You know how sometimes you ‘follow’ something with enthusiasm? It could be a sporting team, a band, or new developments in scrapbooking. I’ve been lucky enough to follow the career and development of the ukulelist and performer Tyrone for some time now: in an astounding set of coincidences I seem to have been in the right place at the right time to observe him, so I thought I’d write about it here.
I first saw Tyrone at La Boite Theatre in Brisbane in the late eighties, performing late night cabaret with Skins on the Wall. He was playing guitar. Skins on the Wall performed at the first Livid Festival in 1991, and in subsequent years I glimpsed him performing there solo with a singing iguana, amongst acts such as Screamfeeder, Fireballs, Helmet and Jello Biafra. The reptile sang Mozart while Tyrone plucked out a tune on its spines. It’s one of the most unexpected duets I’ve ever seen. He took this iguana around to various rock and performance venues, and even performed with it in an empty swimming pool at the Spring Hill Baths. Though it was always treated humanely (unlike the audiences at some of these venues) the iguana eventually escaped. A band was named after it.
I’d like to say that things took a leap forward when he picked up the ukulele, but when I bumped into him busking under the Dornoch Terrace bridge at a festival in Brisbane’s West End in the early nineties, I’d say he seemed a lonesome sight. He was playing songs from the 1930’s, in Brisbane in the 1990’s, which is a very negative equation.
As I started attending more gigs at The Zoo, and some other performance venues I noticed him popping up with more regularity, usually performing an oblique take on a piece of pre-recorded music. In amongst bands, poets and performance artists he would play the glockenspiel part in Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing; he’d mime playing the factory pre-sets of cheap keyboards; he’d perform a dance consisting entirely of facial expressions. He’d work with vintage slideshows.
A distinctive figure in a fez and plaid jacket, it was as if he was using the act of performance as a conduit for the stories in the music. His apparent need to be taken seriously seemed to be the root of his comic effect. In a way Tyrone seemed a white-face clown, while avoiding the dreadful clichés of ‘clowning’; he was dignified and serious as well as funny. At times a kind of joy shone through the repression.
In the early 2000’s I was at the Brisbane Powerhouse, in a joint called the Stores building, watching a selection of acts at a night called the Angry Mime. I’d heard Tyrone was going to appear, but he hadn’t yet, and I was considering going home to watch The Bill, rather than staying for the second half. Then a spotlight came up, and when I heard the double bass solo in this lovely piece, I knew Tyrone was headed for a new place.
This was Dick Haymes’ ‘Now at Last’, a tune I knew from the Blossom Dearie version. It looked like the double bass player, Lesley, had been asked to play the song only moments before, and indeed this turned out to be the case.
Lesley seemed the perfect foil for Tyrone. A new addition that seemed to multiply the possiblilities Tyrone was exploring musically. They worked well together and with this collaboration, Tyrone’s performance of, rather than performance to music took centre stage. Tyrone and Lesley weren’t a double-act, in the classic sense. Their duetting was a musical one: any comedy was a by-product which emerged from the act of playing music.
I was surprised when Tyrone and Lesley appeared (alongside an unnamed gorilla) in Ukulele Mekulele, an instructional show about the ukulele. Here the antique songs were dramatically reframed. Tyrone’s streak of misanthropy turned the show from an engaging information session about my favourite instrument into something else entirely.
They performed this show for three years, and took it to the Sydney Opera House. Luckily the Sydney Opera House opened the door and they were allowed to perform inside. Among other tunes they played included There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (Jolson/Rose/Dreyer) ; Makin’ Wickey Wackey Down in Waikiki (Hoffman/Lane) ; My Ukulele(Cottrell/arr Formby) and the ubiquitous Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me (Dubin/Burke) . Children seemed to enjoy the show, and they flocked to it, seriously threatening to push Tyrone into cult status. Its centre-piece was a duellin’ William Tell Overture.
He began appearing at ukulele festivals: Ukuleleland in Sydney 2006, and in subsequent years, the Melbourne, Cairns and New Zealand Ukulele Festivals, at first performing old songs and original instrumentals alongside antique slideshows of dog competitions from the 1960’s and Brisbane urban landscapes from the 1950’s. At times he’d simply turn on a transistor radio and wait for a connection between the music and the image to emerge.
Lesley would appear when he could.
Tyrone’s performances swerved between performance art, dada, musical absurdism and respectful tribute to both vaudeville and tin-pan alley. Whatever he did, you could be sure he was like nothing else on the bill that night.
Occasionally, then increasingly, original songs would turn up in the set.
Tyrone was convinced to appear in a short film, where he proved that as an actor, he made a very good performer. The film won a prize, but typically, the directors took all the glory. And the prize. It was later purchased by some Russians, and is only now out of contract and able to be viewed.
In 2011, Tyrone and Lesley emerged as a duo once again, playing, for the first time, a set of original songs at Brisbane’s the Old Museum, among others. These new tunes were poignant, lively and unusual, perfect vessels for both Tyrone’s tangential vision and the duo’s musical combination in performance. Believing the ukulele is central to human life, the pair of them created ukulele songs celebrating birthdays and Christmas, and smaller, though no less celebrated occasions…
So does Tyrone. Just when it seems original music was his focus, he turns up at a performance night called Snapshots, reciting a Phillip Larkin poem, accompanied by a gramophone and a slide show. For no apparent reason. The very best reason of all.
Tyrone and Lesley finally launched this first album, Ukulele Heart, at the Melbourne Ukulele Festival in 2012. A collection of 16 songs, some as short as 40 seconds, I love it. It’s beautifully strange.
One of its songs was a finalist in that year’s Queensland Music Awards. I pressed some clippings from various ukulele publications into Lesley’s hand after a gig once. I hope he passed them on to the man himself. Some artists claim never to read their reviews. Lesley told me Tyrone only reads his own.
…Ukulele Heart is full of inspired silliness …. heartfelt sentiments can be found in the well-crafted Being Small and Lonely, which add balance to the record. Whether you’re eight or 80, Ukulele Heart will make you smile. Kamuke Ukulele Magazine Issue 4 Sept 2012
So, my impression is that as musicians, Tyrone and Lesley are first-rate. Their timing is excellent…They call themselves a “novelty act”, but there is some real honest talent here. I’d love to see what they are capable of doing should they go the route of putting a more traditional CD together. If you want humor, it’s fun and funny. Ukulele Player Issue 27 http://www.tricornpublications.com/issue27.pdf
There were songs on Ukulele Heart that seemed to be inspired by bears. Tyrone was apparently convinced that bears were an under-serviced audience and resolved to create entertainment that met their needs.
Their second album, Bear with Me, which was the soundtrack to a concert presentation, a show they’d made of the same name. The show played at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in June 2012. Bears came in droves. They launched its companion album, which they recorded with Brett Collery in March 2013 at the Melbourne Ukulele Festival, playing in the gorgeous Regal Ballroom. The album is the epitome of Tyrone’s all-ages approach, which ukulele duo Bosko and Honey once described as “children’s songs for adults”.
What’s next for Tyrone and Lesley? Well, I certainly hope they’ll tour the Bear with Me show, and just keep making more music, in whatever form. Youtube enables me to watch him whenever I want, but there’s no substitute for actually seeing live music, especially Tyrone and Lesley.
I’ve never spoken to him. I used to want to meet him, but now I’m content to leave our relationship as it is, and peer at him through the darkness.
He seems to truly exist only live on-stage, standing alongside Lesley in a triangular existence suspended between music, performance and audience.
I like to play the triangle – maybe he’ll let me play it on his next album.
Tyrone and Lesley’s peaceful website.
When in Melbourne Tyrone chooses to stay at the Brooklyn Arts Hotel