As a North Melbourne-mad youngster growing up in Brandon Park, Matt Davis bought his sporting apparel directly from Leigh Matthews and wore Schimma’s name proudly on the back of his duffle coat. Matt is what you what might call a Renaissance Man. He played on the junior Satellite Tour as an aspiring young tennis pro. He formed one of our favourite Australian bands of all time, Gersey. He currently lives in Paris composing film scores and playing with his new band The Wonder. He also has a novel written. Yes, he’s quite the achiever, and a dear friend. This is his story…
In the late 1970s, when Leigh Matthews wasn’t breaking goal posts or opposition players’ jaws as a Hawthorn hardman, he ran a small sports store just down the road from our house he cleverly named Leigh Matthews’ Sporting Goods. It was in the Brandon Park Shopping Centre. These days the place is a heaving temple to consumerism and door-busting Boxing Day sales, but back then it was a quaint suburban shopping centre of about twenty shops that all smelt like cinnamon donuts. It was there that I went to buy a duffle coat.
For those north of the border and born after say 1980, the duffle coat was the ultimate in footy fashion, long before it became the uniform for disaffected metalheads. Long, thick and black, you could adorn it with a variety of badges, pins and other memorabilia of your favourite team and in 1979 at Brandon Park Primary School it was the absolute must-have wardrobe item. It showed you were serious.
Apart from the players name strips that would be sewn on the sleeves and the various badges you would proudly pin on the front, the most important aspect of the duffle coat was to get the name and number of your favourite player ironed on the back.
My team was North Melbourne, and in 1979 my favourite player was our captain Wayne Schimmelbusch. He was a classic hard winger/half-forward flank type – tough as nails but with silky skills. He could distribute the ball with ease, setting up goals for Malcolm Blight at full forward or snapping them himself full-belt on the run.
Of course when it came to my duffle coat there was only one name to be had. SCHIMMELBUSCH. And the problem – apart from the lack of real estate on a 7 year-old boy’s duffle coat – was that the iron-on letters were sold individually. As the duffle coat itself was already expensive, there was a bit of a scene with Mum.
“What about Phil Baker?” she asked hopefully.
“If Phil Baker didn’t run into Huppatz in the goal square we would have won the grand final,” I said dourly.
“That’s probably true,” Leigh Matthews said laughing. (It is and he would know, he was best on ground that day).
And then – using some of the strategic and man-management skills he would become well known for years later as coach of the all-conquering Brisbane Lions – he said,
“There’s probably not enough room for all the letters anyway. What about Schimma? That’s what we all call him anyway.”
The idea thrilled me. Schimma. Like I knew him. Like I had been invited into the club.
I wore that duffle coat with enormous pride for years. I collected footy cards. I devoured the Herald sports pages. Dad took me to Kangaroo games at VFL Park. On Sundays I played forward pocket and half-forward flank for the Good Shepherd Brandon Park Panthers. Here’s me receiving my trophy for playing 50 games in Under 11s, proud as punch.
We were dynamite, going undefeated the first two seasons and taking the Under 10 premiership. The following season, the year of my 50 games, we again went undefeated right through to the grand final where we lost on the last kick of the game to our bitter rivals Northvale. I was gutted. I had never known heartache like it (at least since the 1978 Grand Final loss to Leigh Matthews’ Hawthorn). I had never seen friends my age cry before. Later in the car Dad told me we were “cocky”, that we’d “forgotten to win the hard ball” and “didn’t play four quarters”. It was brutal.
The next season my teammates and the opposition starting growing and putting on weight while I remained short, skinny and featherweight (which hasn’t changed, I still have to run around in the shower to get wet). I started getting knocked around a bit. Mid-way through the season I got collected a few times resulting in a couple of concussions and the announcement from Mum that if I wanted to keep playing I had to wear a helmet, like the one Shaun Hart would later wear at the Brisbane Lions.
Back then it was pretty uncool and the first week playing with said helmet the opposition creatively dubbed me “Helmet Head” and, much to my dismay, the name seemed to stick. My own teammates started calling me “Helmet Head” at training and that was that.
Being one of particularly thin skin at the time that was kind of enough for me and after a brief spell doing gymnastics (!), I started getting tennis lessons from Ken Rosewell’s old mate Norm Cahill and I was hooked. Here was a game that didn’t require a helmet, or trying to mark a waterlogged Sherrin at 8am in Lower Tally Ho in June. It was just me and a racquet and some other kid.
I drove my parents crazy hitting a ball against the sidewall of our house and the Schimmelbusch and Blight posters were exchanged for Borg, McEnroe and Connors.
Shortly after that we moved north to Albury, NSW, and further distance was placed between me and footy. I still kept an eye out on the Kangaroos from time to time, but I’d lost the love for it.
I went on to play college tennis in the US, and then later the dusty courts of the lowest levels of the pro tour, the Satellite Tour.
Matt Davis, left, on the Satellite Tour (Artist’s impression)
I had always loved music. I had grown up in a house of The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, David Bowie, Boz Scaggs, but I had never played.
And then, at some point while on the Satellite Tour I heard “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and – as an impressionable 21 year-old who had been sleeping on clubhouse floors, not eating enough and consistently losing qualifying matches to Belgian teenagers – it felt like he was singing directly to me.
I promptly started playing guitar and massacring as many Dylan songs as I could find. I would write my own dreadful versions of his songs and soon fancied myself as a bit of a tennis-playing troubadour.
As I struggled on with the Satellite Tour and got more into playing guitar I started to fall in love with the subjectivity of music. Tennis was so brutally objective. If you lost, that guy was better than you, at least on that day. But in music, it was more nuanced. Even if you were playing to eight people at The Hopetoun Hotel (which I would do later many times), and even if you didn’t know the difference between a minor 6th and a coda (also true), you could still be someone’s favourite band.
At some point in the mid-90s I was home in Albury between tennis trips – I was booked to go and play team tennis in Germany the following week – and inexplicably I signed up for an open mic at the local café.
Little did I realise my Mum and sister had invited EVERY PERSON THEY HAD EVER KNOWN and when I walked in the place was completely packed. I played my set. It would have been absolutely dreadful. I couldn’t play guitar, I couldn’t write a song and I certainly couldn’t sing.
And yet, and yet. There was such love in the room: for music, for songs, for my songs, for me. Regardless of how bad I was. If they ranked musicians like tennis players I would have been about 20,000 in the world that night. But afterwards, out on the street alone, I was elated. I had touched something else, something I hadn’t felt before. The beauty of art, of sharing, of connection.
I resolved there and then to quit tennis and to move to Melbourne to start a band. Gersey was born shortly thereafter.
After years as a solo performer on the tennis court I was suddenly again part of a team. Just like those old footy days. And as anyone that would have seen a Gersey show back in the day would hopefully know, we were a very, very tight playing group. We trained hard. We won the hard ball. We played four quarters. We always considered ourselves the underdogs – the away team in the white shorts playing against stronger opposition and a hostile crowd, trying to win them over with our courage, our spirit, our camaraderie. A smother here, a shepherd there. Think Rocky IV in Russia.
The other guitarist in Gersey, Daryl Bradie, was a champion junior footballer. Our manager Danny Rogers is a mad Essendon fan who would boast of kicking six goals in a pair of Blundstones, in a night match when the lights had gone. And our singer Jackson would always have a funny anecdote about a player or a moment in AFL that could help while away the time on the ten hour drive from Melbourne to Sydney that we would do every few weeks.
Slowly, slowly, through these guys my love for footy would return. And once our unofficial fifth member joined – Morro, our mixer – it would be complete. For those that don’t know, Morro is a dyed in the wool Richmond Tigers fan and it was watching his joy and heartbreak (mainly heartbreak) every week that finally did me in.
Morro wouldn’t miss a game (we would move soundchecks to accommodate if there was a clash) and he would even go and watch the Coburg Tigers (the “twos”) play every chance he could. I would watch the Tigers games with him, feeling every bump, every missed opportunity, every fumble.
And despite all the disappointment and heartache he would feel, every week Morro would be back for more. Passionate, optimistic, hopeful, delusional. And I quickly saw the connection to what we were doing in Gersey – we would play un-catchy nine-minute epics and had very little promotional or “industry” support – and yet we were optimistic too. Passionate. Hopeful. Delusional. We felt that if we went out and played our best we could beat anyone, win over any crowd, break the hardest of hearts. And sometimes we were right.
And now, writing this, I am struck by the almost trite analogy to life. Isn’t that what we all have to do? This thing – life – is not going to end well for any of us. And along the way we are all going to suffer disappointment, struggle, missed opportunities, fumbles. And yet, and yet. After these misses we know we have to dust ourselves off. We head off to training. We help our mates. We win the hardball. Play four quarters. Take it one week at a time. We win a few, we lose a few, but like dear Morro we hope and we try again.