Waiting For My Real Life To Begin: Bill Arnott’s Stereo Stories at TMR

Welcome back, as I share anecdotes from Stereo Stories, the lit-journal I work with in Melbourne. Their tagline: A Song. A Place. A Time. Part of TMR’s global reach, and a welcome comingle of artistry. I encourage you to listen to the song as you read the associated story, to fully indulge the immersive mixed-media. This link takes you there. Now, for the story …

It’s 1983. I’m sixteen. Home is a rural town surrounded in lakes. Between bodies of water lie orchards and ranches: apples and cattle. Music molds an escape, bourgeoning at my friend’s house, two doors down, after school. His big brother’s Pink Floyd, AC/DC, The Cars. Along with the influence of my elder sister: The Beatles, Beach Boys, Elton John.

When my age reached a suffix of teen, I worked after school. Had disposable income. Or rather, had income, and disposed of it. Spent it on records, then cassettes and a Walkman. Something about that coming of age, deciphering musical preference. That to me was growing up. Identity. Persona emerging through music. Akin to a sculptor and stone. Chip away what shouldn’t be there. In my case, like many, tunes forced upon us: AM radio, carols, and hymns. But for most of us, that excess rubble eventually got swept away, the waterboarding of music belonging to others. Lyrics and chords that simply didn’t speak to us as individuals. No, that comes later, as saplings sprout branches and leaves.

The brain paves its path, develops and grows. Temporal lobe and the scaly recesses of limbic cortex. Lizard impulses of kickdrum and snare, the gut-hum of bass and guitar. And words, often screamed by some rebel adorned in tight trousers. Someone you hold in esteem and your parents disapprove of. Two things unfailingly linked.

But as I found my own musical way, a mosaic of country and folk, pop and hard rock, one voice resonated. A Glaswegian by birth, Sydneysider by association. Singer-songwriter Colin Hay, the face of Men at Work, world’s biggest band for a time. The five-piece ensemble were touring their second album, enough sales and songs for a stadium tour. And with my savings not yet squandered on vinyl or tape, I bought a bus ticket to haul me five-hundred kilometres to the show at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, near the water that connected the songwriter’s new home to my own.

It was my first big arena concert. I was on the floor, endless rows of folding chairs with neck-craning views. I still feel the anticipation. Awe. Even in that sprawling venue, Colin owned the room, the banter of a true storyteller. Together we experienced an evolution, shared stories and song. The intimacy of ten-thousand friends.

Fast forward a quarter century, and I’m crossing the Canadian-American border, driving south to see my songwriting hero. The border guard asks what’s taking me into The States? I tell him.

Where? he asks.

I name the venue, a small pub in a Seattle suburb.

When’s the show start?

I tell him that too.

You’ll never make it, he says.

Which I take as a challenge, and arrive at the show shortly after Colin’s begun. To hear every song that’s a part of me. New banter, a lifetime of stories. More evolution of song. Yet a hint of melancholy blankets the space. Filters their way through the air like the stone dust of youth. What we thought had been swept out for good.

Colin then strikes familiar harmonics, one song to finish the show. Music collectively owned by us all. Waiting for My Real Life to Begin. The sensation the same as that stadium show, two-and-a-half decades earlier. But honed, an edge to the stone. In other words, honesty. Life. No longer waiting. And yet, waiting still.

Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, the Gone Viking travelogues, and A Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot (Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.