A TRIBUTE TO PHIL EMMANUEL
ELECTRIC GUITAR PLAYER | BLOODY GOOD BLOKE
facebook : may 27, 2018
As for the one-and-only solo Phil Emmanuel — the self-named 'Jim Khana' or 'Owen Pilli' as I called him — where does one start?
"So many stories, so little space", I ponder over my usual early morning Lomas Latte. Originally a secret Emmanuel recipe until stolen it’s now my addiction too, kickstarts every day several times over, and on days off gets loaded into the truck before fishing rods or camera.
With Phil's shock passing it suddenly tastes different, takes on extra meaning, and if it wasn’t before, every gulp from now on is certain to be a timeless reminder of many cherished times with Phil.
Phil stroke Phil, I’m proud but saddened to say go back quite a while, almost four decades. Our connection was both personal and professional — initially professional before growing closer and closer into mateship.
Our first meeting was while shooting Goldrush in the original Kings Cross Double-JJ studios in the early 80’s, the next at Darling Harbour's Pier XX when for the first time I heard Phil’s searing rendition of Mark Knopfler's 'Theme from Local Hero: Going Home. Blown away it became the chosen anthem for my & Barb's wedding and to this day brings back fond echoes of both events. Two studio sessions recording soundtracks for my fishing videos, 'Big River Country' & ‘Kingfisher’, also stand with those most special, and are bound to later become tales in their own write.
Playing live — with or without Tommy or band — was Phil’s first love & forte. Playlists stretched genre from Wolfgang & Ludwig Von to Shadows & Beatles covers, eclectic guitar classics, movie themes, and in his own words, “… both country AND western”.
Themes from the ‘Pink Panther’ & ‘The Highwaymen’ were eternal crowd favourites. Anything Knopfler or Hellecasters was mandatory for Phil, as were tracks from his ‘Kakadu Sunrise’ & ‘In The Shadows Of The Beatles’ albums. Very special was ‘Albatross’, one he’d always play for me.
On top of maestro-playing, Phil 'the entertainer' shone with a mix of standard one-line intros and off-the-cuff gags — almost dad jokes — producing intimate audience rapport.
Every performance was as if he was playing in the backyard on a Sunday arvo with a bunch of friends he’d known all his life — ditto for them too. You'd always come away from gigs shaking your head in disbelief; that even after seeing him play so many times, you'd be even more astounded than the last.
One gig just down the road from our place was particularly memorable, if not slightly weird.
Despite its valley-deep promotion it seemed a somewhat private affair for some quite reclusive new neighbours. Was it a cult, were they religious, no one knew. Hmm, not very Phil-style all thought, but WTF, Phil's playing. It was a soft affair, almost unplugged yacht music, until one machine-head junkie made a request. In an instant Pink Floyd's 'Comfortably Numb' at full volume ripped Currumbin Valley serenity apart.
Ha Ha, the real Phil was one never to be held back. As Phil often bantered, "People always ask, why do you play so loud. And I always tell 'em "cause I can't play any fuckin louder!". As one manager once told me, "With every Jack Daniels the volume knob goes up a notch, and it only has ten notches!".
Our connection might have been initially forged through mutual love for guitar music but it was substantiated by shared passion for nature, with conversation resorting to critter talk, and in turn, quickly segueing to snakes. Pythons were his go (thus 'Owen Pilli' after the famous Oenpilli Python).
Trips down south always meant a stop at his place in Coffs Harbour where a quick greeting and a latte were entrees to check out the latest batch of incubating eggs, or to fondle children's & black-headed hatchlings, or to see how the blue-tongue with the reconstructed skull was going. Son Jesse's interest was rewarded with a worm-sized water python that grew to well over a metre before being returned to its surrogate dad.
Phil loved being on the road, especially up north, for his post-gig relaxation was to nocturnally scour roads for heat-seeking reptiles. I just wish i'd recorded some of his tales & adventures for he loved a good yarn, no matter tall tale or true, and they were always laced with laconic characters, saturated colour, and generous dollops of humour.
One I remember was when he visited a mate on an outback property in north Queensland who had a steer stuck in a bog. The previous day they'd tried to pull it out with a 4WD but it wouldn't budge, so when Phil arrived he found them firing up a National Parks chopper for a bit more grunt to pull it out.
When they arrived at the bog all they found were skid marks and no beast — a giant croc had grabbed the full grown steer by the head, dragged it out, and both were gone.
One moment chasing snakes & crocs in the outback, the next in Nashville Tennessee, the country music capital of the world. The almost Crocodile Dundee-esque Phil Emmanuel with his duelling-lives between bush & stage is a pretty true characterisation of the bloke. On several occasions Phil & Tommy had played the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society festival in Nashville where only the cream of artists and acts are invited to play. They were booked to play there again in c. 2003-4, so to ride on the back of US obsession for the likes of Mick Dundee & Steve Irwin, this Phil had an idea.
Having secured the rights to use The Hellecasters albums for the Breamin' series I bounced an idea for a musical doco off The Helle's John Jorgensen. Phil would meet up with Tommy & him in LA, campervan it through iconic places like Death Valley & the Ozarks, meet and play with thumb-pluckers from down south, before heading north to Tennessee. Along the way music clips would punctuate Phil encountering US critters, especially the reptilian locals, before arriving in Nashville for a big finale of the Emmanuel brothers gig at the Chet Atkins festival.
While Elton John's session guitarist and founder of "the best guitar band in the world" loved the idea, John did have some rattlesnake reservations, but still, counted himself in. Needless to say it went nowhere but in the course of its development 'Jorgo' did give insight into the international reputation and professional esteem in which Phil & Tommy were held.
[paraphrased] "You know Phil, I've never seen anything like that last Chet show. It was a full house, the who's who of players were all there. They clapped and cheered and at the end all stood up and screamed till Tommy & Phil came back on. They’d never seen an act like theirs before. And I’d never seen a reaction like that before. It was one of the best shows ever played there”.
Biased I might be but I wasn’t surprised. Solo they were brilliant in their own different ways. Together they were triply so, merging into something magical. Tommy counting a complex beat with his rhythm. Phil adding intricate layers over the top. Playing each other's guitar — both with one hand on each. Trying to trip each other up. Laughing, joking, in their own magical mystery world. For those that never saw them, YouTube can give a limited indication of class performance but nothing to compare with seeing, hearing & feeling them live. Those times and pleasures are now gone forever.
Oh Phil … and Mandy, and Tommy. Fuck, what a loss. I get both goosie and morose remembering the unforgettable.
What was most admirable about Phil is while he was equally at home and humble in all of those situations his true passion was for his beloved place & country. He genuinely loved all within it; only love for family was deeper.
I'd imagine that was impregnated from year dot when as a young travelling family show on the road they often slept under bridges. With coins from their mum Phil & Tommy learnt their craft by repeat-playing of Shadows tunes on country town jukeboxes. While Tommy found himself bound for international stardom, Phil retained the dust in his blood, was the roundabout-town, country-pub geetarist, and everyone's 'real good bloke’. That’s where and how he wanted to be.
Phil oozed a rawness that people connected with, and no matter who came up to him after or even during the show he'd keenly chat and willingly take their fluid offerings, just to be social of course. You could always tell where he was either by the circle of best friends or his infectious JD-rasped laugh.
There's no-one I know had more 'mates', or loved life, and loved what he did, more than the maestro larrikin. And a larrikin he could be, as I'm reminded whenever I cross the Brunswick River.
Once, dropping in on his way back home from a gig, he told how on the way down he forgot about a well-known speed camera on the Burringbah Range. Late as usual, and doing 130K, as he flew past the flash went off. With few points left on his licence, and ill-affording not having one to get to gigs, he had no choice but to turn around and go back. Donning gloves so he wouldn't leave fingerprints he chopped off the camera, quickly threw it in the car, and took off.
"Buggered" if he knew what to do with it, the Brunswick River quickly approached, called out for it, and so with beautiful timing, out through the window it and the evidence went.
Like his secret-recipe latte, the sight of the Brunswick River will always evoke visions of Phil, echo the sounds of a master player, and remind me of the yarn that typified his insatiable lust for life and good times.
To say I'm completely shattered is without doubt my greatest understatement ever. Despite many saying it is, suddenness is no help, but only manifests regret in not being able to bid farewell or pay thanks for the good times & mateship. It’s not like losing family — Phil was family.
Phil certainly did a lot for me with his music, and I certainly hope I repaid the favours with my craft and promotion of him. But it's not even that which is important nor matters.
There was an unspoken kindredship between us, one born from passion for the things we both loved and together shared. He and they will forever be missed but never ever forgotten.
One wish is that in spite of their grief, Mandy, Tommy, Jessie, Jamie, Georgia, Marshall & Kerrie, along with Phil's extended family & friends, find some solace in a life spent with a remarkable, so-talented, and so-lovable man — that sadness is soon overtaken by pride and love for a 'bloody good bloke' like no other.
Another is that Phil's beloved Levinson Blade stays beside him wherever he wanders so that the universe continues to be amazed by the brilliance of one of its greatest ever players.
I'll always be listening Phil — happy travels & toons mate.