Sydney is dead. That’s what you’d hear people say and everyone seemed to agree. I didn’t. It was Sunday, the ninth of October 2016 and I was standing in Belmore Park, a two-minute walk from Central Station, Sydney. The park was filled with people, mostly young. They were all there for the second ‘Keep Sydney Open’ rally.
I looked around and saw people talking, smiling and some dancing to minimal tech being shot out of a couple of speakers in the centre of the grass.
The speakers framed two DJs working their decks in the back of a hired Ute, their equipment festooned with rainbow ribbons. I didn’t know their names.
When the lockout laws were first rolled out in Sydney in 2014, I like many others, was afraid nightlife in the CBD would flat-line. I was afraid because I loved to go out and I thought I’d lose the ability to make sparks fly when the hour was late. But a setting doesn’t dictate the experiences you have and the ones you want – your attitude does.
I wandered through the groups of people, looking at the signs they’d made and chuckled to myself. I saw: ‘Baird – Culture Vulture’, relating to our turbulent premier Mike Baird, ‘Sorry Nightlife Is Currently Unavailable’ and a personal favourite of mine and a well known classic, ‘It’s Not My Baird Time’.
I then saw the back of someone I recognised. Sam Hansen. A guy I met on a whim at a university party. I’d offered him pizza for no particular reason and invited him to a party I was having. He turned out to be a good presence with all his faculties in check. What made him different was his noticeable proclivity toward protesting. So, I smirked as I walked up behind him. A roll of white card stuck out of his backpack.
‘Of course you’re here!’ I announced. He turned and looked at me for a moment. It’d been a while since we last spoke so I was a stranger to him at first. Then he smiled back.
‘Rohan, mate, how’re you?’ I shook his hand.
‘Very well, you packing heat today?’ I asked as I motioned to his rolled card behind his head. He recognised it.
‘Haven’t written anything yet, gotta come up with something good you know?’
‘What about “No Lockout Laws and Happy Greyhound Paws”?’ We both laughed and Sam pointed to the centre.
‘Let’s go to the middle, people are dancing there.’
Dancing in the midday summer heat would have been favourable had I not had work in two hours. I predicted I’d make a little of the march then would have to leave – a shame, as the vibes of democratic protest were starting to become intoxicating. The music beat was fast and the bass was muted and deep – just the way dancers liked it. It blew my mind that so many people could rock up to a place like this on a weekend, voluntarily. So I celebrated and bopped and swayed among the forest of wooden posts, sporting their signs high up like a canopy of leaves. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, it was Sam.
‘I’m gonna find my friend I’ll see you around.’ I gave him thumps up and returned to solo exhibitionism. Learning how to dance and have a good time on your own is a slowly-learned, vital skill that I had acquired. I’d recommend it to anyone. Losing your group of friends while you’re out is a common experience and a potential downer. But if you know how to operate alone the stakes get a lot lower when you find yourself adrift. For girls this was different, and this is why many of them stuck together like industry-strength adhesive. But issues of gender are another story, not this one.
The music suddenly stopped. Groans galore. A man named Tyson Koh swapped places with the DJs and spoke into a mike. He was the spokesperson for the campaign, this was the first time I’d heard him. His eyelids were sleepy but his eyes were not and they beamed out through his beady, hipster rim glasses. He spoke words of stealing Sydney, the death of culture and live music, of fat cats and casinos, of violence and of friendship and creativity. He also spoke of Melbourne, a city south of us that had so far avoided the dreaded one thirty AM lockdown.
The march began and the crowd, in a slow current, started plodding north. We moved onto Hay Street, under the train overpass where our voices echoed for a moment and out onto Elizabeth Street.
I called Ben. He was to meet me up at the corner of Liverpool a few hundred metres up. The crowd wasn’t too loud but I had to yell into my phone. The corner came and I waved to him from the side of the worm and he joined in. He was well built and walked with a gladiatorial eagerness, his forearms would swing high and both hands were open like they were about to catch a footy. He had pug eyes but that didn’t seem to be a flaw, merely a singularity in a beautiful and jovial face. Of course physical beauty had its place, but there’s no sin in luxuriating in it, like a girls waterfall hair or sand dune legs, or a man’s knife edge jaw line and craggy brow.
We walked up to Oxford Street. People watched from unit blocks above, tiny people way up in the sky looking down at the swirling mass of people below. Cars sounded their horns on the other side of the road, raising cheers from the crowd. A guy in front of me brandished a handheld speaker, held it over his head like a trophy, spitting out more EDM, fuelling the spirit even more in his radius. I saw so many beautiful women, dressed up in lively summer denim and baggy white shirts with those knots done at the torso. The men were all so sanguine, striding up the white lines of the road, with their revamped nineties snapbacks and Mac DeMarco rat moustaches. There were a few older folks dotted here and there, veterans of the night, still bobbing their heads to the plumes of music wafting in the air.
Over the past year or so I’d been out with Ben at night so often that he’d become a best friend. I only had one other from school but Ben satiated my underworked impulsive side. He was the best host, a better drinking buddy and if you could weather the rollercoaster then you’d have a great time. He, like me, could keep his head screwed on no matter how wild things got, which made for some interesting and well-remembered stories. There was never any memory loss; we enjoyed it too much for that to happen.
He was one of the many Sydney nightlife success stories that the anti lockout crowd chose to ignore. I loved all the signs I saw but one at the first rally. It said this: “F**k this, I’m moving to Melbourne”. There seemed to be a sentiment of faithlessness in Sydney. Like these people wanted it to provide them everything they needed to have a fulfilling nightlife. And that if it didn’t deal out a winning hand every single time they went out, they’d simply pack their bags and move to a very similar city. I’ve been to Melbourne and it’s a hoot but that was because of my attitude, not because the bars and clubs were open twenty-four seven.
For better or worse, my attitude was uncompromising in having a good time and sharing that with other people, making them feel included whoever they were, making them feel thankful they got on a train and hiked it all the way into the CBD. Ben shared the same impulse and I had made so many good memories with friends and also strangers before the lockout laws. After lock out laws were introduced in February 2014, my memories and the experiences that forged them actually got better. This was because I now had to be mindful about the way I planned my night.
With fewer resources one is forced to be more creative and I was able to do that on my own or in league with Ben. We sort out different venues, different events for different crowds. I got into the deep house dance scene, jazz bars, whiskey bars, poetry reading, book clubs, performance art, rock metal gigs, late night film screenings and festivals, warehouse parties, dress up parties (even though I hate dressing up) and even a fetish party. Plus the old faithful beer and footy with mates at the pub. The nightlife never went anywhere, it wasn’t dying off under the stairs, and it was all still happening, waiting for people to dive in.
So why was everybody so angry? Because a lot of crowd were cynics who saw Kings Cross as the face of Sydney nightlife and that if they didn’t fit into that scene, all two-to-four streets of it, they would give up all hope and write off the rest of the city as a sloppy failure. The angst would permeate most social groups as the groups’ themselves couldn’t be bothered, or were for whatever reason unable to go to places other than the now deceased workhorses Bar Century and Soho.
If we were so against the lockout laws we should have been protesting but also filling up the dance floors, bars and stages of the venues we loved, great and small, mainstream and underground.
Jimmy Barnes, lead of Cold Chisel, spoke out about the forty percent drop in attendance to live music events. That was our fault. How can you make a stand if you show up to protest, but not at the locations the protest aims to protect?
The crowd plods up Oxford Street, a place where I had seen a decline in populace happening at night.
‘We’re going so fast aren’t we?’ said Ben.
‘Yeah like F1, I have to go work soon.’ I said and then proceeded to make an F1 sound with my mouth. Ben and I did this together. You squeeze your lips tight and then tense your stomach and force air at high pressure through your lips while trying to keep them closed. The sound is like the old V12 engines the cars used to have – the ear splitting, earthquake sound. But for us it sounded like slowly letting the air out of a balloon.
‘Two o’clock right? You’ve got ten minutes to walk all the way back to Central’ He asked, I nodded like a head banger and made a face.
‘Yeah got caught up in the vibes, everyone’s all about our generation not caring about things, but look at this shit.’ I gestured to the masses. Ben jumped, peeking at the line snaking ahead, and then he did the same to see the rear.
‘Quite a lot of people.’
‘Protesting the fact that it’s a little bit harder to get a shitty drink past one thirty.’
I laughed. He did have a point.
‘Only the biggest issues in this country.’
‘Oui, you know what else is big?’ No joke is too shameful for Ben.
‘You’re a big dumbass, that’s what’s big.’ I deflected feebly.
‘Nah my dad was a big drinker, sort of became another person after a few. He wasn’t bad, just annoying and like, loose and everything.’ I changed tact, came down to his level.
‘Oh right, well yeah the issue goes back to that I guess. You know our cultural love affair with the bottle. And guys are getting hurt, and dying as well. I mean how can people protest against a decline in violence? Everyone just kinda gleans over that here.’
I did remember seeing a sign advocating to keep Sydney closed.
‘Well yeah they sorta do, but ‘Keep Sydney Open’ want better than blanket solutions. Like Oxford Arts Factory was a graveyard last week.’ He pointed behind me to the Factory, we passed it a few minutes ago.
‘Yeah there were less people.’ I said half to myself. ‘I reckon two thirty or three might be the sweet spot, so places don’t lose so much money, I never knew it would have such a tangible effect in some places.’
‘It’s a bloodbath in some joints.’
I sighed, ‘If Baird can back flip on the greyhound issue everybody suddenly cares about then maybe he will for this. I still love this city, it’s ridiculously beautiful and I’ve been able to satisfy myself and lockout laws haven’t changed that. We’re invincible, matey.’
Ben laughed knowingly, kind of like he knew it wasn’t completely true, that we were unbeatable at times. Ben was Gatsby, Jordan Belfort and Chopper Read all in one but still managed to actually be a proper friend (and also didn’t assault people or commit crimes if you’re worried about the latter moniker). That’s what was just in that knowing laugh. He had all the excitement and almost rabid thirst for experience but also the same fears and insecurities as Joe Blow from down the street. I wasn’t Joe Blow but I certainly wasn’t Gatsby.
But I loved Ben and what we’d done, him as pilot and me as co. Two pub grubs screaming through the sky in a jet made of taxi parts, running on beer, cigarettes and other disparaging substances. There was no destination, just spending time together. I suppose that’s all I ever wanted. Not to miss out on things like that. For us, lockout laws were a non-issue. I said goodbye to Ben and left the crowd.
I rang work to say I was running late, they were okay with it. I cut back down south toward Central through Pelican Alley and then Goulburn Street. My stomach rumbled and I realized that I hadn’t eaten that day.
I slumped into the chair in the newsroom, sizing up the eight-hour shift in my head. The rally would end in Taylor Square where they’d probably have some big bands and more speeches. I had a responsibility to be there but also to work. A reporter I’d seen down at Belmore Park brought in camera cards; the story would feature on the bulletin that night. I perused through the footage on the computer, none of my fantastic face in there but I suppose the crowd made up for it. More attractive women wearing John Lennon shades and daisy chains. I smiled to myself and closed the window.
I’d probably end up going out with Ben that night, maybe to Mali Bar, or Side Bar, Midnight Special, The Bank, The Different Drummer, World Bar, The Palisade, Bungalow 8, Sweeney’s, White Horse, Beresford. Onwards I would go in an endless search for love and human connection, of silence after the noise of voices and music, of the quiet humming of a nourished soul at the end of a good night out.
Sydney is not dead, but perhaps it’s just transitioning between stages of life in certain areas. There are still buckets of the hopes of youths running through our streets – you just have to leave the house to find it.
To re-appropriate a platitude: If you can’t handle the heat, learn to love it and get cooking in the kitchen, because Sydney can still whip up a raging feast. And we can all peacefully sit down and dine. Are you hungry? Because I sure as hell am!