Twenty-four months back on a bleak Friday afternoon, I’d been geared for night at a cosy local. With winter set in, it was a dark ol’ five pm, and as I drove through the deluge and watched the raindrops skid down the windscreen of my ‘85 Toyota Corona, my thirst for a lager switched to sixth gear. Friday nights were now reserved for beer and live music; a fresh vice for a Melbourne rookie who’d recently left golden sands and palm trees in a cloud of dust on the horizon – the rear-view window of my life. I was peddling the dream, baby; rooting for culture.
So later on, hearing whispers about a swell joint in Melbourne’s inner suburb of Collingwood, I flagged a tram. I shot down the line and round the bend, aiming the mission toward the great parade that is Smith Street. Along the way we picked up sports fanatics, drunks, men with odours of homelessness, and women with long legs and too much lipstick: all shades of humanity in a boxcar, a circus of sardines in a steel can. Indeed. Ah but there was soul to be found in these parts, and I was glad.
I pulled the cord and the tram halted, and me and the gang jumped off with happiness and high spirits. We took to foot, skipping down a blue stone alley that’s a chunk of history in its own right. Soon enough the pub on the corner drew near, shining brightly on the edge of darkness; a glimmering pearl snug amongst the dreary flats and tired-looking warehouses that are the last breath of working class glory. Collingwood: fighting the tide of SUVs and soccer mums, and BMW boys with plastic perspectives on pussy, property and the almighty dollar! And there she stood, The Gem Hotel: a bona fide establishment of yesteryear; a chunk of history like the blue bricks that had shown us the way. “Come on in gentlemen”, she seemed to imply.
But I was stopped short in my tracks. Out front, strewn up over the curb, wheels to the footpath, sat a proud couple of classic Hot Rods. Images of outlaws of the old country, rebels without causes, and the maniacal ghost of James Dean hooting GO! GO! GO! from his Spyder in the sky, came to mind. Boy were these road beasts something special: sparkling chrome-bumpers, white vinyl interiors and wireless radios of way back blearing the likes of Wanda Jackson, Johnny Kidd, and Carl Perkins.
The spell of my Rod-gazing was broken though by tones of surf twang and big bass, seeping out on to the belt-buckle streets under the worn front door. I’d been thrown back to my childhood, with memories of three-inch Matchbox models in sandpits: me but a boy, playing with my toys and a whole world of promises ahead. And two scores later, little had changed but my age – and the cars before me were now the real McCoy. This was the pocket of ‘kulture’ I’d been looking for, and I was Gung-Ho!
I entered the pub, swimming through thick scents of sweat, hair grease and burnt tobacco and found myself surrounded by Greasers, Pink Ladies and Cowboys with boots of hide and checkered shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbow. ‘Leave your guns at the bar’ demanded a sign on the wall.
And as I ordered a beer, Rockbottom James Maloney fisted the air, and The Detonators broke into their second track.
This is how I stumbled across rockabilly and Melbourne’s vintage rod and custom scene.