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  • Writer's pictureMark J. Keenan

Sound Waves

Post-Gwar. Pre-beer.

Nine years ago, I attended the final Soundwave Festival held in Perth. I had attended all of the previous years, including the first at Bassendean Oval in 2005, before it became a nationwide touring festival.

Four weeks prior to this, I had attended the Big Day Out festival which had been run annually since 1993. I had not made it to the first one, I was travelling around Australia on my honeymoon at the time, but I had been to at least half of them in the two decades it had been running. Later, we found out this would also be the last year for the Big Day Out.

Soundwave 2014 marked the end of an era for heavy music in Perth. And, as it turned out, the festival also foreshadowed the start of a challenging part of my life; a period which would prove harder than anything I had ever experienced before but which would ultimately create a healthier, calmer, centred, better me.

The line-up was stacked with bands I wanted to see, from djent pioneers Tesseract to the prolific punk popsters Green Day. And the local band which had been dominating my listening with the Human Connection album, Chaos Divine, had just been announced as a last-minute replacement for VOLBEAT. There were more stages than at any other festival I'd ever attended, allowing up to six bands to be playing at the same time. The problem was not finding an artist you wanted to see but working out who you wanted to see most.

It was a perfect day with no wind and a maximum temperature of 31 degrees, which was much better than expected given that the previous day had tipped over 40. I was going, as I had several years in a row, with one of my best friends. We planned to be there as soon as the gates opened and stay till the last chord was played. I drove my car and parked a kilometre away from the venue on a quiet street so I could drop him home afterwards. My 19-year-old daughter was also going along, and we would meet her there. It would be her second Soundwave. She had attended the year before, to watch Hayley Williams and her fantastic band, Paramore.

Gwar was on mid-afternoon and my daughter, and I decided to go together. We knew their show would be bizarre but also fun. So, we stood centre stage, laughing and screaming, while the band, dressed in grotesque costumes, sprayed the crowd with fake blood. We were drenched by the end of their set and after we got a quick photograph, I went straight to the adjacent stage to watch Chaos Divine.

Chaos Divine's album, The Human Connection, had been on constant replay in my car for most of the previous year. A friend had introduced their music to me a year before and I had become captivated by it. Each song reflected some aspect of what I'd been feeling and what I was experiencing. The album was an affirmation that I wasn't alone, that others also felt like I did. I stood at the front for the whole set, leaning on the stage railing, holding onto every word, shouting the words, hoping the lyrics might save me. They didn't. Not then, anyway.

After the band had finished, I fell apart.

I was mentally exhausted, physically drained, spiritually empty. Negative self-talk and low self-esteem combined to create perfect conditions for a storm. It was weather I'd experienced before, many times since I had been a young boy. It would flood my heart, submerge my hope, and I would frantically use a bucket to bail myself out until it had passed. But that day it was no ordinary squall. I was in the thick of a tropical cyclone. Sheltered in a poorly maintained weatherboard house, with a leaky roof and cracked stumps, where rain-soaked doors banged in the gale, windows bowed inwards, and the water-logged ceiling bulged. Inside, I curled up in the bath with the bucket beside me, pulled a blanket over my head, and willed the storm to pass.

I know now what I should have done was talk to my friend. He's a good listener. He cares. He would have helped me. But I didn't talk to him. Instead, I got drunk. Not a little, a lot.

Each time I went to the bar I bought four drinks. It was the maximum you were permitted at the festival. Before entering the crowd of people watching the band, I would drink two of them and discard the empties. Then I'd return to where my mate was stood, hand him a can then start the last one. I repeated this all afternoon. Sometimes, my mate didn't want anything. Those times I used the maximum for myself and drank all four.

I left the festival just after 6 o'clock. I was halfway through watching Down, one of the bands Phil Anselmo of Pantera mythology had created. I had lost track of where my friend was, and my daughter, and it was all I could manage to do to text them and say I was heading home. And not to worry because I was walking, not driving. It was only the second time I had ever left a show early. The other time I was drunk as well.

I am not proud of this. Not at all. Even now, nine years later, I feel ashamed.

When I originally began going to bands, and for many of the years following, I refused to drink alcohol either before or during the gig. Personally, I could not comprehend why anyone would want to have haze filled memories of something as powerful as live music. The sound and lights, the crowd and the atmosphere, the vulnerability of stage performance, the emotional rawness; all of this was enough stimulation for me.

But at some point, around the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, that had changed. I became unable to relax in a social setting, of any size, without a drink in my hand. In the years to follow that feeling, slick and insidious, would follow me everywhere. Including, eventually, my home.

I had intended to stay sober at Soundwave. I had driven my car intentionally, so I could take my friend home, and to create an incentive to avoid drinking. But that was not how it turned out. It wasn't the first time my plans for sobriety had failed because, like most alcoholics, I did two things daily. Firstly, hate myself for drinking and swear off it, and secondly, drink.

Thirteen days after Soundwave 2014, I would have my last alcoholic drink. I don't recall what it was. I didn't even know it was to be my final one. What I do know is that I drank it alone, at home, while my family slept. Another moment of shame born to join the thousands of others already created.

On March 16th this year, I will celebrate nine years of sobriety. Over three thousand days of learning what it means to have clarity of mind, to be emotionally open, to ask for help when you need it, to care for and be kind to myself, because I am important.


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