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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

How did an Auckland poet living in Indonesia come to publish with IP?

Jeremy Robert's book Cards on the Table is about to be toured in New Zealand, along with David Reiter's latest Timelord Dreaming: tweetems from ward 8b.

We asked Jeremy to blog for us about his adventures as a poet in a strange land – or should we say, a strange poet in a stranger land, and here's what he's posted for us, and you.

BAJAJ BOY STORIES: Star Deli Gig, 2013

Even after a few months in Indonesia, we were still very much strangers in a strange land - experiencing things unknown in our former lives. It felt like we’d been given the key to a mystical city - the colourful Jakarta landscape alive with the sound-track of a million motorbikes & Bajaj, blaring minaret towers & calls of “Hey, mister!” Our eyes were full: female smiles filled with mystery; exotic-looking food we weren’t brave enough to try; the sight of a ‘rubbish-picker’ hauling his wooden cart - loaded with several hundred kilos of trash, barefoot, in driving rain with lightning overhead, straining uphill into oncoming rush-hour traffic; foreigners drunk on free beer; snakes slowly waking up at dusk. Of course, we were itching to keep playing live.

The need to scrounge for gig venues led us to the Star Deli, which is a gritty music bar in Kemang, South Jakarta - frequented largely by a mix of seasoned ex-patriot oil industry workers, with a sprinkling of Jakarta ‘greenhorns’ & staffed by young Javanese beauties decked out in cute little matching outfits. It is locally famous for being the bar where patrons have literally died while sitting at the bar. It serves as your typical seedy watering hole, where a good dose of bullshitting, cheating & gold-digging goes on, as the beer & spirits flow & the cigarettes are sucked off, one after another. There’s also a bit of violence, on occasion. The Star Deli’s stage is home to everything from tattooed punk bands to Country and Western. It was the location of the most in-your-face gig the Bajaj Boys ever did.

Jeremy Roberts - Poet's photo.

We talked our way into the gig by selling the idea to the owners that we were poetry & Rock ‘n’ Roll. Which was true. Not poetry trying to be Rock ‘n’ Roll; not Rock ‘n’ Roll trying to be poetry, but poetry AND Rock ‘n’ Roll. I thought our sound was maybe a little different to what I’d done before. It was a step away from ‘soundscapes’ & jazz influence & the free-form improvisation thing, where the musician stood there waiting for the moment to be cut free so they could largely play whatever they felt like. The two of us were tied together. You didn’t need a full band. ‘Manchester City’ man Derek was a good enough guitar player to create a memorable riff or borrow a suitable one from somewhere & it would set up a productive tension under the words. It worked. Our creative process was simple: I’d read a poem out loud & Derek would listen & try a few chords or notes – usually striking the right feel very quickly. The other way was for me to listen to a riff or tune Derek had come up with which we both liked & then I would rifle through the files & pick a good match for the music. The Bajaj Boys were simpatico.

It was the last gig done with Derek playing his Jakarta, Blok M-purchased rubbish guitar, too. Within a few weeks of buying it, the neck had warped in the constant humidity & the cheap strings threatened to go out of tune at any moment. After fruitlessly searching the streets, he’d been forced to part with a few hundred thousand Rupiah to buy the piece of shit, in a shop where the manager refused to turn down bad booming club music, when Derek asked if he could check out this guitar more closely. Have a play. Urgent necessity meant that he had to buy it.

So, at the Deli, we took a few grateful sips on our free-drink-of-choice (Scotch & dry for Derek; vodka, lime & soda for me!) & got into our work on stage. Just this side of ‘in-tune’, Derek’s picked-up acoustic twangs bounced off the walls & flew like dazzled mosquitos into the eardrums of unwilling listeners. Right from the start, it was clear we had only about a third of the audience in our pocket. The others really were just there to puff, drink & talk. Sometimes I yelled into the mic, blasting words into those same ignoring ear-drums: “Who surfs porn out there?”, “Who’s been to Paris?”, & “Hey, is there any cherry brandy behind the bar?” to cut thru the noise & indifference. If those fat beer-drinking expats didn’t want a mental floss, they were suddenly stuck in a room with two messengers who came to get the job done. It never really worried us if we met disinterest & we often did. The Bajaj Boys once played to an audience of one. But I felt that if I actually sat down with these nicotine junkies & alcohol sponges & gave them a copy of a poem to read, they would most probably relate to the content & say something positive. Was it bad memories of crappy, boring poetry teaching during ancient school days? One notorious local piss-head had commented to me a few days before our gig: “Poetry? Shit! - isn’t that something that people did about 500 years ago?”

During the gig, our eyes constantly scanned the dark, smoky room – past our own little posse of supporters, watching the sauntering, sideways-looking waitresses & chain-smoking regulars who would turn their startled heads every now & then, when a particular phrase caught their attention. Probably a dirty word. The whole scene seemed to unfold in slow-motion, while outside, the Java night hummed - busy as a gargantuan hornet’s nest, but filled with friendly, grinning teeth instead of threatening stings. Constant inspiration hung in that fertile, steamy air, which was always ready to be breathed in, absorbed. 

The truth is you never really know who might be listening & what people are thinking. I once chose to perform a piece about 911’s infamous pilot Mohammad Atta (in which I say “I’m glad you died”) at a PC, life-affirming Oxfam fund-raiser, where one poet actually apologised for being an American & for the existence of George Bush. There was surprise & dead silence after I finished my short piece - the last two words being ‘jet fuel’. Later, I was slightly shocked to have two female audience members approach me separately, with thanks & to say how much they loved it. No, you never know what people have in their heads.

Still, this Bajaj Boy set list was put together specifically for a Rock ‘n’ Roll bar: THE PUNK M O (anti-politician); THE TACO EXPRESS (drinking Margaritas in Texas); LENA (a young woman using men); PERMANENTLY TEMPORARY (watch out – change is coming); CICCIOLINA (how a famous Italian porn star once tried to save the world); SHE NEVER KNEW (falling in love with a woman who barely knows you); CHERRY BRANDY & THE LEAP OF FAITH (religion, alcohol & spirituality); IS ALL RAIN THE SAME? (life can be so full of PC, culture-respecting bullshit); THE FREAKS OF VENICE (homeless people who live outside the mainstream with their addictions know as much about the meaning of life as anyone); FADING WITH THE NEON FLOWERS (guys on the town, drinking & trying to pick up women); HE’S GOTTA SEE US, HE’S GOTTA STOP (live fast, die young - à la James Dean).

The Bajaj Boys did well that night.

Due to the pushing of the wrong button on the Sony Dictaphone on the darkened stage, no recording exists.