This past week I (Donick) time traveled into the future, seventeen hours into the future to be precise: Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia.
I was visiting friends at Ludo studios – creative smart, funny, cool mad-men and women who cook up ideas for Australian TV. All week I exchanged texts with my kids back in LA telling them what the future was like: mostly “flat whites” (coffee with milk), funny accents, and a whole bunch of great Australian music to re-remember and re-visit: Paul Kelly (one of my favorite Aussie singer-songwriters, his song “Dumb Things” is one of my life-theme songs. He’s playing in LA in a few weeks! Get yo tics!), Midnight Oil (the power and the passion and the bald head… these guys are great and super intense and fun live – U2 meets Pearl Jam…. also in LA in a few weeks… join me!), a little INXS (I know, I know… but when you play the tunes and don’t think about it they’re pretty great. They really did nail what they were doing. Like super nail it.), Radio Birdman (my buddy Gerry Harrington turned me onto them about 5 years ago – How did I miss them!? They have a seriously deep and solid catalog of early, angry, for real surfy punk rock), I can go on and on -- The Saints, the Go Betweens… and even some Men at Work – You can’t not sing along to “down under,” and “Overkill” has got to seriously be one of the best songs of the 80’s right?
ANYWAY all the texting from the future reminded me of Joe Strummer’s line “The Future is Unwritten” which is one of the engines that fuels our musical charity, Musack (musack.org). I return to that line over and over… you write your own story… tomorrow is yet to be told. Musack came out of that. So while I found myself visiting the near future I thought “maybe there is a new far off, down under, Musack outpost yet to be discovered.” I explained the Musack mission – basically to make music happen and give teens a voice – to the gang at Ludo. They immediately got it and started having ideas. Daley Pearson, (writer/producer of the very funny show “Strange Calls”) thought of a visit his friend Taika Waititi made to a detention center for youth nearby. He pulled up Taika’s report:
Taika is the director of “Hunt for Wilder People” (SO good if you haven’t seen it)– and his post said it all. The Musack Australia mission was becoming clear -- thank you Taika – we are with you! It turned out we were only 10 minutes away from the detention center and so Meg O’Connell (Ludo’s “make it all happen” person) dialed them up, and within ten minutes, I was talking to the center’s cultural director. He explained the deal… it’s a tough place. 65% aboriginal kids (even though they make up a small percentage of the overall population.) from all over the massive Queensland territory. They are serving sentences handed down from the courts – anywhere from a couple months to a couple years. When they get out, they return to small poor communities with little support— where there are high rates of teen suicide, crime and drug abuse. The kids are young as 12. 12-17… AND many end up right back in detention.
They come from some of the poorest regions in Australia and have some very big odds stacked against them. They have definitely made mistakes. Their stories are complicated. Are these kids we should be supporting? He explained that there were music and art programs and sports teams -- and despite the odds they were trying to give the kids something to build for themselves or participate in. Help them build some self esteem so they might walk out of there with confidence and the knowledge they could do something positive. The odds are long. BUT odds are made for playing right? I mean the future is unwritten.
He filled me in on the music programs and it hit all the right notes -- giving kids a voice, giving kids a machine to fight off their various demons … How many guitars? “We could use six. The ones we have are pretty beat up”… This is exactly where Musack started – a simple request for 10 guitars. This was easy – we can do this. We should absolutely do this. He asked if we could bring them by at the next morning… “uh … sure… absolutely….” It really is the only way things get done – is you just say “yes”, and then you figure out how to do it. Meg found a music store that had six starter guitars in stock and would give us a student discount.
We were on our way. We picked up the guitars and the next morning were off to the center. I’m struck by how when you ask people to help you do something good they drop everything and do. Thank you, team Ludo!!
Oh and I forgot to mention there was a Cyclone bearing down on the city! But I haven’t yet met a cyclone that can stop Musack’s mission (note: Musack has never confronted a cyclone).
But whatever... let's rock and roll.
We pull up to the Brisbane youth detention center – which can only be described as a “youth detention center”… big wall with razor wire – lots of security. The cultural director was cool and happy to see us – surprised to see us really -- “these guys really don’t have much or get much”, he explained.
Before going through the metal detectors he explains that if there is a “lockdown” just… (he pauses clearly not exactly sure what to tell us)… then finishes with; “just do what I say.” “You got it!” I say, fake upbeat, but with a little growing apprehension. We empty our pockets. No phones, belts, pens -- it feels like “Oz." “Oz” for kids! He takes us to meet the music teacher – a loveable brutish 60ish rocker with a crazy glint in his eye. He’s a beefy tough guy who’s punched his way through his share of pubs AND LOVES The Simpsons. He begins to quote the show and grill me on episodes I wrote. He knows them better than me! As he nimbly tunes up the guitars we brought he talks about the epic shows he’s seen in Brisbane over the years -- everyone from Bob Dylan to the B-52s. This guy is all right – and I’m not just saying that because he’s claiming my Simpsons episodes are some of the best ever. Who am I to argue? He’s got fists like mallets. He tells us the boys love music. Mostly rap. They make fun of him for liking “old rock” even though much of the rock he is listening to has come out within the last five years—whereas they are rapping along with Tupac tunes from 20 years ago.
The boys also play classical music and Bob Marley tunes: “Stir it Up”, “Three Little Birds.” He says they’re easy … three chords. How many lives has three chord rock changed? He shows us the 3-4 guitars they have – they are pretty beat to hell. They’ve been glued back together a number of times. This guy is kind of a nut. A talented musical nut-- and this job needs a nut. It’s tough in here – you can feel it. Music is a portal to something bigger, beyond the walls. A way for these kids to connect with the bigger world. A way to get through this. A way to start imagining the future. I feel better that he is here, and someone maybe some of these kids can relate to – or learn from.
He is hardened by 20-25 years of being on the inside and trying to help. When he started he thought he could change every kid who passed through. He explains that now he knows better… most of them don’t change. The odds are too long. This gives me pause. Are we helping then? Are these bad kids? Are we helping bad kids? Is “bad kids” an oxymoron? Can kids be bad? Or can their circumstances be bad? Probably like everything complicated, it’s not black and white, it’s a big grey continuum. It makes me think about the hard work Billy Bragg and Wayne Kramer are doing with their charity Jail Guitar Doors – Joe Strummer’s guitar giving charity that takes guitars to jails. They’re giving guitars to “bad guys.” They’re doing it because they know the future is unwritten. You gotta hang onto that idea… maybe ONE person will get something out of it. Maybe ONE person will make a change in their lives. Maybe they will get out and do something good. Maybe they will share their story and stop someone else from being in the same situation.
Back in the detention center, the music teacher explains that there is always a little hope. There are a bunch of kids who play music and one kid right now in fact who is working towards a release – and is a really talented guitar and bass player. The teacher’s dream is that this student can stay focused and maybe earn a guitar or bass to take home with him and then join a band when he gets home. YES! We agree for him to keep us posted on the kids progress and maybe we can help get him that bass when the time comes.
“You want to meet some of the kids now?” “Uh sure…” I say, as I wonder how that will go. They lead us into a cafeteria area. There are guards gathered around a group of about 20 kids. The kids look hardened… like, “who the hell are you?” The youngest ones are so young, it’s crazy to imagine that they are basically doing hard time. I think about who is raising these boys right now… security guards… and the wild pack of other boys that are now standing with their arms crossed glaring at me.
It’s intimidating and I feel like maybe I don’t know what I’m doing and maybe I shouldn’t be there. Like maybe this is too serious, these are real kids' lives, and I’m just a dumb comedy writer who likes to share music. The guards explain to the kids that we’re dropping off some guitars for them to play. He also explains I wrote for the Simpsons and would be happy to answer some questions. The kids shrug. Then after a beat, one asks; “You get paid for that?” “Uh… yeah… yeah making the Simpsons is actually a job that pays you money.” This seems to open some eyes. It occurs to me that this is what happened to me – As a teen I met someone who worked at the Letterman show… I couldn’t believe that was a job really that someone could go out and get… It was a lightning bolt for me that changed my life (thank you Steve O’Donnell!)-- that there was a bigger world out there that you could go and figure out how to be a part of. Suddenly I felt like I should say something… screw it – maybe something would connect and give someone a lightning bolt – maybe they’d see there was a bigger world than what they’d seen so far. I’m not sure what to say exactly but my mouth is moving and words are coming out… I listen and find that I’m saying something about Joe Strummer… and the Musack mission:
“Guys – the future is unwritten… your future is unwritten …. Being a teenager sucks everywhere -- for me music got me through … play guitars, make music, start a band… or write… make art… whatever it is that works for you... but try things… anything can happen to you in your life… you’re young… it’s not easy and you gotta work through this… but good things can happen… you have a big part in writing your future.” It was starting to sound good but I wondered if they actually did have a chance. How stacked is the deck against them? You hope anything is possible. I stopped and thought about how lucky I am and was – like Taiki posted -- my path could have led lots of different ways… I did some of the things these kids are serving time for-- in a different context – in a different skin – in a different dimension practically, in a world away… I also did some of the substances these kids are serving time for as a teen and made many of the same mistakes these kids made… I was super lucky. Dumb lucky. People gave me second and third chances. My parents loved me. I had a bass guitar and a boom box and lots of advice from Joe Strummer.
Will guitars help these kids? YES! Absolutely. They will play them, and that is only good. So there is no downside here. And, maybe something bigger will happen. I have heard it over and over from different musicians… “that first guitar saved my life.” Maybe one of these guitars will do that. “Maybe” is good enough for me. And at the very least it will bring more music to this drab concrete box.
By the end of my ramble… my “word walkabout” (that’s Australian for talking)… at least half the kids are listening and kind of nod at me like they get it. I feel a little better. Then one of the guards asks if we want to stay for breakfast. I realize – “wait these kids haven’t eaten yet?!” So they were staring at me going “hurry the f- up so we can eat.” I make a joke about that -- they laugh and we move to the tables for breakfast.
The kids start to open up now that they’ve had their instant coffee and cereal. They ask a lot about the Simpsons and how it is made. Some of them like to draw. Some of them like acting. One big aborigine kid who has been silent the whole time finally says his first words… slowly and deliberately “What… about… Spongebob?” Of course – what about Spongebob! I tell them about how Tom Kenny (voice of Spongebob) sang at the Rock n' Roll Carnival as Spongebob and Matt Groening donated items to the auction – and with that money, we bought these here guitars. Their eyebrows rise impressed. They tell me about Bob Marley and seem like they are grateful for the instruments. By the end, they wonder if we’re coming to class with them. I tell them one of the best things about studying hard is that when you graduate you don’t have to go to school anymore. One of the kids who is most excited about the guitars promises to send us a clip of him playing once he is out. We look forward to seeing/hearing it.
We plan to track our six Australian guitars and the kids who play them. I think of the Paul Kelly lyric; “From Little Things, Big Things Grow.” Maybe from this small gesture some big things will grow. Maybe these kids will write themselves a future on the guitars we got them. Maybe we will all survive the cyclone.
If you want to help us make more music happen like this, donate below!
A Short Playlist for Traveling into the Future:
Note: We survived the cyclone AND found some amazing record stores in Brisbane… Here’s a pile of UK pressed English Beat (The Beat) 45's I grabbed.