A column about pokies

This newspaper has recently reported on the decline of the live music scene in the Inner West. Dwindling crowds and increased council regulation have made it hard for local venues to survive. This is a blow not only to the area’s residents, but also to the entire Australian music scene, because the Inner West has always fostered new talent. Strange as it may seem, Woollahra and Bellevue Hill haven’t made quite as distinguished a contribution to the history of Australian music.

The scene was particularly vibrant in the 1990s, when bands like You Am I, The Whitlams and The Cruel Sea were cutting their teeth in the area’s pubs. Inner West references even appeared in their lyrics – I’ve always particularly liked the couplet “Had a scratch only you could itch, underneath the Glebe Pt bridge” in You Am I’s Purple Sneakers, and that band also have the distinction of being the only group ever to namecheck the “470 to Circular Quay.” A little further south is Tim Freedman, who is more or less the Poet Laureate of Newtown, and once wrote a song called ‘God Drinks At The Sando’. It’s not known whether he was referring to himself.

I don’t go to many gigs these days, not so much as a result of the scene’s decline as my own into stay-at-home boringness. But I had a great experience a few months ago at a great pub that still has free bands, the Rose of Australia in Erskineville, where I stumbled on a brilliant gig by Jodi Phillis and Trish Young from another much-missed Inner West band, The Clouds.

They aren’t the only ones keeping the flag flying. Venues such as the Annandale Hotel and Balmain’s Cat and Fiddle are persisting with live music, and so is Sydney Uni’s Manning Bar, at least until voluntary student unionism comes in.

Another problem reported in The Glebe recently has been the vexatious issue of people vomiting on the pavement, as opposed to the place most patrons choose, the pub bathroom floor. I was disappointed to read that there have been complaints from local residents. As far as I’m concerned, if you decide to move next door to a pub, you are voluntarily agreeing to step in the evidence of someone’s youthful exuberance. You are also consenting to being kept awake by loud music, knock-and-runs and the dulcet tones of inebriated hoons kicking your fence in. And in return, the pub supplies you with convenient access to pokies. What a bargain.

While we’re on the subject of pokies, it’s fairly clear that the main reason for the decline of live music has not been draconian council restrictions, but publicans focussing their efforts on getting a different kind of punter through the doors. A report found that in 2004, publicans made a staggering $60,000 profit per machine, so it’s hardly surprising that our publicans are installing them more quickly than 19-year-olds can scull Bacardi Breezers.

You can hardly blame landlords for taking advantage of their license to print money, though. (To be precise, their second license to print money on top of their near-monopoly on selling alcoholic drinks.) I’d rather blame the government that decided the most socially responsible place to put gambling machines was in places where people consume drinks that cloud their judgement.

While it seems reasonable to allow responsible adults to choose how they waste their money, the problem with putting pokies in pubs is that their patrons make that choice when they’ve drunk enough to temporarily reduce themselves to the decision-making level of a toddler. The pokies tempt us with their alluring flashing lights and little dancing Egyptian pyramids right when we are at our most vulnerable, unable to remember anything clearly except our PIN numbers.

If the government was serious about stopping people from getting hurt when inebriated, they’d augment the drink-driving laws with a ban on drink-doubling up. Pub pokies are a far greater social ill than a few kids being sick on the pavement.