Elly McDonald

Writer


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Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. By Daffy Duck. (10 June 2014)

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Last week I was listening to a radio program where the guests being interviewed had both recently published memoirs. One person, radio broadcaster and Australian arts identity Sian Prior, had published a memoir exploring the issue of shyness through her personal experience and research. Her book is called Shy. The other, Bev Brock, had written what she sees as essentially a self-help book, titled Life to the Limit.

Besides being intelligent, adult women who are published authors, these two have this in common: they are former partners of famous men acclaimed as Australian cultural icons. Sian Prior was for nine years partner to Paul Kelly, the much-loved Melbourne-based singer-songwriter. Bev Brock was the long-time partner of motor racing hero Peter Brock; Bev adopted his surname and the couple had three children.

I knew Paul Kelly in the ‘80s. Not well, but enough. He was the brother-in-law – and for a time, the housemate – of a friend and neighbour. I’d interviewed him in my capacity as a rock music journalist and I’d reviewed his records. In the early ‘80s I was a regular at his band’s gigs, where I loved to dance and sometimes hang out with the band afterwards.

I never met Peter Brock but I did know one of his girlfriends. What she had to say about Peter confirmed the sour opinion I’d had of him since the mid-70s, when his second wife claimed he’d battered her from the outset of their marriage, leading to her suicide attempt.

The interviewer, ABC Radio’s Jon Faine, asked both authors challenging questions about, essentially, the ethics of writing about famous others. He grilled Sian Prior on why in her memoir she chose to give her ex a pseudonym rather than using his real name. They’re both public figures, most Australian readers will know who she means, so why not name him?

With a degree of graciousness I have to admire, Sian pointed out she gave pseudonyms to all her friends mentioned in the book. She pointed out that her book, Shy, is about shyness. If she were to use Paul Kelly’s name, people would assume it was primarily a memoir about their relationship, which it is not.

Bev Brock explained her book explored emotional issues and challenges and needed to be truthful. The truth was, Peter was a shit (I paraphrase).

I was surprised by how tough the questioning was, especially the questions put to Sian. People who disclose unpleasant aspects of our idols are often censured. But the reality is, we, the public – listeners, viewers or readers – experience a frisson when the shadow side is revealed. Hypocritically, we might wag the finger of reproof. But we listen up.

I was even more surprised when I went online at my local library’s website to request a copy of Sian’s book, Shy. It was released two weeks ago, and 22 people had logged a borrow request and were on the waiting list. I live in a small town. My small town has the nickname “Sleepy Hollow”. It’s possible 23 of us jumped at the chance to read a book about shyness immediately on its release, but I’m guessing we’re mostly motivated by prurience: a chance to peek inside Paul Kelly’s private life.

As I was listening to Sian and Bev, the program host interrupted the interview to report the death of another Australian icon, Doc Neeson, frontman of the band The Angels. I knew Paul Kelly only in passing, and Peter Brock only through hearsay, but Doc I’d known as a friend. I was prompted by news of Doc’s death to start writing a series of short memoir pieces I’d been considering for some time; over this past week I’ve written five short tributes to five people who I cared about deeply and who mattered in my life.

I think of these linked pieces as my Five Dead Rock Stars series. That’s sounds callous, and doubtless is. It’s a nod to my friend Vince Lovegrove, the fifth of my Dead Rock Stars, who planned to call his memoirs Twelve Angry Women.

Engaging with the writing, inevitably the ethics of writing about people who are famous arose. Sian and Bev wrote about intimates; I was writing about famous people I thought of as friends but whom others might say were acquaintances – certainly, there are many people better placed to write more insightful accounts of my subjects’ lives, having known them longer or more fully. My pieces were not biographical; they were personal reminiscences, and fragmentary.

There was a lot I left out. It wasn’t needed, or it didn’t fit. Or it was impertinent. Or best forgotten. Or I am not ready to write about it yet.

In writing about our experiences, we process them anew, and sometimes gain clarity. I read – then re-read – a paragraph I wrote about myself at 21, accepting a handful of white powder backstage, Angel Dust or PCP. I can’t remember much of the events of that night, but I remember trying to walk home, through suburban Melbourne, from the bayside red-light district St Kilda. I could have died that night. I could have died during that horrible aftermath of strangulated breathing and turning blue. I could have died – as another young female rock writer did, in Kings Cross in the ‘90s – if a rapist-killer had spotted me vulnerable in the night.

If I had died, the futures of the bands who played at that venue that night might have been very different.

Reading that paragraph, I remembered another occasion, in 1981. I was visiting a musician friend at the house he shared with his girlfriend and a couple of Class-A drug dealers. I wasn’t taking drugs; I did drugs on four occasions across a 12 year period and that night was not one of those four nights. Someone OD’d. I remember one of the other people present, not the musician, urging the others to dump the unconscious body in an alley. Whatever happened, it could not be linked to them.

Happily, I can report this suggestion was rejected. The suspected OD case was revived and life when on.

For obvious reasons, I’m not willing to name names when writing about this incident. But as I read my own account of the night I almost OD’d, the chilling realisation hit me that the people backstage that night might readily have dumped my body in an alley. I was writing about the dread I had at that time, the dread that people I thought were my friends, were not. As I read back what I’d written, I knew, and I knew that I knew then: Of course these people were not your friends – how could your “friends” have let you stagger off into the night, alone?

How could I have continued in contact with those people, knowing I knew? Knowing they didn’t care if I lived or died, as long as I didn’t die at their gig, backstage? Of course I must forget.

As I tossed and turned, literally, unable to sleep, remembering what I’d forgotten, I started getting feedback on the memoir blogs I’d posted. I got no comments whatsoever, from any one from that period, on the first three blogs. But the fourth one, the one which recounted the incident with the white dust, that one drew comments from two old friends.

They were angry comments.

I’d written about my reaction on hearing of the blog subject’s death: since we’re not naming names, let’s call him Mickey Mouse. I wrote rather histrionically – “self-dramatisation”, as one commenter opined – about my shock at logging onto a news site and seeing a headline reporting his death. Except the headline didn’t name him, not by his real name nor as Mickey Mouse. The headline referred to him as the drummer in x band (not x, let’s call them Bedrock, in honour of the Flintstones). There had been several Bedrock drummers, so for a moment I had the wild, savage hope it was not my friend who’d died, that it might be another. Let’s call that other Donald Duck. In my blog I used Donald Duck’s real name.

I am told the use of his real name was callous and indefensible. I was told I suffered moral blindness, a failure to imagine the pain his family and friends would suffer, when, inevitably, they read my blog.

I don’t see it, myself. For starters, who is actually reading my blog? I can count the comments on the fingers of one hand. More to the point, if a septuagenarian veteran muso is traumatised reading that, given the choice between his death and her friend’s, some stranger would rather he had died, just hand me a dose of white powder right now. I don’t know Donald Duck, but I strongly suspect he’s old enough and ornery enough to cope.

In writerly terms, using the name was a harsh counter-note to the sentimentalism immediately preceding and following. It’s discordant. It’s nasty. And I never said I was nice.

I have however removed the name. Not because I think the use of the name has magical properties that could harm the person named. Not because my friends called me names. I removed it because the piece was intended as a tribute to someone I thought I loved, and I did not want what I consider a nonsense issue to detract from that.

I removed it with regret. I think the paragraph, and the piece, is weakened by not having that moment of authentic nastiness.

I remain perplexed that people who have been important to me could read all that I’ve written this past week, without comment, read the incident where a young girl is abandoned while seriously drug-impaired (though they might discount this as self-dramatisation), yet a few paragraphs later hurl into moral paroxysm over two words: the real name of Donald Duck.

But I guess there are multiple categories of people, quite apart from cartoon characters. There are famous people, lovers, acquaintances, friends, and “friends”.


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Someone Famous, With Girl – for Michael Hutchence (5 June 2014)

Michael Hutchence asked unexpected questions. Like, “How do you say, ‘I love you!’ in Mandarin?”

“My” Michael – Michael as I knew him – was not the mythic Michael of the tabloids. “My” Michael was a sweet, rather whimsical boy with cosmos-encompassing curiosity. When I think of Michael, I think of Snufkin, the character in Finnish author Tove Janssen’s Moomintroll books. Snufkin has a round head, shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes, and that’s how “my” Michael looks in memory: a round face on a stalk neck. Snufkin was a wanderer, seeking spring and summer meadows: that was Michael. Snufkin was a provocateur, baiting authority and despising convention. As did Michael.

I first heard INXS at a live gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern, just after INXS moved from Perth to Sydney and just before the Stagedoor Tavern was closed down. INXS were bottom of a four-band bill. I couldn’t see the stage so I couldn’t see the band (the crowd was packed for the headliners, The Angels), but they sure sounded good. I was writing for a rock magazine called Roadrunner and I marked INXS as a band for me to interview.

The interview took place in February or March 1980, about the time I started writing for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I didn’t write the first INXS piece in RAM, but my article ran in Roadrunner, and a few years later I wrote RAM’s first cover story on INXS. Some of the more sensational Michael quotes from that RAM cover story were lifted by Sydney’s tabloid newspaper, The Sun.

In early 1980, INXS were still playing small venues. I interviewed them in a joint off Oxford Street where capacity must have been less than 100. The entire band sat around a table, eager to talk about their music. At that time an interview must have been a novelty. Michael’s curiosity showed up as alertness. He sat with spine long, long neck; not the languid, mannered stance familiar in later years. But whatever the body language, Michael’s physicality always spoke to me of dance. He stood, he sat, he moved like a dancer. On stage, he danced. Michael had vitality and grace.

He also had bad skin. When people started talking about Michael as a sex symbol, I was initially nonplussed. He was a skinny kid with pockmarks. Recently I watched again a music video from 1981, “starring” Michael: Speed Kills, written by Cold Chisel’s Don Walker for the soundtrack to the film Freedom, with Michael on lead vocals. In that clip I see the emergence of the “mythical” Michael – the cool dude with white hot sexuality. I didn’t see it at the time.

At the time, when we sat in that small dark room and talked, Michael was barely through his teens and was dressed like a fan of French new wave cinema, in a Breton fisherman’s long-sleeved t-shirt with horizontal stripes. He told me he was fascinated by post-War bohemianism, especially the literary and artistic bohemianism of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I thought of Julie Christie, before she became a film star, a boho chick living with actor (and art school grad) Terence Stamp. Michael would have loved Julie Christie.

He talked textiles. Michael’s father Kell had been a textiles trader in Hong Kong. Michael loved colour and texture and trends, so he loved textiles. And he loved Hong Kong. He loved noise and close-pressed flesh and variety and change. Bewilder me, he beseeched. Fascinate me.

Michael could be mischievous, if I may use that word to cover a multitude of, literally, sins. In that first interview, he brought up one of my Roadrunner reviews that he said had made him laugh. It kicked off with some cruel comments about a band who at that time shared the same booking agency as INXS, a brother-sister combo called the Numbers. I liked the Numbers. I just couldn’t resist the impulse to be bitchy about their platinum blonde good looks. Michael had a bit of bitch in him too. Andrew Farriss, the INXS keyboard player and main writer, did not approve. Andrew never took to me, at all.

What sealed it for Andrew was that cover story I wrote in 1984. INXS were touring in support of their album The Swing. I had reviewed their previous album, Shabooh Shoobah, for RAM, and I’d loved it, so RAM’s then-editor Greg Taylor sent me off to Canberra with a specific brief: get an interview with Michael Hutchence.

That may have been the beginning – or an early instance – of that issue that plagues so many successful bands: the focus on the frontman, eclipsing other band members.

As the band and I travelled together to Canberra, I mused on the outfit saxophonist and guitarist Kirk Pengilly’s girlfriend Karen was wearing. It was white and flouncy with pastel trim. To me it looked like a cake decoration, perhaps a wedding cake. In the published article, I reported that reflection. I didn’t know Karen was an aspiring fashion designer, who succeeded in a career as an accessories designer. After publication, I heard Andrew felt my comment was disrespectful.

Michael didn’t have those inhibitions. Michael truly did not have a lot of inhibitions. The Canberra gig was wild; it took months for me to figure out how to remove the Bundaberg rum and coke stain from the drink spilled on my favourite top. It took hours for Michael to come down from his post-performance high, sufficient to consider an interview. By the time I turned the tape recorder on, we were both stripped naked, in our separate beds, in the hotel room we shared that night. For me as a rock writer, it was unprecedented, and frankly unexpected.

That’s when the question was asked: “How do you say ‘I love you!’, in Mandarin?”

Michael was in love. He was dating Michele Bennett, who had studied Mandarin at Melbourne University. Michele was exquisite and Michael was besotted. That did not preclude other flings. But I found it touching, and Michael and I did not fling.

I went round one time to the home Michael and Michele shared with New Zealand singer Jenny Morris, who became an INXS backing singer. The boys were ready to party. The girls were upstairs: Jenny singing, her voice melodic, honeyed and seductive; Michele was tweaking perfection, putting on her makeup.

“This can take hours,” Michael grimaced. He looked and sounded proud.

When INXS were recording their international breakthrough album Kick, I bumped into Michael on Williams Street, the arterial road leading up to Kings Cross. He invited me to hang out with him at the recording studio, Rhinoceros Studios in inner East Sydney, the hippest studios in town. Slack hours in a studio recording an album can hang heavy: an hour of studio downtime lasts longer than an hour of standard time. But I’m not sure that’s the reason Michael invited me. I’m not certain he was enjoying extended downtime with his fellow band members just at that point. They were there, except Andrew, but Michael mostly talked with me.

As I was leaving, I passed Andrew Farriss in the corridor.

“Hi!” I said brightly. “It’s Elly!”

“I know who you are,” growled Andrew, brushing past me.

What did Michael talk about, that day?

He talked about romance. He talked about sex. He was intrigued by the concept of designer baby sperm donations. He was interested in donating to a sperm bank – a sperm bank, I think hypothetical, that specialised in supplying sperm from donors with outstanding talents or attributes. He talked about who and what he found attractive. Princess Stephanie of Monaco. I couldn’t see it, but to Michael she was “Hot!”

He told me his theory of romance. Whether that was a theory of the moment or a life-long perspective, I cannot say. But Michael told me he saw romance as a masqued ball. The dancers are in costume. They circle each other, flirt, retreat, flirt some more. They engage in stylised games to hold each other’s interest. The first one who drops their mask, loses.

Game over.

Early in 1985, I met up with Michael in a Kings Cross night club and we talked poetry. I was preparing to self-publish a small book of poems. I told Michael I couldn’t sleep, pages of typeset proofs scrolled relentlessly through my mind. Michael had a talent, among his many talents, for appearing to listen intently while quite possibly screening out much that was said. He did ask questions about my poems. But the question, unexpected, that struck me was this: “Am I in there?”

In truth, several famous Oz rock identities were “in there”, in my poems. Michael was not.

It was too late to write a Michael poem, a poem for “my” Michael, to include in my collection. But I did write a poem for him, which was never published.

I called it Someone Famous, With Girl.

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Michael Hutchence Elly McDonald

Michael Hutchence with Michele Bennett (pic: Daily Mail UK)


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When you’re in a hole, stop digging (2 June 2014)

Eighteen months ago I left a brave child in a mud-hole. Her name is Lenny and she is the main character in an untitled, unplanned novella I’ve left stranded on 25,000 words.

Lenny is a child soldier. She is a victim of genocide and extreme abuse. She is also an alter ego, despite the obvious differences that I have not experienced genocide or war or significant violence, and I am 40 years older than she is. Oh, and I am flesh and blood, while Lenny is fiction.

I feel survivor guilt in relation to Lenny. She struggled so hard to come into being, and she’s fought like a fiend to make it this far. Worse, in the framework of the narrative, Lenny is the one who cannot die: the one of who refuses to die, who insists her story be told.

For her story to be told, first she needs to break down her creator’s obduracy. Believe me, I am resistant to looking up the dictionary definition of “obdurate”, let alone loosening its grip on my writing behaviours.

Yet I do want Lenny to live. On a fundamental level, enabling Lenny’s story to be told gives me permission to tell my other stories. It is vital to me that I offer Lenny a hand-up, out of her mud-hole, and help her on her way.

I know she faces many challenges once she gets out of that hole. I know, because I created her universe – and believe me, a friendly cosmos it is not. Lenny’s world is a domain of warriors and heroes, demons and magic, and savagery. I did that to her. I put her there. The savagery and killing is of my making. So in a ‘real’ sense, in a fictional domain, Lenny’s greatest adversary is me.

This is a relationship between the writer and the written.

Shakespeare understood this (not that I compare myself to Shakespeare). At times he put his characters in situations of extreme duress. He sent them mad. He tortured them. He killed them in callous and brutal ways.

I left Lenny in a hole. The Bard exposed a good man to the cruel elements on a windswept heath. In King Lear Act 4 Scene 1 he had his character lament:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

But Lenny is the one who refuses to die. And I am the deus ex machina who can lift her out of that hole.

As soon as I overcome my obduracy.

The Lenny novella (c.26,737 words) – 2012 and 2018

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