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2 Mar 2009

4 Months in 1979

As the FOH sound operator for Mi-sex, I probably spent more time with Jeff Merryweather than just about Anyone for a brief but incredibly hectic 4 months in 1979. At the time I didn’t Realise that Jeff was the most complete roadie that I would ever witness.

Jeff was one of those fortunate people who appeared to have found their calling in life. Jeff had a passion and a flair for lighting design and operation. Watching Jeff operate a lighting desk for the first time was a jaw dropper. I’d never seen anything like it. Jeff had great hand skills. He used his fingers, hands, elbows and forearms to manipulate the sliders and buttons on his lighting desk. Jeff wasn’t just a lighting trog. He was an artist – the desk his palette, the stage area a canvas of kaleidoscopic colour.
However, in the entertainment industry that’s not enough. Out on the endless road and in the trench warfare that was Australian Rock and Roll in the late ‘70’s people needed the ability to work hard and fuss free to get the job done in sometimes extremely arduous situations – night after night. Jeff had all that. When it came time for the show Jeff would be there. I can’t say that about every crewmember I ever worked with. Looking back 30 years, it’s hard to believe that in that pressure cooker working environment, Jeff and I never had one disagreement, argument or fight. Not one.

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For a guy with so much talent I found Jeff very unaffected. Even modest. Sure he knew he was good but I never heard him boast. In an industry chock full of overblown ego’s that’s exceptional. Jeff was straightforward. When the sound was good he’d let me know. When it wasn’t he’d just say, ” I can’t hear my cues ” or “The keyboards aren’t loud enough.” Jeff was demanding but fair. He worked to very high standards. He never let anything or anyone prevent him from delivering a great show. Jeff didn’t ride rough shod over people. He worked with good grace and was always polite. On the road I found it easy to live and work with Jeff. On a personal level, Jeff wore his heart on his sleeve. If things weren’t going well with his girl he’d let you know he was upset. On the other hand if you confided with Jeff he could be really discreet.

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Jeff joined Mi-sex just after they arrived from New Zealand in 1978 to try their luck in Australia. Our stage guy, Ian, was ex Angels and ex Flowers. I had joined Mi-sex from Young Modern. Before that I worked with Flowers. When I joined the Mi-sex crew I had never met Jeff. Hadn’t even heard his name and hadn’t seen his work. I probably thought that he was just another lighting trog. Yeah right. He only looked about 17. I wondered how he could be so young yet so good. He must have had a very early start in the business.
For a crew of only 3 people we ran a fairly large rig for the time -a double 4 way PA system plus Jeff’s lighting rig. That consisted of 24 par cans, 6 patt 23’s a Jands lighting desk plus trusses, lighting bars, dimmers etc. There was a lot of stage gear including Murray Burns’ big 4 keyboard / synth set-up. That was our extra long Orana Isuzu you used to see around town.
In a 4 month stint with just a 3 man crew we worked at least 6 days a week, covered the length and breadth of the eastern Australian seaboard, toured overseas to New Zealand for 3 weeks, worked as the support act for Talking Heads on their first Australian tour, recorded an album at EMI 301 in 10 days and finally launched that album, Graffiti Crimes in July. That’s a lot of work for 3 guys. After Ian left Graham Hicks engineered a new separate foldback system so that substantially increased the size of the rig and the workload. I moved to foldback, Panther came in to do FOH. When Panther joined the crew we occasionally got extra help. I remember a gig at Campbelltown where Pig helped out and another at Caringbah Inn when Jimmy Murray lent a hand. Jeff sometimes had a young guy named Steve come along to help lug and rig the lights. Steve eventually joined full time. When touring we reverted to a 3 man crew.

There didn’t seem to be any money for extra loaders. At this time Misex weren’t making the big money like Chisel and the Angels. Generally in Sydney we worked an 18-hour day 6 days a week. When touring, sometimes more. After one long stint of gigs we finished off with a double and an overnighter from Melbourne to Sydney. Pretty stupid really. Real burn out material. I don’t know if manager Bob Yates had ever been a roadie but his tour itineries left a lot to be desired.

I remember one particular gig that that epitomises Jeff Merryweather. It was at Manly in Sydney. The Manly Silver Screen was an old theatre / cinema that would come and go as a rock venue. Typically it had a stage about 3 metres high and a sloping floor area in front of the stage. The ceiling about 15 metres above the dance floor was one of those incredible plaster domed affairs typical of a 1920’s – 1930’s art deco theatre. Jeff had a problem. The sloping floor meant that he couldn’t set up his trees and trusses in the usual manner. The second problem was that even if the floor was ok then the trees just weren’t tall enough to get the trusses above the band.
We thought the only work around was to ditch the trusses and set the trees on the stage with 8 par cans a side. Jerry rig the patt 23’s and run the back pair of par cans as per normal. Not really a Mi-sex light show but what else could we do? “Yeah but Peter Dawkins from CBS is coming to see the show,” said Jeff. Jeff went for a look around and disappeared for a while. We got on with setting up the PA system and the stage gear. Jeff reappeared with a plan. He’d managed to find an access way to get in above the domed ceiling. He said that there were huge beams above the domed ceiling and that he could suspend his trusses from those beams on cable turfers.

We thought he was crazy. “How will you know where to poke the cables through the ceiling? The gig manager is just going to love you punching holes in his heritage plaster dome.” “Besides,” said Jeff ” by the time the gig manager gets here it will be dark and he won’t be able to see up to the ceiling.” Er yeah right Jeff. Jeff was undeterred. “The holes won’t be that big- just enough to get the cable through.” said Jeff. He set his trusses on the floor in front of the stage. From above the ceiling he poked some tiny holes so he could see down to the floor and stage area to work out the best place to suspend the cables. That done he secured the cables to the beams and let the cables down to the floor. He then winched the trusses about a metre so that he could rig the lights. All that was left to do was to winch the trusses to a good working level -say 6 to 7metres. This is where it went pear shaped.

As Jeff started to winch the trusses the whole assembly began to sway. As the cables took the load they started carving huge gashes in the plaster- it looked a bit like one of those crazy scenes in a Hollywood B grade movie. You know the crazy guy who’s cutting through a wooden door with a chainsaw. There were bits of plaster and 50 years of accumulated shit all over the dance floor. Someone went off to find a broom. Jeff seemed completely unfazed. The next challenge was to work out a way to focus the lights -pretty important in the way the pattern 23’s were used in the show.

If you saw a late ‘70’s early 80’s Mi-sex performance you would know what I’m describing. Steve Gilpin positioned himself so that the patt 23’s either lit his left side or his right side or his whole body. At this point in the story my memory is a bit vague – or maybe I just closed my eyes. Jeff somehow finagled a really long ladder that allowed Jeff or Steve to get up onto the truss to focus the lights. The problem was that as he crawled along the truss to adjust the lights the whole assembly just swayed around like a boom on a yacht in a breeze. It was pretty funny when I think about it. We tried tethering the truss with ropes to try and stabilise the whole affair but it wasn’t entirely successful. Actually it wasn’t successful at all. I don’t think Jeff was entirely satisfied with the result. All night long I could see that Jeff would love another chance to get the lights “just right.” The only other little issue was the three-phase power.

Whenever I saw lighting guys fiddling with fuse boxes I’d get nervous. Let’s just say he got it figured. (Rather than play with iffy fuse boxes I would rather spend the time chasing up a number of clean single phases elsewhere – if possible.) One of the guitar amps was really noisy. I think there were some issues with that theatres power. Anyway, the show went off as usual. I never did hear if there were any repercussions about that ceiling. I seem to remember the gig manager freaking out when he saw this huge lighting rig hanging out of his ceiling. We used our usual excuse and said it was too late to do anything about it now. I suspect that the Misex management did what ever it took to smooth ruffled feathers. It wasn’t spoken about. I remember this gig at the Lifesaver when Jeff and a smoke machine had a disagreement ….but that’s another story. Let’s just say that the Lifesaver could have been renamed The London Fog.
One unusual issue that cropped up in my time with Mi-sex was that people were saying, “oh yeah, Mi-sex they’re not that good – just a great lightshow.” That was a regular comment we used to hear. Of course in my mind it wasn’t true. As good as Jeff’s productions were I never felt they overwhelmed the music. Mi-sex were a fine act  -as good as any of their contemporaries. This was the only band I ever worked with where a crewmember’s abilities were considered to be the acts main attraction. I don’t think it bothered Misex too much. There was no shortage of confidence in the band. I did wonder what Jeff thought about it all.
In my time with Mi-sex I can honestly say that as a crew we never sledged support acts or their roadies. We took the attitude that it was pretty stupid and ultimately counter productive and a timewaster. There’s a Little Feat song called “On your way down” which sums it up. The line goes “the same people you misused on your way up -you might meet up on your way down.” Jeff would give the support act a basic set up -usually 16 cans. If they complained he just stayed firm. In the past I’d done hundreds of gigs as a support act and had been treated pretty badly by some crews. I knew how it felt. Besides one brief exception our crew was pretty clean living. No real drinking, no substance problems – just plenty of puff. We weren’t choirboys. We were just so darn busy that there didn’t seem to be a lot of time to party. It wasn’t a plan – its just how things played out. Our tight knit crew had plenty of fun in our own way. Sometimes in Sydney Phil Cullen would turn up after the show and we’d have a few laughs. With a 3 man crew you can’t cover or carry someone for even one day. Beside, Jeff had a steady girlfriend, Donna waiting at home in Hillsdale. He seemed very devoted.
Jeff took on the role as the main point of contact between the band and the crew. Jeff made the time to go back stage and sit with the band while we were tending to the support act. That was fine by me. Most of the bands requirements came to us through Jeff. His relationship with the band was much closer than the rest of us and I was happy to stay out of the politics.
I left Mi-sex the week before the launch of Graffiti Crimes. I was burnt out. I felt that technically I was out of my depth even though Steve Gilpin said I’d given him his best Foldback mixes. I struggled in acoustically bad environments. I didn’t have enough experience to draw on. Mentally I knew I wasn’t tough enough for the business. With Misex on the precipice of major success I could see that things were going to get much tougher. More shows and more equipment. At the time the aim of most bands was to try to crack the U.S. market. Because of my past I knew that I would never be able to get a visa for the U.S. All that was left for me was the Australian merry go round. It didn’t seem that appealing. I just walked away. I think Rocket filled my place. I never got to see Jeff’s later work. That’s a story someone else could tell.

By chance one day in 1985 I bumped into someone from Jands. I asked about Jeff. He said “don’t you know.” He explained what had happened.
I was shocked but for a long time I didn’t give it a lot of thought. I usually take a fair amount of time to be able to process that kind of news. But lately for some reason I’ve been thinking about Jeff. What I most remember about Jeff is not the dazzling lightshow. It’s the friendship and his compassion. And the thought that jumps into my mind is this. (For those who never knew Jeff then this will be meaningless.) If you were with Jeff and somebody was talking bullshit or whatever, Jeff would just roll his eyes back and then to one side and give you a little grin as if to say  ” this guy’s out to lunch.”

I don’t get to see many concerts these days. To be honest I think the best days for contemporary music are long gone. What I do get to see are concert DVD’s. I have to say that considering all the great lighting technology that’s available – sometimes the light shows aren’t all that great. I think Jeff would have flourished in the new technological environment. When I see a performance by giant talents like Steve Vai or ZPZ I wonder how much better it might look if the light show had been designed and operated by Jeff Merryweather.
We can only imagine….

COMMENTS: juliusmedia@me.com

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