Ross Ryan - with a little help from a well chosen group of friends - gives a tutorial on How To Make A Comeback Look Easy (no matter how freakin’ hard it is) upstairs at the Palace Hotel, Camberwell, Victoria, Australia, on Sunday December 14 2003.
by Jamie Forbes.
Part One - Port Fairy 1989
I’m gonna tell it like it is (or like it was, for me.) Forgive my ignorance. Forgive my naivety. Forgive this disclaimer. It’s just that I don’t intend to apologise again for the rest of this chapter.
I first saw Ross Ryan perform solo and acoustic (and so at his best, because that’s the format in which he always seems most comfortable) at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in 1989. He was playing for a crowd of over two hundred devoted folkies, at least two hundred of them seemed to be devoted Ryanites. They hung on his every chord, lyric, introduction and bit of banter. These people adored this man. His songs especially. (Is there a difference between adoring the songs and adoring the singer who writes and performs them? Of course there is, but that’s a topic for another space.)
Confession 1: Up until that point at that particular venue on that particular evening, I had been bored shitless by the acts. Escape was of course, possible, but the relentless dullness of the performances I’d seen had lulled me into a kind of fugue state. I was in the middle of a thick crowd and trying to negotiate myself out of there would have been clumsy and possibly harmful to myself and others. No bother; I had a knapsack comfortably stocked with VB and enough ground to have a little sleep if worse came to worst - as it did during Archie Roach’s set that evening. I like Archie Roach, but that night he’d bored me senseless and to sleep. I may have slept through some others as well, I’m not sure (somebody get me a program). The point is I was awake for whoever Ross Ryan was.
Confession 2: I had no idea who Ross Ryan was. But as I watched him work the crowd I thought he was one of the best stand up comedians I had ever seen.
Confession 3: I thought Ross Ryan was a stand up comedian.
Give me a break! He was really fucking funny! I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know any of his songs, but the ones he played for the most part were also really fucking funny.
Also, he (in a nice way, with his open face and wide, charming, real smile) looked kind of funny. On top of that, Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, he sang in a funny way. I don’t mean that to sound narky, but his singing is so…distinctive? Odd? Brilliant? (or, do I dare say? Like a kind of bastardised and then adopted Dylan)…that it takes a while to figure out that it’s extraordinary. Again, in a good way.
He sang a song called “24 Hours”. The hook lyric was “after twenty-four hours we called it a day.” He sang a song called “Tortured Clouds Of Sorrow.” This was, he informed us, to be listened to while “wearing black duffel coats and drinking really cheap red wine.”
room in which I’m living
wonder where you are tonight
guess I should be happy
Glorious! And see? See why I thought he was a comic? And it got funnier. I still think that singing about not having malaria being the best thing you’ve got going for you, and then adding a “tra la la la la” to that sentiment, is pretty much as funny as anyone anywhere is ever going to get.
So there I was thinking who is this guy? I follow comedy. How come I’d never heard of him? And what was I to make of him? What was one to think of this lanky fellow with the longish hair? He had to be a stand up, right? He had the crowd like only the very best stand ups do. In fact, I’ve never seen an Australian comic get such a response from such a big room as Ross Ryan did that afternoon. Not ever. I was busting a gut and my eyes were flooding. And not in the way proper folk music is supposed to make your eyes flood. There were some groovy sea shanties being sung down by the Moyne for that sort of thing, anyway.
Mr. Ryan told a hilarious story about being commissioned to write a song for some kind of government sponsored youth initiative concert at the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl. He said he took the stage to sing the song in front of a huge crowd without actually having written the song he was about to perform. So he winged it and wrote an anthem on the spot and it worked. He even played as much as he could remember for us. Again, we were loving it. From a big stage in a big venue, in front of a big crowd with just a guitar and mic, he had us to take where-ever he pleased. Although he’d been around more times than he can probably count, he could have been someone who just stumbled on to the stage by accident...and turned out to be one of the most entertaining and talented chaps you could ever hope to see.
That’s the hardest trick of all.
Then he sang something that sounded familiar, in a way that I may have heard it several hundred times since I was seven, never paying much attention to it, but familiar, certainly.
“I was on a plane one time and I heard this playing as a muzak version,” said Ryan. “I decided it was time to reassess my life. Still, this did start life as a song about an air hostess, so, you know…”
He didn’t need to say anymore. The crowd (except for me) knew what was coming. Before the introduction ended, before the first chords or line came, people were hushing each other and yelping cheers and going “yeah” in a weird awe struck kind of way under their breath. What was all this then? I didn’t know what the song coming up was, but I did know that if Mr. Ryan didn’t play it before taking his leave, these people were going to come after him with hand-crafted items they’d bought at the near-by stalls, and use them on him in ways for which they’d not been intended.
“I am Pegasus,” the man sang, evading imminent head trauma and eliciting a huge roar of cheers in which I joined. I had no idea what song he was singing, but I was absolutely rapt that he was singing it.
By then, see, I was a fan.
“I am Michael,” he sang, “I am Jeff-er-ry and John / And I don’t have to leave you, but I shall be gone.”
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. But many others appeared to. Groups of people put their arms around each other. And swayed. I am not kidding. They fucking swayed ! Some of them were even misty eyed. What the hell was I missing?
“My name means horse,” he sang, adding, with a little grin, “Seriously!”
A few of us in the audience chuckled. Okay, I laughed really hard, but I was the only one. I thought this was another joke song.
“I am Sagittarius,” he sang. Then he hollered/sang, gleefully, cheekily, “Because it rhymed!”
Ha! I loved it. Good stuff. Funny stuff.
Meanwhile, this was what the lady next to me said:
“Oh, no, don’t do that. Not this version.”
She said it into her hand. Very softly. I was probably the only one who heard her. But her sentiments were still echoed by the majority of the previously happy campers watching Ross Ryan and the basketball hoop.
What had happened?
The only thing I did know was that up until now we’d been a jovial bunch of folking folks enjoying this Ross Ryan person and his gabbing and his singing and his songs (some funny, some serious and sad, some all three at once) when suddenly, for reasons not immediately apparent, the atmosphere in the big Port Fairy venue had become downright reverential while also veering strangely to the mildly but openly hostile.
What in the name of all things hooved and flying was going on?
Then I got it
This was the song.
You might not remember his name, you might not even remember the name of the song, but once you heard a bit of it hummed or stumbled through (“you know it, it goes I am Pegasus, da da da da, you know”) you knew what song it was.
For God’s sake, the damned thing recently got named an unofficial Australian anthem by the television. The Icon of Australian Icons-Gough Whitlam!!! --presented Mr. Ryan with his gold record for this thing. This thing that was I Am Pegasus.
It’s got a great hook, a sing-a-long hook, it sounds important while remaining perfectly mystifying and it’ll be forever tied to that Whitlam era; that It’s Time era; that bugger-me-we-survived-the-sixties-and-so-did-music era. We got rid of a Liberal government that had started to look like it was settling in for an inglorious Thousand Year Reign. We got out of Vietnam.
And in that time Pegasus was let loose and the fucker really did fly.
You see, Mr. Ryan could play the song-in fact, he would have been damned if he didn’t - he just wasn’t allowed to play with the song.
I recently heard a speech. The core message of which, was that when an artist creates something - whatever it may be, and releases it to the public, the ownership of that artistic product belongs just as much to the public it was offered to as it does its original creator. We’re not talking about copyright and money. We’re talking about what that piece of art means to the people upon whom it was unleashed. The artist wants people to experience what he’s done. If he didn’t, then why did he let it out in the first place? He could have kept it in the stable and just admired it all to himself, but that’s not what he did. He let it go. He shared it.
Ross Ryan clearly got the message.
What he did was stop mucking around with the song by stopping the song entirely.
And then he apologised. He explained that he often got in trouble for pissing about with the Peg, but that sometimes he couldn’t help himself.
Then he started the song again. Right from the top. Right through. Gave the people what they wanted and more. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. And the audience adored him even more. In fact, he got a basketball hoop back board shaking standing ovation which I don’t think he would have gotten if he’d simply done the song properly in the first place!
One left most impressed. So impressed that I even toddled along to a “How To Handle Hecklers” workshop he was giving the next day. Again, very funny stuff. (Out of the Ten Ways To Handle Hecklers, Number Two was: heckle back with comments such as “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when cousins marry.” And Number One? Simply stand on the stage and weep.)
Again, he sang Pegasus . Cause they made him.
A couple of years later I saw Ross performing with a band in a pub in Richmond. He was funny, but nobody was interested. It was a kind of uncomfortable gig. I know we all have off nights, but this…well, it wasn’t awful…it was just by no means great. Ryan himself seemed uncomfortable.
By that time I’d procured a copy of The Greats of Ross (see? again? how frigging cleverly, stupidly funny is that?). I liked some of the songs. Not all of them. They were so incredibly earnest . That’s not a bad thing, but it didn’t sit for me with the Ross Ryan I’d seen on stage at the festival.
It occurred to me that these songs - the back catalogue - were great to listen to at home, but best when played live, because there they were perfectly balanced with the charming and funny presence of their composer. For want of a better way of saying it, the songs are at their best presented in context with their presenter. Again, that’s not disparaging. The songs are lovely, poignant, bittersweet, all of that. This dude can write. Man , can he write. But it’s so much better when he personally shows you; when it’s Ross Ryan and his work served together
Wouldn’t it be great if he could give you all of it on one album. The talent of the humour and the poignancy of the songs and the spirit of the live entertainer and the welcome presence of the writer.
I’m sure I ain’t gonna blindside you when I tell you that guess what?
He’s fuckin’ done it!
There are murky details aplenty of how he did it and how long it took and why it took how long it took (it took a very long time) but I’m not going to go into that here. You can find the whole sorry story at rossryan.com. Let’s just...