James Paull - Tism 1957-2008

It was the sort of country petrol station where truckies sleepless from the pills and suburban fathers sleepless from the kids pulled in to have a break. Three hundred miles inland, south-west of Sydney, last chance before the really long haul began. A Tarago of men arrived, too hungry to wait any longer for breakfast. The road manager filled the tank; the road crew and some of the band made a run for the junk food; the rest lent on the hire car and talked about whatever. Then they fell silent as, in the next lane of bowsers, the driver of a small Volkswagen, its P-plate surely a recent birthday gift, struggled with the nozzle. She placed it just on the lip of her tank; removed it; put it further in; jiggled it pointlessly; tried it deep and then tried again shallow. Her jeans were cut to show two important inches of flesh around her midriff. Finally, the mechanism gurgled. Thoughts were occurring to the watching men that might be entertained not only by a touring band with too little sleep, too much hangover and four hours to sound-check.

"I never like that look," said Jock.
They laughed all the way to Canberra.

He always had the licks, just never the poses. James Paull – Jock to nearly everyone – was one of very few who could say "I spent a year composing in Amsterdam" and not sound like he was on Radio National. After a gruelling sound check, having waited patiently for the bass player to tune, the lead singer to have another fold-back wedge placed, the keyboardist to not show, and having been told that the rotating pig-spit (tonight’s gimmick) would mean his guitar amp would have to practically face the ceiling, he declared, "I sound like I’m playing in Banjo Land." It stuck. From then on stage-left was Banjo Land.

And Jock was its king. Live performance, that usurper of so many pretenders, never once dethroned him. It was at sound-checks, rehearsals and song-writing sessions that it was easiest to work out why. During those less frantic occasions he could be watched – say, from up the back of the empty venue, when road-cases, not fans, covered the floor, and the punter barrier was still in pieces. He played guitar so well he seemed unaware of his fingers. Between the chord changes he could place a pouch of tobacco on his amp; without looking once at the guitar neck he’d manage to open a pack of papers and prepare to roll. Then, though not often, he would concentrate: a small, suddenly unleisured moment, when it seemed he’d have to recollect what the guitar was doing, rollie paper stuck on his lip, this move from middle eight to chorus maybe even needing a quick glance toward the machine head; and then it all could be forgotten again, the next bit learnt so long ago that he could finally lick the cigarette paper into a tube. He played his guitar not from memory, but by forgetting it was there. The bands that supported them last year were bigger than them next year, and smaller than them the year after that. It was hard not to whinge, harder still to really care. Fame for Jock was a business class ticket – a nice extra, but there’s always better things to buy for that price. And the band sure as hell weren’t paying. He only insisted on one thing: he’d wear the stupid head gear, he’d play the same three chords, but, "I didn’t join this band to dance." He never would, but was kind to those who did.

He announced he was sick like his car needed a service. "I’ve got cancer," he said over the phone, "and there’s a tax return I need you to sign." He must have felt he was announcing the impossible, but it was impossible for anyone to guess it. Later, as we had the first round of drinks, we’d ask him to tell us the worst – he’d point to the scar on the back of his neck, his swollen glands, let on at least something about waiting rooms and X-rays and how it would be a different doctor every time. But, by the next round, we worked out that it was Billy Kristian, ex-Max Merritt and the Meteors, who might’ve played bass on Children of the Sun. Or Thorpie had got in some session guy. With Jock, it wasn’t about Jock.

The real transformation in his life had came earlier, anyway. His daughter Ella was his first and only child. "When they put her into my hands," he said simply, "I changed." He described to us how precise the moment was – how unexpected, that from exactly that touch he felt besotted. The men around him nodded in some awe; but we saw a chick coming, so we quickly returned to talking about fold-back sends and gaffer tape. Musos need to keep up an image. Chicks dig scars. Jock knew that. At his wake we heard the songs he’d chosen himself. His partner Matty told us that he’d been unable to trust anyone else’s judgement in such an important decision. Other people would care about other things; but, for Jock, it was her, his daughter, and music. The music seemed to speak. "For him," it told us, "nothing else was as good as this."

"James Paull was the guitarist for the unique Australian band TISM for over 16 years and 5 albums."

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