The Two Man Play-Doh Band's Gran Fiesta
The Two Man Play-Doh Band booked its first gig with our eleven-year-old son, Jack, on lead Play-Doh. If you get a chance, play the video. I don't think it's just that I'm his dad.
‘Mum, actually I think we need to tell Simon that I don’t want to do this!’ Jack says. He has his hands over his ears. ‘I want my headphones! I want to keep moving from here. I want to get inside!’
We’re side of stage at Westgarth Primary School’s La Gran Fiesta, which is a very ‘Gran’ and bit Spanish way of saying ‘primary school fete’. It’s the countdown to The Two Man Play Doh-Band’s debut gig, and Play-Doh soloist Jack Wilson is having second thoughts.
Tamsin gives Jack his ear muffs which have a rainbow pattern that almost matches the band T-shirts that one of Jack’s classroom aides, Meg Kossatz, has made for the gig. ‘I showed him the T-shirt and laminated poster and he said, “Is my face on it?” Meg relays earlier. ‘I told him his face would be positioned directly behind it! Surely that’s enough!’
We know our son well enough to suspect he doesn’t really want to quit here. We need to give him every chance to ascend that stage. He and his music teacher, Simon Lewis, have been practising for weeks. Jack has kept us informed of developments with the set-list. Meg has been making merch. The whole morning had been dedicated to stage logistics.
‘Dad, will there be a green room?’
‘I don’t think so. It’s just a fete. But we could call one of the classrooms a green room …’
‘How will I know when it’s time to leave the green room and go on stage?’
‘I’m MC so I’ll tell you. But you’re booked for 12.50. Straight after Dan Beck DJ.’
‘Is Dan Beck DJ our support act?’
‘Well there’ll be bands before and after you, Jack. Maybe. It might be rough on Dan Beck to say he’s your support act … ’
‘But he’s on before us!’
‘I guess so, but don’t tell Dan Beck that, okay?’
‘Maybe we’ll do Set One at 12.30 … and then Set Two at 12.50 …’
‘But you only have one set, Jack!’
As curtain time approaches, Jack’s rock star swagger evaporates and he is again an eleven-year-old boy with special needs and sensory processing issues, numb with nerves and flinching at the decibels being punched out by Dan Beck DJ and everyone else.
‘It’s too loud. Too loud!’ he says.
Meg helps out with a full blown distraction mission. She takes Jack off to ‘make-up’ to get his face painted and hair dyed. Then it’s over to ‘wardrobe’ to put on the band T-shirts.
Jack’s nerves continue to fray. I’m on call as MC, so it’s Tamsin who puts in the marathon counselling effort. ‘Everyone gets nervous Jack’ she says in a quiet corner of the WEB, tucked in behind the second-hand books stall. ‘Even Dad still gets nervous before he does MC jobs. And he’s been doing it for years!’
Grandpa Ray turns up to kneel beside the wheelchair and share a story about his first game for Hawthorn: ‘I was so nervous that for my first kick, it hit somewhere half-way down my shin!’
Has that story helped? Jack’s teetering. It could go either way.
Then, with just fifteen minutes to go, salvation.
‘Are we ready to go, Jack! Are we ready for our debut?’
It’s Simon Lewis, gigging musician and teacher at the school —the other half of the Two Man Play-Doh Band. As I’ve said in an earlier post, it was Simon who thought of the MIDI controller idea to get Jack playing music. It’s Simon who’s programs the chord progressions that play when Jack closes an electronic circuit by touching something organic, and Simon who decided it should be Play-Doh, because it’s tactile and sensitive to pressure. It’s also Simon who walked up to me after drop-off one day and said, ‘I hope you know that Jack is outstanding at musical rhythm. I’ve played with adult band members who don’t time a solo handover as well as Jack!’
We realise in an instant that this is the thing that’s been missing in Jack’s fraught morning. Simon.
‘Are we ready to rock!’ Simon says.
‘Yeeees!’ Jack replies.
‘Well let’s get up on that stage and give them a show!’
‘Woohoo!’ Jack’s panicked expression has been replaced with a beaming smile.
As Simon sets up the TouchMe MIDI, I summon three likely looking roadies to help lift Jack’s wheelchair (with him in it) onto stage. Jack has his ear muffs on, and he keeps his head down. The Velcro straps on his footplate are broken, so his legs are doing jerky extensor movements as he negotiates the volume of the DJ set. Meg is on stage next to him. She tells us later she could feel his heart beating in his chest —‘a million miles a minute, like a little bird’.
I’m under strict instructions as to how to introduce him. For days Jack had been telling me that I’m not allowed to do the intro.
‘But I’m MC!’ I say. ‘It’s my job to introduce everyone.’
‘You can’t introduce us! I’ll do the introduction.’
I should mention that Jack watches hours of YouTube concerts each day, and the bits he likes best are the introductions. We have three playlists he visits regularly called ‘Bands walking onto Stage’. He loves KISS’s throttle-charged ‘You wanted the best! You got the best!’ show opener repartee at least as much as any of their songs. We both know off by heart Bruce’s ‘You’ve just seen the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, legendary E STREET BAND!’ bit, and chant it almost daily. No, we haven’t had the Viagra conversation yet.
‘What if I say, “Please welcome onto the stage, the Two Man Play-Doh Band!”?’ I suggest, a little cheekily because I know what he’s going to say.
‘No! You can’t say that! You can’t steal my introduction!’
In the end, we negotiate what we call a ‘handover’. I’m allowed to say that Jack is my son, and that I’m excited about what’s coming up, but then I must hand the microphone over to him to perform the introduction proper.
I get the nod from Simon. He’s ready. The stage is ready.
‘And now a very special musical act … ‘
I do the handover, and I do it exactly as Jack requested.
He sets sail — ‘Thank you everyone, I’m Jack Wilson, and this is The Two Man Play-Doh Band, and over here on my right is Simon Lewis! Give Simon a big hand everyone!’
It’s the first, but not the last time Jack will call for audience involvement. The crowd goes wild before Jack settles into the forward announce: ‘And ladies and gentlemen, the first tune we’re going to play for you is, ‘I’m on Fire’.
‘By Bruce Springsteen!’ I throw in, departing stage. ‘Put your hands together for The Two Man Play-Doh Band!’
I’m an emotional wreck within the first thirty seconds. It’s not just that Jack presses into his Play-Doh and fills La Gran Fiesta with sombre wavering notes that have an almost alien quality to them, like we’re sitting in on that famous last scene from Close Encounters — awesome, eerie and beautiful. It’s also because it’s a Bruce song, a sad Bruce song, and for seven years Bruce has been at the centre of Jack’s vast musical universe. Jack counts in Simon like a boss and now the keyboards are part of the act too. Simon starts singing. And then, holy shit, Jack is singing too! That’s something he didn’t tell us during the much-hyped build-up to the event. That he was doing vocals! From the moment of diagnosis, every cerebral palsy parent wonders if their child will be verbal. When he began his obsession with music, Jack never tried to sing. That’s a much more recent thing. I look over at Tam. She’s crying harder than I am, and we’re not the only two.
The crowd screams its approval and nobody is screaming louder than Jack. ‘Thank you very much, we love you!’ he says, riffing straight from the heart of E-Street. He throws a dedication over in the direction of another classroom aide, Dallas Johnston. Dallas has been by his side since prep.
I almost don’t want to tell you what the next song is. There’s such a joyous surprise to it. Suffice to say, when Jack drops his first, ‘Foxy lady, I’m comin’ to get ya!’ it brings the house down. And then it’s into a Hendrix solo — a Play-Doh Hendrix solo.
Half-way through Jack has his hands aloft. ‘Clap along, everyone!’ he instructs. The assembled do as they’re told, and a body with spasticity in all four limbs is their ringleader, arms raised as high as they ever have been, hands hitting perfectly on the beat. For years, therapists have told us that the rhythmic coordination he has is nothing short of miraculous.
Next up is ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors. ‘Sing along if you know it!’ Jack urges. There’s whooping, cheering, and more clapping. He slips in another ‘We love you!’ during Simon’s solo. It’s epic.
They roll into the finale. It’s Robbie Williams’ ‘Let Me Entertain You’. During the chorus an excited Jack instructs us again to, ‘Sing along!’. Meg is beside him holding the mike.
‘Why aren’t they singing along?’ he whispers to her, unimpressed by our efforts.
She lifts his ear muffs from his ears. ‘They are, Jack! Listen now!’
We sing him into his final solo and then it’s more MIDI madness flowing into rapturous applause. Jack waves to the crowd like an old pro.
‘Thank you and good night!’ (it’s 1.10pm at this point …) ‘We’ve been the Two Man Play-Doh Band!’
He’s swamped in the minutes after the show. Every aunt, uncle, cousin and friend who could be there to see Jack, is there. He and Simon pose for photos. Dee Wardrop is a parent at the school and runs a speech pathology and OT clinic in Thornbury. She asks about the band’s availability to play at their Christmas party. We pass on the inquiry to Manager Meg.
‘Was I good, Dad?’ he asks.
‘You were amazing!’ I say, and wrap my arms around his neck because I genuinely can’t find the words.
Eventually Jack does succumb to the noise of the fete and makes his way home. He spends the afternoon watching his performance on loop, with the occasional request for feedback.
‘Was my stage banter better than Bruce’s?’
‘It was great Jack, but Bruce has been doing it for fifty years.’
‘So it wasn’t better than Bruce’s?’
‘You were better at stage banter than Bruce was when he was eleven.’
That satisfies him. He goes on watching the performance, over and over, for hours. Sometimes he sings along. Sometimes he just watches. On one occasion, he lets out a sigh and says something softly, almost too softly for Tamsin and I to hear.
‘What was that Jack?’
‘Good times, bad times’, he repeats.
I’m bewildered and slightly worried by the ambiguity. I was thinking this had been a pretty terrific day.
‘What do you mean by that?’ I ask.
Jack’s eyes never leave the iPad screen. ‘Led Zeppelin have got a song called ‘Good Times Bad Times’, he explains. ‘Because there are good times and bad times. And this is a good time.’
I give Jack a hug and tell him he’s written the last paragraph of my article. Thank you, my little rock ‘n roll philosopher.
Thank you, and good night!
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Jack told Premier Dan Andrews about his band as explained in this earlier post.
A story about Jack’s Springsteen love.
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The Two Man Play-Doh Band's Gran Fiesta