Joel Jackson is an award winning actor and musician. This is part one of a written trilogy series of the people, adventures and stories behind the making of his debut EP, Boy On A Wire. Set to release on December 6th and pre-release on iTunes, December 1st.
Boy On A Wire, out December 6th on all platforms.
“You belong somewhere you feel free…” – Wildflowers, Tom Petty
On a bitterly cold and wet Friday evening in Melbourne, right at the tail end of August, I desperately wanted someone to talk to. My apartment was on Commercial Rd across from the rooftop of The Emerson bar, I could literally throw ice blocks into someone’s drink if I aimed hard enough. Melbourne was home for three months while I was shooting a tv series and running my own podcast; interviewing great directors, actors and athletes, it was hectic but welcoming.
Because each each weekend, I’d found myself sat in my blank apartment overlooking the silhouette of the CBD, watching the distant green treetops of the Botanical Gardens or spotting the bright halo above the MCG. I could smell the busy aroma of the markets while gazing at the foot traffic of brunching yuppies. I’d catch the midnight escapades of the young and restless on the rooftop of The Emerson and listen for the absent tolling of the tram bells. I felt busy, but it couldn’t be more apparent how alone I was.
In our nation’s Golden City of history and culture, I sat like an idiot on the hill. Unsure of where to step, how to talk and what to do. So I stayed indoors and dreamt of home, of my family and adventures in the desert of Karratha, North Western Australia. A place of red dirt and lore older than any painted canvas inside the NGV, with a soul and history larger than any stadium in a city girt by sooty train tracks and discarded pie wrappers. My hands bore the callouses and scars from angling for fish three times bigger than any sourdough loaf in a basket on a market shelf. I couldn’t connect to this city.
But this is a story of how, in the dead of a cold Melbourne night, in the dark of an empty apartment I made an unspoken promise to try. I pulled myself off the couch, poured myself a cup of tea and called the home phone number of my best friend, Joan Rowe, my Nan.
For as long as I could remember the wonder of a human that was Joan Rowe had encouraged my love of music and passion for people. Joan would sway in the kitchen, cooking spaghetti for her six squawking grandkids; sparing the occasional piece of raw mince for the magpies waiting beyond the window outside, also squawking. And all the while she’d be humming her favourites; from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash, Slim Dusty, Elvis Presley and so many more. Twirling on the spot, one hand on her hip and the other twisting into the air, with the afternoon sunlight catching her medical wristband, she’d dip and sway as gentle as the breeze lifting the cotton curtain above the sink and as she sang I’d watch. Mesmerised. The other kids might’ve seen it, but I’m not sure if they felt it. I felt it, I still do. I still feel that warmth, that joy, that life that is music.
Joan answered the phone in a tone that only a grandmother can; all warmth and love with no effort, pure untethered affection. With the advent of caller id on the home phone she knew it was me. “Hello my dear Joelybole, how are you love?” came down the line. I couldn’t really answer that, but as an actor I get paid to pretend, so I feigned a tired happiness and asked her how she was and in that manner the conversation flowed easily for about 20 minutes, until I’d emptied all the niceties I could muster. A comfortable silence settled between our ears and though we were thousands of miles apart, I felt her in the room and it calmed me like the cool towels she’d rest on our forehead to break a fever.
Joel Jackson, Kiln Studios Session for the Boy On A Wire EP.
I sat, staring through the doorway of my bedroom and from where I sat at the kitchen table I spotted my only companion in this tall tower of steel and concrete, my guitar. More than ever before that clever arrangement of wire and wood had willed and taught me to do what it did so well. To defy the laws of nature, a creation of a multitude of materials, like a beautiful Frankenstein holding itself together through the tension and torture of having it’s strings continuously wound tight to be thrashed by a boy holding onto it’s copper coated wire like a bedraggled cat caught on a power line over a raging river. It was my salvation and for some unknown reason on this bitter Friday evening, for the first time ever, I invited Joan Rowe into our world.
I put the phone down, put it on speaker and told my Nan I’d be back. I returned to the chair with the guitar in hand and softly tuned my beautifully heavy acoustic guitar. I could hear the brightness in her tone as she asked, “are you going to sing me a song love?” I smiled to myself, took a quick sip of tea and said, “yeah, thought I might play you a song or two.” Along with Paul McCartney’s My Michelle, which she could hum along to, I sang her a handful of original songs with little explanation from me and little comment from her. Most of these lyrics and melodies had lived aloud only in the confines of whatever four walls had fenced me in and now, the woman who had wiped the water away from behind my ears and chased me to bed to the tune of “run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run. Here comes the farmer with his big gun,” had heard the cracks in my heart.
“Thanks for listening,” I said, “they’re beautiful my dear,” came her response and then a more pointed, “has anybody else heard them?”
“No,” I said softly. “Why not?” she asked, “I’m not sure.” I don’t know why. I didn’t know why I was happier playing three or four hours of other people’s music, sweaty cover sets filled with songs requested ten years ago in the dry dust of a mining town. Why? Why not my music? “You need to play them for someone mate,” she said.
This conversation was in August, 2018 and in the last days of January, 2019, Joan Rowe passed away.
The night she passed I was camping in the immense Karri forests of Boranup in South West Australia, surrounded by gargantuan trees hundreds of years old. That afternoon, as the sun set the sky filled with a magical red glow that pierced the thick and heavy foliage overhead. I set up my hammock and stood watching the camp kettle boiling when suddenly the noise of timber breaking sounded way above my head, followed by a thunder of cracks and snaps. I looked up, just in time to jump out of the way of a massive dead branch, about as thick as my thigh and a metre and a half long, that came crashing down to earth. I can’t imagine what would have happened if it had hit me, but it wouldn’t have felt great. The campsite immediately came alive and what few campers shared the grounds asked if I was ok and with my shaky hands steadied deep in my pockets and toes dug into the dirt for comfort I told them, “yeah, but that was close.” “Someone’s looking out for you,” one of them smiled.
The stillness returned, I sunk into my hammock and continued reading Letters to a Young Poet; a collection of ten letters from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke to a young cadet to help him on his journey to self discovery. “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…live in the question,” was one line that stayed with me. I thought it beautiful and brave. Live in the question. Live through uncertainty and fear, through adversity and into the unknown. Live to see the day after a lonely, dark and unending night, like I’d done in Melbourne so many months ago.
The next day I drove to a lighthouse and my phone found reception. It lit up with missed calls and messages from family and in a carpark beside a bright, ancient beacon of hope and humanity, I found out my best friend had left this world. Joan Rowe’s soul had faded into the stars and in the months that followed I decided I needed to sing a little louder so that she might still hear me.
Words by Joel Jackson, Boy On A Wire cover design by Samuel Hockey, photos by Indiana Kwong.
Part Two coming Sunday the 24th of November