The Oceanic Adventures of Bev Package: Our Week on a Cruise Ship

It’d be fifteen years since I last heard it. But it’s irresistible and in the cosy chairs of the Pacific Dawn’s Promenade Bar we all sang along

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday

The regular crowd shuffles in

There’s an old man sitting next to me

Making love to his tonic and gin

Chugging across the Coral Sea during our week I heard Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” about a dozen times, and often twice an evening. Kieran, a Welsh fellow who looks a little like the comedian Jimeon was our favourite performer, and did a grand version, and indeed, the first occasion was, with planned theatricality, at precisely nine o’clock on the Saturday. Earlier, we’d endured a curious, scatting, jazz interpretation, complete with messy harmonica, by a young pianist. We also heard it a couple of times on the blustery pool deck.

Although it’s about broken dreams the song rollicks along in 3/4 waltz time and demands those with refreshments to raise and swing them about like pre-fight pirates. It’s an amazing narrative, dominated by the stirring affection with which the barroom tragics: John, Paul, Davy and co are described.

It was his first hit, and in its fifth decade, still works magnificently. Just as “Fairytale of New York” always takes me to Christmas in London, and with “LA Woman” I’m driving in Santa Monica, “Piano Man” will endlessly transport me to that rousing place on the Pacific Dawn.

*

We squeeze onto a water-taxi in Port Vila and transit across Vanuatu’s harbour. It’s an attractive winter’s morning and we’re buoyant with sea spray and the promise of exploration. Rounding Iririki Island, the coast is speckled with dozens of half-sunken yachts, ghostly victims of 2015’s Cyclone Pam. Seeing these dead craft reminds me that idyllic Pacific atolls frequently turn hellish, and that people are really, really small.

Zig-zagging along the main street it’s clear that our massive ship disgorging a couple thousand folks is an event. Some load-up at a duty-free shop and then I see it, that most ubiquitous of Australian chains: Billabong. It speaks of the worst colonial toxicity; a symbol of Australia’s reptilian hegemony and doomed local aspiration. I find it troubling to visit a country which is economically obliged to try to sell me surf wear.

*

I’m hoping that somebody can help me with this. Is it true that “Reminiscing” by LRB features on each of Cruise Ship Classics: Volumes 1 – 12?

Yeah, I thought so.

*

I love regressing to boyish wonder and again finding it awesome that a plane like an A-380 can fly. The Pacific Dawn, is also a leviathan which, if dropped onto Footy Park, would flatten both sets of goal posts. Of course if this were during a 2011 Power home game, it’d scare the be-jesus out of the scattered punters and Kochie while possibly also tearing the tarps.

That our ship glides seaward across a rippling bay can appear, from our vantage point, over one-hundred feet above the sea, as the muscular act of a magical god.

Aside from the Promenade Bar my favourite place within this hydropolis was on the pool deck, with my Jonathan Franzen novel, and courtesy of everyone’s bestie, Bev Package, a crisp Peroni. How could I not love being drenched in languid holiday rhythms and their drifting afternoons? Up there, our petty urgencies evaporated into brief irrelevance.

BevPackage

*

Each morning over the PA and in his Genoan tones our captain addressed the ship: “So, we are travelling north-east through the Coral Sea at eighteen knots. Later today we’ll cross the Tropic of Capricorn and by afternoon the winds should abate. There’s currently around four to five metre swells, and we’ve activated our stabilisers to give you greater comfort. It’s nineteen degrees centigrade and should reach a top of twenty-three. Up next, a 1973 singalong classic by Billy Joel.”

*

Trudging up the tropical hill to Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel on the eastern coast of Lifou the terrain and vegetation remind me of Singapore’s Pulau Ubin, but without the aggressive monkeys. It’s an energetic stroll across this member of the Loyalty Islands and the view is fetching. Inspired by the beauty and proximate godliness, Bazz and I exchange observations:

“Look out there. See that yacht. That belongs to Richard Branson’s butcher.”

“Sure. Did you know that Sister Janet Mead isn’t buried beside this chapel?”

“Have I told you that Leo Sayer has never toured here?”

We then gathered on the beach, and some confronted the cruel, blue water. Alex and I clambered up to the village market to buy him a coconut. As we came back down the rocky track I see my wife, crying and saying something, but it’s lost in the wind. I think: someone’s been stung by a stingray, or worse, someone’s lost their phone, or even worse, Tex Walker’s done his knee (again).

Bursting onto the seashore, the cruislings are gathered about my brother-in-law Richard and his girlfriend Jasmine. They’ve just become engaged. Months prior to this voyage, he’d bought a ring to make this their moment. There’s tears and hugs and laughter. Families are meant to get bigger. Ours just did.

And with this Lifou is changed. For us, it was just an anonymous islet, a previously unencountered paradise, but now it’s invested, and forever enchanted. Isn’t this what people should do? With love, drape their stories upon an innocent geography, and transmogrify the terrain into something wonderful and harmless and humanly sweet?

*

Billy Joel hasn’t released a new song since 1993, and like many musicians he peaked early. But how fantastic that his biggest tune was born of grinding slog in an LA piano bar. That this song about crushed dreams would make his come rapidly and unthinkably true is a joyful irony.

For most of us, going on a cruise ship was new, and “Piano Man” an old friend, a smiling stowaway, waiting to surprise us. It was excellent to catch up over a beer or two, and like the best of songs it became a unifying motif for us, on our little holiday.

Sing us a song you’re the piano man

Sing us a song tonight

Well we’re all in the mood for a melody

And you’ve got us feeling alright

 

 

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About Mickey Randall

Late afternoon beer, Exile on Main St playing. Sport like cricket, most types of football, golf, squash, horse racing. Travel, with Vancouver my favourite city, but there’s nowhere I’ve not happily been. Except Luton. Reading. Writing about family, sport, music, the stuff that amuses me. Conversation. Wit. Irony. McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon, Barossa shiraz, Coopers Sparkling Ale. Jazz and especially Miles Davis. Lots and lots of music. I live in Adelaide with my wife Kerry-ann and our boys Alex and Max.

Comments

  1. Peter_B says:

    Billy is much under rated. Had so many hits he became passe’. New York State of Mind; Allentown etc are great songs. Still he’s laughing all the way to the bottle shop last I heard.
    Footy on the boat via Internet or satellite? Welcome back. Rulebook had to double his output in your absence.

  2. Thanks PB. As with most Billy’s old stuff is the pick and I’m a fan of his longer songs like “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Goodnight Saigon” and “Captain Jack.” Not sure why he doesn’t record anymore- he may have run out of things to say. Or it may be the grog.

    I flicked on our cabin TV and caught some of the Crows and Carlton match when we were a few hundred kilometres west of Brisbane, but gave up at 3/4 time. After this, it was great to be out of the news/footy/internet loop for a week.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Missed you, Old Gum Tree hugger.

    Billy Joel lost me when the 40-somethings at the Ingle Farm footy club became enamoured with his faux new wave Glass Houses stuff.

    Leo Sayer, as you will need no reminding, had his largest per capita sales in the world in the 08 STD region. Silverbird made my 14yo ears prick up.

  4. Good stuff, as ever, Mickey. Some songs become victims of their success, but still find ways to become relevant again.

  5. Dave Brown says:

    Sounds like a good week Mickey – Bev must be a popular lass

  6. Thanks Swish. Good to be back. Glass Houses came out when I was a contrarian year 9 (tautology noted) and even as that fourteen year old I was disappointed at its obviousness. He was better than this. Courtesy of my Mum we had at least one Leo Sayer record. On it was “Long Tall Glasses” which I really enjoyed, even as a contrarian year 9.

    Cheers Vin. Agree with your observation. There’s scores of songs that I’m sure I’ve heard thousands of times and am adamant I don’t need to ever hear again (think most of Triple M’s playlist), but occasionally I’ll catch a tune like “Khe Sanh” and think, gee, this is a really great song. “Piano Man” is another, along with “Hotel California” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Thank you Father, I think that’s it for the week.

    Dave- Bev Package (could also be Bevan) was a generous and tireless companion. Always silently obliging. Worth getting to know.

  7. E.regnans says:

    Love it, Mickey.
    Particularly your observation of what life might indeed be for.

    On yer Billy Joel, I loved his Yankee Stadium work in the 90s, and even saw him (Stormfront tour?)
    But my best moment occurred only two weeks ago- maybe coincident with your cruise. In one of those “look where life has taken you” moments, I was sitting poolside in a Villa in Port Douglas alongside a beautiful woman I’d recently met. (I know).
    “Play us some music” she said, as it was revealed that she had previously worked as an opera singer.
    “Some Billy Joel, dammit.”
    And so our mate produced a Spotify-inducted device, and we sang word-for-word, in character, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
    Life highlight.

    They’re often played for a reason.
    Well played, Mickey.
    Lovely story-telling, as is usual.

  8. E.regnans- thanks for that. I’ve long been a fan of the long, multi-part song such as “Paranoid Android” and I guess, technically side two of Abbey Road, but at the top of my list is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

    Like much in life Billy Joel, probably with sound reason, became decidedly uncool in the recent past, but as Vin suggests his best songs will find ways to gain modern currency because they’re actually good.

    A younger me would’ve dismissed the impact “Piano Man” made during our time in the south Pacific, but I could find no adequate reason to do so.

    Port Douglas, a beautiful opera singer and Billy Joel. A life highlight, indeed!

    Cheers!

  9. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says:

    Lovely read Mickey.

    I am literally in the middle of David Foster Wallace’s essay on cruising called ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.’ I have never been on a cruise ship but working down at Circular Quay, I watch them trade places every day through summer and list their names in my phone – 34 to date. They hold a kind of strange fascination, like dinosaurs do for four year olds. With some first hand experience under your belt, you might like to try the essay. Although, in Foster Wallace style, it’s more about Florida and decay and death rather than holidays and families and memories.

  10. Mathilde – as always your comment is generous and provides some excellent homework suggestions. While the ship’s vastness was mesmerizing I was daily astonished by the logistics. Not in the “on grand final day supporters at the MCG will consume 11,000 hot dogs” way, but the human stories behind these.

    I’d like to read more about the people who work on cruise ships, but am worried I’ll discover that by going on one we’re now complicit in some quite dark arrangements.

    PS- one afternoon I strolled past the ship’s Orient Bar and heard the distinctive stylings of “The Love Boat” theme. I guess that’s better than hearing Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On.”

    Thanks for this.

  11. Rick Kane says:

    Hi Mickey

    There’s so much to like in this piece. Lovely observations, taking us into your personal and family moments. And funny as.

    And then you go and write something as powerful as this: For us, it was just an anonymous islet, a previously unencountered paradise, but now it’s invested, and forever enchanted. Isn’t this what people should do? With love, drape their stories upon an innocent geography, and transmogrify the terrain into something wonderful and harmless and humanly sweet? Love it.

    Billy Joel? Meh. The perfect way to hear his stuff though, on a cruise. When he sang It’s Still RocknRoll to Me I thought, was it ever rocknroll to you? He did well enough to get 8 or 10 albums out of his well considering he came at every genre and established act without really bettering any of them. I do like Say Goodbye to Hollywood and a couple of other show tunes.

    Cheers

  12. Hello Rick

    Thanks for this. Yes, Billy Joel and LRB were both on high rotation on-board, as might be expected given the demographics. Also featured frequently were Dolly Parton, the Bee Gees and Dragon! However, there were some afternoons on the pool deck when the selections were more youthful, and I did hear some Tame Impala one day, which was a surprise but might not thrill Kevin Parker!

  13. Mickey,
    A wonderful piece…great to see some well-observed non-footy stuff on the Nac every now and again.
    I have never been the slight bit interested in taking a cruise, and am constantly bewildered and
    fascinated by my workmates’ stories of on-board boozing. It seems that Bev Package is universally popular.
    By the way whilst never a big fan of Billy, “52nd Street” is an excellent album, and “An Innocent Man” isn’t too shabby either.

  14. Thanks Smokie.

    We’d taken lots of resort holidays over the years on the Sunshine Coast and in Asia when we were in Singapore, so when my sister and brother-in-law suggested it last Christmas, we thought why not? I enjoyed being at sea, but preferred the days when we could explore the various island destinations.

    Mum and Dad had 52nd Street when I was a kid and it was the First Billy Joel album I got to know and like. Side 2 with “Stiletto” and the title track especially appealed to my young self, while “An Innocent Man” came out when I was in Year 12, and looms large in my memories of that wonderful, tortured time.

    Cheers.

  15. Rick Kane says:

    I’ll take Dolly every day (brilliant in concert too!), Bee Gees (more the non-disco years – To Love Somebody is a particular fave) and Dragon had some good songs. On a cruise I reckon I’d just roll with whatever. I must say, following your conversation with Smokie, that a cruise hasn’t been high on my holiday list. Until a few of my family went on the cruise through the West Indies from Florida. That sounded like a lotta fun. And I do check out the Country music Cruises. Some of the artists that play those cruises are pretty good. Cheers

  16. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    It’s six o clock on a Saturday
    The regular crowd are all here
    Bobby Neil,the Legend,is next to me
    With Pud and a cold pint of beer

    He says Pud can you get me another pint
    As he picks himself up from the floor
    Cause I’m really quite pissed
    And the last one just missed
    My mouth as lm ready for more
    La,la,la,la,le,laaaaaaa
    La,la,la,le,la.la.la
    Chorus
    Sing us a song will you,Chocka Bloch
    Sing us a song tonight
    Cause we all want to hear about,Bobby Neil
    And why he won’t drink,Coopers light

    Now Bobby Neil he’s the club legend
    But he’s got a problem it’s true
    He loves to drink a beer on a Saturday
    But there’s other things he likes to do

    He says,Chocka,I’ve got a ,big problem
    As his smile slowly turns to a frown
    I want to drink beer till I’m out on my ear
    But still lead the cub pack around
    Oh la,la la la de daaaa
    La la,da de da,da daaaa

    Now Mad dog is shouting at Westy
    With regards to what might have been
    If Bob Neil had a run
    With the ,As and not the scum
    The As would now be the top team

    And Restas sits in the corner
    As the Verrall cat slowly gets stoned
    Yes the lonely are drinking with Rulebook
    But they’re better off drinking alone

    Chorus
    It’s a good crowd for Hold your bowlies
    And the proprietor breaks into a smile
    Cause he knows that it’s me
    You’ve all come to see
    Or to drink with,Bob Neil for a while

    And the Havelock is packed like a carnival
    And the microphone gives out a whine
    So if you talk at the bar
    While I’m spinning a yarn
    It’ll cost you a one dollar find
    Oh la,la la,la de daaaa
    La la,da de da, da daaaa
    Chorus

  17. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Mickey thought of the above as soon as I started reading you no you have made it in uni footy club when you get the crap payed out of you,I enjoyed your story immensely thank you

  18. Like Smokie I am allergic to cruising until I’m too decrepit to get myself around by car or train. BUT I agree with Rick the music cruises are an exception.
    Check out the annual Caribbean cruise that Buddy MIller organises. http://www.cayamo.com
    The next one is out of Florida in Feb 2017. The lineup includes Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle and assorted Wainrights. Bliss.
    Definitely one for the bucket list in future years.

  19. Rick- I’m with you on the Bee Gees; not much interested in the disco stuff. “To Love Somebody” surely their finest moment with honourable mentions to “Massachusetts” and “Words.” A music-themed Caribbean cruise would be extraordinary.

    ‘Book- does the song still get sung? At the Havelock? Thanks for that.

    Peter- that would be a treat.

    Just wondering; is this the likely career trajectory for Australian acts such as You Am I?

    1) Mum and Dad’s garage
    2) Local pub
    3) Thebarton/ Corner Hotel et al
    4) Big Day Out (RIP)
    5) Day on the Green
    6) Cruise ship
    7) Rooty Hill RSL

    Thanks to everyone.

  20. Rulebook says:

    Mickey yep the song is still sung occasionally

  21. Luke Reynolds says:

    Great yarn Mickey. Love the Port Adelaide sledge.
    (Early) Billy Joel was a favourite of my Mum, grew up hearing those records regularly. Did not know, and am stunned by the fact he hasn’t released a new song since 1993. Jumped the shark at ‘River Of Dreams’?

  22. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    In an amazing convergence of events, I just received an email at work:

    “Don’t miss your chance to see Billy Joel at the Oracle Appreciation Event. Register by July 31 and receive US$500 off the onsite price.
    Grammy Award winner Billy Joel takes the stage at the Oracle Appreciation Event. ”

    This probably ranks lower than Rooty Hill.

  23. Genius Swish.

    I’d assume that R.D. Barassi would also be presenting at an Oracle event. San Francisco should be nice in late September; I reckon Billy will enjoy himself. I was all excited until I downloaded Oracle’s 34 page Code of Conduct, and imagine that I’ll be mostly non-compliant.

    Confession: I did see Huey Lewis in concert in San Francisco one NYE. I reckon Huey and Billy were a dead-heat in the Our Musical Careers Are Finished Stakes.

    Put me down for two tickets.

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