I'm the youngest person here. The performers give me one look; the waitress another. An old man smiles at me as he comes out of the bathroom, and a second later I realize who its the man himself. The boots and the blue bandanna gave him away; he's smaller then I imagined and I'm the only one in the scene with a hat. A fedora, not a 10 gallon John Wayne special like he puts on later, but both archaic in their own way.
He smiles, and I miss my chance to introduce myself. Later in the night I'll be called over by one of his friends to give him some company, but now I sit and drink and wonder if he looks over at the scrawny kid hunched over the notebook and sees one of his old companions, his old road buddies. Not Guthrie, of course, but a skinny Bob Dylan, fresh off the boat in New York? Jack Kerouac, maybe, trying to get some of the passion of a moment down on to a page? I'm not saying we're the same, but there's gotta be something that unites me with those scribblers, and if I stopped thinking so I'd burn all my notebooks and become a computer programmer.
The bar is empty. Its called The Basement, a nice old pub a stone's throw from Circular Quay. They get a bunch of blues and roots musicians; Dr. John is playing there next week (Jack tells about a guy who 'spent 20 years trying to be like Dr. John and almost got killed doing it) and there's the obligatory Janis Ian and James Morrison posters. Nice tables, pretty bartenders with art school boyfriends, cheap beer and cheap food. A place to relax.
An older lady calls me over. She's nice and seems to regard herself as a custodian of this national treasure, treating him with the respect he deserves. I'm shy, hesitant, and so my handshake is weak in the grip of this 80 year old who's sailed with Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I feel I ought to be ashamed, but I'm not. The smile on his face is so gentle, so welcoming, that I know why Kerouac read 'On the Road' to him, why he never got angry at Dylan for taking his image, why he never minded the shadows. He's a good person, simply and truly. A gentle one, and he didn't mock me or put on airs. He just bitched about the bad advertisement for the tour and chatted with his other friends about Australia and shipbuilding and the truck he likes for hauling stuff to his farm.
He signed my notebook, and I wish there was some more permanent place, some gilded frame to put the imprint of this kingmaker, this friend to heroes and legends. That thought shames me, but Jack didn't seem to mind. He got up on stage with his guitar and told his stories, telling us what we wanted to hear. 'I learned this one from Woody Guthrie. You know, Guthrie was in the merchant marines...' bits of lore, pithy quotes: 'Even though I've hung out with the Grateful Dead, I still have ears'. 'I'm not a musician, just a bank robber'. 'I've never even voted, just grumble and pick the guitar.' Between them, he'd sing songs, stuff he learned. His voice was still good, but this isn't Johnny Cash, making beautiful music up to the moment he died. It was more the honesty, the simplicity. His 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' wasn't the best ever, but once again the gentleness came through, something ephemeral, honest... something that might be lost.
Ramblin' Jack was hesitant. He'd trail off in songs, turn from one story to another, forget what he was going to say, get lost, meander. But it didn't matter, really. We were there to experience a living peace of history, a connection to the music that mattered most to us. We got that, and a bit more. I talked to and shook hands with a good man, a trucker and a ship builder, who played the guitar well, who 'went for years without playing some songs, because he didn't want to wear them out'. There's something Australian about him, the bush Australia of Slim Dusty and R.M. Williams. And there's nothing more I can say; you had to be there. Already it fades, leaving only a very pleasant memory and the feeling that there ought to be more men like this in the world.