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”.