purse rested on top of an out-of-date rack of push-to-fill basic spirits speed-pourers, also holding an All-Blacks cardboard seal. Kiwis and rugby, eh bro? To me it seemed like a weird combination to try and match with the new profile with fresh live music. I shrugged, and followed old Allus’ example.
In the far right corner from the entrance, a breezeway led to the toilets and the beer garden. Next to the breezeway was the entry to the kitchen and an empty pool table. A big blackboard announcing the menu hung high on the wall to the right of the kitchen door. Further down, the entry to the smoke-free dining room, and over an elevated sofa corner hung a mirror-sign from the old days announcing ‘The Melbourne Folk Music Club.’ The walls were shrouded in a yellow and burgundy paint job, aching for a fresh stroke.
Roberts gave me the ‘Grand tour’ of the first floor, and the first impression lingered. There was heaps of space, but nothing seemed quite right. After negotiating the sewer-stinking breezeway and past the toilets to the left, was the all-concrete beer garden. All sorts of rubbish surrounded the stained yellowy plastic furniture. A car was parked in the middle and the flowerboxes were either empty or full of cigarette butts and dead plants. Back through the front bar, a narrow hallway led through to a freshly built box office with its own street entrance: another door took you through to the band room. The band room, the crown jewel of the club looked nothing short of a construction site with concrete and scattered piles of steel and wood. Two giggling builders were hanging from the walls, and the opening night was less than three weeks away.
The impression was one of complete chaos without much prospect. However, manager Luke Roberts’ enthusiasm about the venue persisted. He seemed so definite about the potential of this place. He gestured eagerly and spoke of a sound system that had played outdoors in Perth for 4,000 people. “It’ll be the best sound any band will ever get in Melbourne.” A big stage with a drum-riser would make a perfect view for all gig-goers, big hanging curtains and nice new carpets were on their way, and a massive partition would be installed so that the room could be divided in half for smaller gigs. All shows were going to be smoke-free, following the successful trend of the Corner and Northcote Social Club. “Sounds great,” I said. I cut my reply short because I didn’t want to say exactly what I was thinking. We had worked together before and I was well aware of his skills in defining a scene’s potential, but I couldn’t see this one happening, at least not in time. The setting seemed so weird it got me humming Tom Waits’ classic ‘The Piano has been drinking’ on my way out. My opinion, as history will reveal, was to be proven wrong on opening night.
Grande Rock opening
On May 10th 2006, local legends You am I broke the cherry on Melbourne’s newest musical haven. The East Brunswick Club was packed to the brim, 450 strong. The phones had gone red hot all afternoon. Hopeful people were trying to get their paws on the last couple of tickets. ‘No can didgeridoo, mate.’ ‘Completely sold out.’
When I got there a couple of hours before opening, there was a strange buzz going around. Nothing was set up in the band room. The carpets and the stage were finally in place, but everything else needed for hosting shows of this calibre were pretty much waiting to be done. About fifteen people were carrying in the PA, which was yet to be set up. You am I was waiting for their sound check. Keg deliveries were arriving, the fridges needed stocking, the beer taps had to be connected, drapes were being hung, paint was wet on the walls, leaving a chemical scent in the air. The toilets were hardly presentable. It was a crazy stressed-out vibe. Those who didn’t have anything in their hands were running around in circles looking for something to help out with. It was going to be tight, last minute. Less than two hours until opening and the front bar was getting busy.
When the doors finally opened and people started pouring in to the band room, one staff member was frantically finishing off the last square metre of carpet with a vacuum cleaner and disappeared into the backstage. That was it. The East was ready to go.
On stage, the local legends played under the alias of The Convicts and relaunched the band after some time in hibernation. For a while before this show, the members’ other acts had been given priority (Radio Birdman, The Pictures and The Temperance Union), but now You am I were back in business, with an upcoming album and tours galore. Tim Rogers was in top-form and everything was in the mix. Guns were blazing in all directions. People were drinking like it was New Years Eve on a Wednesday in May. It was a great performance in a great new venue, with great sound, from a spectacular new sound system. The crowd loved it.
After closing, Luke stood restlessly tapping his hand on the top of the bar. Thick black shadows under his eyes suggested exhaustion. It had been two months of hard labour to get the venue up and running. The premiere was finally over, and he had two weeks to gather himself before the next gig. His signature half-black front tooth revealed itself behind a big fat grin with droopy eyes. “I know I’m touching Silver. It might not be Gold, but I know it’s definitely Silver.”
When everything was tidied up to standards, owner Pam Benjamin came out to the front bar. The excitement was written in her worried eyes. “Can I please have a vodka, darling? Make it a double.” What a night it had been. In the afternoon stress, she had suffered a massive migraine and retired upstairs in private until the gig started. She was too nervous to stand around and look at all the chaos going on. She lit a cigarette, sipped the vodka and looked up and smiled. “When I saw the band room was filling up and everybody was in, all I wanted to do was to walk outside and give the finger to the whole of Lygon Street,” Pam gestured towards the street-side windows. Her golden bracelets jangled with the movement of her wrist. The show had been a success, the biggest night they’d ever had at the East. She looked around the bar, at the staff enjoying a few knock-offs and realised her shoulders could finally descend from her earlobes. “Thank you all so much for your hard work. We finally made it!”
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“