I’d like to be able to say that when in Cairns everybody goes to Bernie’s. But I can’t, because it is my melancholy duty to report that Bernie’s is no more – not so much in the dead parrot sense, because the place is still there, but the name has changed, and more besides. And anyway, even if before this everybody did in fact go to Bernie’s, the place would be packed with shady characters, Humphrey Bogart would whinge you played it for her, you can play it for me, and Cairns would have had to change its name to Casablanca.
But what I am reporting does amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I went to Bernie’s, oh only last Thursday night. On Friday morning I walked past and snapped a pic of the cheerful red sign: “Bernie’s Jazz . Piano Café”. On Saturday evening I walked past again and the sign had gone – only a red painted blank was left. Out front was a sandwich board advertising “Pop & Co Tapas & Music Bar”.
It was a Twilight Zone moment but, well, I should have taken the hint on Thursday. An old newspaper pal who has lived in Cairns for many a long year told me during the course of the evening that the place had changed hands and I noticed that, indeed, etched into the brand new front window was the name Pop & Co.
Still it was a shock. Put what you like on the window, you can’t cancel the idea of Bernie’s, a jazz bar only slightly younger than the pyramids. It was the sort of place that on many a night Bernie and the band played As Time Goes By – and it’s to be fervently hoped they will again, because, for the moment anyway, they play all the standards. The other night some veteran chanteuse belted out, among others, Makin’ Whoopee and The Girl from Ipanema. Bernie was still plugging away on his double bass, along with a drummer and guitarist who looked like the same old swingers from the good old days (i.e. the day before yesterday). The grand piano had gone, to be replaced by an electronic keyboard and a young fellow who, thankfully, seemed to know what he was doing.
The crowd was appreciative but it has to be admitted they were mostly early diners and early going-to-bedders. The bulk of patrons at Bernie’s has tended to be, like me, of a certain age. Who the Pop & Co crowd turns out to be is another matter entirely. Clearly the new owners have a view on that.
They’ve given the joint a facelift. It used to be a single shop front and the band played in the window. Now the band plays down the back and the crowd gets a little air to breathe through a new facade. It’s brighter, too – but I don’t know whether that’s an improvement. For me, bars named Bernie’s (or Rick’s) are supposed to be a bit dingy, so you can get down and dirty movie-style for a while.
This is the place where – and, no, you can’t stop me if you’ve heard it – I walked in out of a tropical February night and told the young barman I’d like something long and cold. Without a pause, or even a grin, he said: “How about a walk in Antarctica?” This has become one of my favourite yarns and I figure that I’ll have covered most of the world with it before the Great Barman calls time. With Bogart-cool repartee like that and Bernie the bass player thumping away at the old stand, Pop & Co deserves at least a fair go.
So when you go to Cairns, you need to call in at Bernie’s, sorry Pop & Co, if only to see that the town centre is not just a collection of eateries and shops of varying quality filled with backpackers and other budget tourists. Bernie’s holds out the promise that, underneath the touristy skin and a certain amount of tropical seediness, a real heart is beating.
Last year when I was there, I remember, some young fellow turned up at Bernie’s with his sax and asked to sit in, and of course the band made room for him. It means that in Cairns somewhere, tucked away in places I haven’t bothered to look, other musos will be playing their hearts out – because they have to. Musos don’t come out of nowhere.
Oh, why was I in Cairns? I am on another train adventure – west from Cairns on the far north Queensland coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back. Watch this space.