Elly McDonald

Writer


2 Comments

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

Image

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”.


Leave a comment

Vince Lovegrove. Legend. (8 June 2014)

Note 14 December 2016: The ‘Five Dead Rock Star’ pieces were written when I was depressed. I’ve left them to stand in their original versions, but they could be written very differently.

golden-star

Vince Lovegrove told me once that he planned to write his memoirs and title them Twelve Angry Women. Only twelve? I asked.

Vince angered a lot of people in his life. He was confrontational. Combative. Phenomenally passionate, with an immense capacity both for love and hate. Vince valued loyalty and yet too many of his relationships – sexual or otherwise – ended badly. He believed in living life on the edge; life without adrenalin was no life at all.

Vince is remembered, rightly, for his massive contributions in two domains: he was a champion of Oz Rock, the Australian pub rock music scene and its bands who went on to success internationally; and he raised awareness of AIDS, becoming a public symbol of tragedy and hope. I remember him as a hero who first appeared in my life when I was age eight, and who, of all the people I knew in my teens and 20s, I most trusted, could say with certainty was solidly my friend.

I turned eight in 1969, when Vince was singing in a Perth-based pop group called the Valentines, sharing vocals with Bon Scott, future lead singer of AC/DC. I met Vince the summer of 1970, not long after he moved to Adelaide, when he was dating the woman who became his first wife: Helen Corkhill.

It’s strange, writing memoir pieces. Every so often, just as a life threatens to flatten into a chronicle of years and events, a name or an incident will come alive as I type, spring up with vitality, and make me pause, and smile. The thought ‘Helen Corkhill’ does that for me. Helen was glorious. She was a drop-dead gorgeous, strong Aussie sheila who hailed from Broken Hill, the mining town BHP built on flat red desert in the Outback, in far west New South Wales. She’d come to Adelaide to train as a nurse, forming a tight clique with a bunch of other gorgeous, glorious girls: among them, Gill Harrington and Gill’s Adelaide cousins, Mary and Ully Christie.

Mary had been one of my mother’s students. She baby-sat me and my sister. She became a close family friend. My parents liked to party, and Mary introduced into our lives a bunch of party people, among them Helen and Vince.

I remember Vince at a party, telling me earnestly as long-haired hipsters milled around, “You are way too clever for a child of eight. You are too clever by half. You are scary clever.”

In 1973 my family moved to Melbourne. Vince and Helen, with their baby, Holly, moved to Melbourne in 1978. Vince had been working as a rock journalist and producing and presenting music television and radio shows, including, that year, Australian Music to the World. In Melbourne, he produced the top-rating variety show, The Don Lane Show, and was youth issues reporter for A Current Affair.

But his marriage to Helen didn’t survive. I left home and moved to Sydney in late 1979, and early in 1980 (a year earlier than Vince’s Wikipedia entry states), Vince moved to Sydney too. Vince and I shared an overnight car ride between Melbourne and Sydney. We dissected the hit singles on the car radio. I liked Linda Ronstadt’s single from Mad Love, How do I make you? I loved Tom Petty’s Refugee. We fell silent as Martha Davis from The Motels sang their hit Total Control. We talked and talked and laughed a lot and bonded.

I hasten to point out the timing was coincidental. It was coincidence, again, that I rented a small flat in Paddington close to the Paddington townhouse Vince rented with his girlfriend Daina. But that did prove handy. I was often at Vince and Daina’s place, for company and morale-boosting, and I baby-sat Holly when a babysitter was needed.

In Sydney, Vince hung out with his rock scene mates who included Cold Chisel lead singer Jim Barnes and the other Chisel band members. In the early ’70s Vince and Helen ran a booking agency in Adelaide called Jovan, which managed AC/DC at that band’s inception and also managed the embryonic Chisel, at that time – in the words of rock journalist Anthony O’Grady – a “hard rock jukebox”. By early 1980, propelled by original material by keyboards player Don Walker, Chisel had two successful albums to their credit and were preparing to record the classic Oz Rock album, East.

Again by coincidence, Cold Chisel were among the few people I knew in Sydney who I had met prior to relocating. Vince tutored me in the back-stories – personalities and music industry politics – of the people I met as I started out as a rock writer. He helped me navigate some of the risks, steering me well clear of drug use and watching out for me as I fielded predators. Because Vince had my back, I felt able to stand up to bullying. Because Vince had my back, I was targeted less viciously, perhaps, than I might have been otherwise.

I do remember standing in the kitchen at Vince and Daina’s place with a group of people, drinking, while a record producer on the ascendant sneered at how I was dressed.

I threw it back at him. “My skirt is $18 from Target. My shoes are $10. The shirt is from K-Mart. The earrings are $300 from Manila.”

Vince thought that was hilarious.

At about that time Bon Scott died. Vince loved Bon. After the Valentines, they were bandmates again in Adelaide, in the Mount Lofty Rangers, then there was the Jovan-AC/DC relationship. I remember the night we heard Bon was dead. It hit Vince hard.

When Vince’s relationship with Daina ended, he moved to a dilapidated top floor flat on or just off Womerah Avenue, near Kings Cross. He was rock music columnist for the tabloid newspaper, The Sun. I was there with Vince one day when I heard the wooden stairs that led up to his flat creaking as a visitor climbed up to join us. I heard the visitor sing, soft and low, no hurry, her voice languid molasses. I was startled by that voice, so distinctive. I stared at Vince. He was ready: he’d anticipated the question.

“That’s my new girl singer,” he said. “Her name is Chrissy Amphlett.”

Chrissy became the lead singer of the band Divinyls, who were managed by Vince in their early years. In her autobiography Pleasure and Pain, Chrissy writes at length about how Vince influenced the Divinyls’ sound and stage act. He believed rock’n’roll should be explosive, should always feel threatening, never safe. He insisted Divinyls gave their guts, every time. Vince’s drive and aggression doubtless took its toll on individual band members. But it got them to America and it bred hits.

In the States, Divinyls were signed to Chrysalis Records. Vince got involved with a Chrysalis publicist. I spent a few months in Los Angeles in 1982 and Vince’s friend, Eliza, was hospitable. She moved to Australia to work for Divinyls with Vince but it didn’t work out, professionally or romantically. She saw herself as a skilled professional who’d been demoted to answering phones. On his home turf, Vince’s macho traits were less attractive. By late 1983, Eliza had a new man, a young New Yorker called Chad or Chip or Chuck, and Vince was increasingly appealing to me to divert them away from him, to keep them occupied socially. I tried. It was complicated by Chad or Chip’s occasional violence. When Cold Chisel split and did a final tour, I was not thrilled at once again being asked to baby-sit, this time for Eliza and Chad/Chip. On New Years’ Eve 1984 I abandoned Eliza at a beachside pub, at a round table of drunken journalists. She never spoke to me again.

I worked for Divinyls with Vince myself, for one day. At the end of that day we tacitly agreed I had no future answering phones.

Vince’s relationship with Eliza overlapped with the early phase of his relationship with his second wife, a thin brunette New Yorker who called herself Suzi Sidewinder: Sidewinder, both for the venomous rattlesnake and for the short range air-to-air missile. Suzi had danced with New York club act Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Vince was entirely enamoured of Suzi and once she moved to Australia, we stopped being close. I found her abrasive and I thought in her company he was doing too many drugs. I might have been wrong. One time when I was climbing William Street, up towards Kings Cross, I saw them in my favourite pizza shop, waiting to collect their takeaway pizza. I tried to engage in what I considered normal conversation, but what met me was glazed eyes, giggles, and that odd knowing stare that says, “I know what you’re up to. Don’t think for a moment I trust you.”

Next time I saw Vince I remarked on his strange behaviour. He countered that I was the one who’d been strange.

Vince and Suzi had a child, Troy, and married. The bride wore black. Within months, I was hearing gossip. Suzi at a party, asked about her baby, flinging back, “Vince’s baby. Not mine.”

After Troy was born, Suzi had shingles. If you’ve had chicken pox, chances are the virus is lying dormant and may be reactivated as shingles, a painful rash, at a point in your life when your immune system is vulnerable. Usually in old age. It is not usual for a healthy young woman to have shingles. Testing showed Suzi was not a healthy woman. She was diagnosed in 1985 with HIV/AIDS. Further testing showed Troy had HIV/AIDS too.

Vince told me Suzi felt gut-wrenching guilt over Troy’s condition. Her seeming rejection of her baby was the grief of a woman who thinks she’s killed her kid. In 1985, AIDS was thought of as a ‘Gay plague”, confined to male homosexuals. Many people saw it as a consequence of an immoral lifestyle, of promiscuity and, specifically, anal sex. The other high risk group was intravenous drug users. Vince and Suzi rejected any suggestion Suzi injected drugs. As one of the first women diagnosed with AIDS in Australia, Suzi presented a face of AIDS that shocked the heterosexual community: a young mother – a beautiful girl connected to celebrity, her life ahead of her.

Suzi’s life after diagnosis was short and painful. I visited Vince in the large house moneyed friends had rented for them. (Some of their friends, like Jim Barnes, were generous. Others disappeared.) Vince and I talked for a long time. I was hesitant to go upstairs and visit Suzi; Vince told me she did not want strangers to see her as she was.

Suzi died in mid-1987. A documentary, Suzi’s Story, was screened on Network Ten and caused widespread reaction, from concern to consternation. The documentary won awards. At about that time the notorious ‘Grim Reaper’ AIDS awareness advertising campaign ran, delivering the message that anyone was vulnerable. As it happened, during that period I knew the advertising director who created the ‘Grim Reaper’ campaign, through our mutual involvement with a seminar-based, personal effectiveness organisation in Sydney. I knew Vince was flailing, caring for Troy and trying to think through what his own future might hold, so I invited Vince to an information evening held by this organisation to promote an upcoming “transformational” seminar. Vince came simply because I asked. Because we were friends.

Vince was broke and embroiled in legal actions. He was doing his best by Troy and it was killing him. Troy spent countless hours in hospitals, undergoing countless medical tests and procedures. Vince told me Troy would scream when they headed to hospital; what Troy went through looked to Vince like torture. Troy had contracted AIDS in utero and there were few similar cases in Australia. Vince’s baby was effectively a medical guinea-pig.

The public interest in Suzi’s Story meant people recognised Vince in the street. People he didn’t know were constantly coming up to him and sharing their responses, sometimes clumsily. People wrote to him. Some saw him as a hero for his fundraising efforts on behalf of AIDS research and for going public with his family’s tragedy to raise AIDS awareness. Some saw him as a hero for attempting, as a widower, to care for a child born with AIDS. He received marriage proposals by mail.

I asked Vince whether he planned to continue his involvement in AIDS activism after Troy died. Vince was adamant: once Troy died, he wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted his life back. If he couldn’t have back the life he’d had, he wanted a new one. He wanted to go somewhere far away.

Troy lived longer than expected but died in 1993. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) screened a documentary called A Kid Called Troy. Vince wrote a book, A kid called Troy: The moving journal of a little boy’s battle for life. Once that was completed, he was a man unanchored. Fortunately, his friends cared.

Jimmy Barnes, who had established a successful solo career after Cold Chisel split, invited Vince to manage a European tour for him. This was generous of Jim but proved confronting for Vince, who told me years later he was shocked, on the tour, by the state his friend “Barnsey” was in. It’s no secret, now, that Jim descended into a hell of drug and alcohol misuse before getting sober in 2001, a sobriety he’s maintained. In the early ‘90s, Vince saw his friend in a state of self-loathing. Vince didn’t want that to be him. He wanted his new life.

So in 1994, Vince moved to London, where he returned to writing about music. I’d moved to London in 1992 but I didn’t learn Vince was living there until 1998, when I saw articles he’d written about Michael Hutchence’s death. Vince was writing an unauthorised biography of the INXS singer, which came out in 1999. We had some long phone conversations, where Vince talked through how he saw Michael’s life and death; we’d both known Michael and this was personal. The Hutchence biography came out in 1999 and resulted in immediate law suits initiated by Michael’s partner Paula Yates. In his book, Vince contended that Paula Yates ensnared Michael by falling pregnant. (I don’t recall this as one of the “Michael life theories” he floated with me. I would have warned him off.) The libel case was settled, with an undisclosed sum paid by the publishers in Sydney and London and by the UK tabloid, The Mail on Sunday, which had serialised extracts.

Beyond discussing Jimmy Barnes and Michael Hutchence, Vince and I talked about his life in London. He was newly single, his third wife having left him the previous year. He joked, “I’m always left with the baby!” Lilli-Rae was maybe three.

This was when I heard about the Twelve Angry Women.

“How come all the women I get involved with turn out to be psychos?” Vince demanded, with what sounded like genuine perplexity.

We discussed meeting up. But we didn’t meet. I’d heard something in our conversations that made me worry Vince might hope we’d get together romantically, which had never happened in the past and was not something I saw in our future. I did not want to turn psycho. For his part, Vince might have heard the same echo down the phone line, and might have drawn the same conclusion. He was 50, fat, bald – no longer the brutally handsome heart-throb.

Vince returned to Australia with Lilli-Rae and settled near idyllic Byron Bay in northern New South Wales. Holly and her son Arlo lived nearby. In 2011, Holly gave birth to Marlon, a second grandson for Vince.

In late March 2012, as I was sitting in an office reception area waiting to negotiate a return to work plan with my employer, following an injury, I flicked through a newspaper and saw a headshot of Vince staring out at me. Vince was dead. His Kombi Van had left the road, rolled and exploded in flames in the small hours of the previous morning. Positive identification was yet to be made.

Vince’s death was reported in the media. His loss did not go unremarked. But somehow, to me, it did not feel enough. Vince was bigger than that. I felt like a bigger noise should be made at his passing, a much louder keening.

So here’s my attempt:

Vince Lovegrove was a legend of Australian rock music. He started as a pop singer, managed bands who remain Oz Rock icons, knew everyone who had any kind of profile in ‘70s or ‘80s Australian rock, had his byline as a rock writer in mass circulation publications, and produced landmark music television shows. In the troughs between successes he always returned to writing about music. When he died, at age 65, he was due to start work in a few days’ time at a small regional newspaper, with a minuscule daily circulation.

Vince could be pugnacious. He laughed like a pirate. He was foolish and wise, all at once.

He was loved.

Vince Lovegrove Elly McDonald

Vince Lovegrove

 


1 Comment

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)


1 Comment

Grounded (February 2011)

This article first appeared in 2011 in the magazine Australian Yoga Life. Some things have changed since I wrote it. For starters, I dye my hair and wear more makeup. And I’m no longer working towards handstand. But the essential principles have not changed: progress gently, with awareness, and practice equanimity.

All my life I wanted to be like my grandmother, so it wasn’t surprising I should take up yoga. My grandmother had a daily yoga practice, and as a child in the ‘60s I watched her perform halasana (plow pose), headstand and other asanas in the living room of my childhood home. She was strong, flexible and graceful, an inspiring role model.

As I approach the age she was then, I find myself enacting small homages to my grandmother. Like her, I don’t dye my hair, and it’s turning a similar soft silver mouse. As she did, I’ve reduced my makeup to little more than light brown-pink lipstick (hers was called ‘Cocoa’). And I practice yoga daily.

But by temperament I’m not much like my grandmother. In my 20s and 30s I used a calming mantra inspired by Gladys: “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. I had to repeat this a lot, because I really wasn’t those things. Instead, family members kept comparing to my grandfather. My grandfather, Gladys’s husband, was a remarkable personality, but the comparisons scared me. Despite his considerable achievements, all I could see was that my grandfather was mentally ill. He was dramatically bi-polar. In his later years he found some relief through the prescription medication lithium.

My life turned out turbulent too. My illness was nowhere near as dramatic as his, but I suffered from anxiety, depression and eating disorders. While my grandfather was successful professionally and widely admired, my history is littered with failed careers, failed relationships, failed projects.

No matter how often family members tell me biochemistry is nothing to be ashamed of (“No more than insulin dependency for a diabetic”), I felt the stigma of mental illness.

My yoga practice was helpful but inconsistent.

Early in 2010 I became conscious that my 50th birthday was looming. I had it in my head that saw my 50th as a milestone: this would be the defining moment to appraise what I’d made of my life. I decided that on my 50th birthday, I’d perform a handstand. This wasn’t a completely delusional ambition. I’d been a competitive gymnast as a child, so my self-image included the concept “capable of handstands.” My yoga class provided an environment where I could revisit handstand under the guidance of an encouraging teacher. I was up for it.

In fact I was impatient. The big 5-0 was still 15 months away, but I felt I should be able to perform perfect handstands immediately. Instead, within a few sessions of practice attempts I’d snapped my right big toe. I misjudged a landing, slamming my full weight, with momentum, into a toe I’d left beautifully pointing. The impact made a dramatic cracking sound.

That cracking sound marked a shift in how I perceived myself, and in how I experience yoga.

I saw at once that the handstand that resulted in my injury was not a genuine, focused attempt but instead a reckless flail, an accident waiting to happen. I’d flung my legs up in frustrated pique, annoyed that I couldn’t instantly command the poise and strength that I aspired to. My ‘handstand’ was an inverted sulk, with an inevitable crash landing.

I saw how my state of mind translated into physical outcomes.

I saw, too, that the particular state of mind that resulted in this injury characterised the way I was living my life – flinging myself into situations, driven by frustrations, by anger (often at my own inadequacies), as if I didn’t care about the fall-out, incurring unnecessary damage.

My project now is to challenge this pattern – to unlearn the habit of self-destructive flailing. Yoga class seemed a good place to start.

I now have a new mantra to supplement “Resourceful, resilient, serene”. Similarly inspired by the memory of Gladys, I start each yoga session with an intention: “Calm, grounded, balanced, graceful.”

I’m still working on handstand (coming along nicely, thanks), but rather than fixate on perfecting a particular physical action I’m finding it serves me better to focus on a state of mind. Some mornings I recognise I’m inclined to the opposite (“Agitated, unstable, unbalanced, awkward”).   But gradually, with the help of my yoga practice, I’m dwelling more and more in a desired state of being.

Calm. Grounded. Balanced. Graceful.

Image


1 Comment

Limits of compassion (2 June 2014)

Paul Slovic is a psychologist at the University of Oregon whose experiments explore the limits of human empathy. He might, for example, show his subjects pictures of a starving African child, a child given a name, photographed gazing straight to camera with huge pleading eyes. The experiment subjects are asked how much they’d be willing to donate to, say, Save The Children. With this experiment, the average hypothetical donation was US$2.50. Slovic might provide a different set of subjects with facts about starvation and child mortality in Africa: how many million are malnourished, how many need immediate food assistance, prevalence of death by diseases linked to malnutrition. In this case, the pledged donations drop by 50%, to an average of $1.25 per experiment subject.

I read this in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide. Lehrer was subsequently discredited in a plagiarism scandal, but his account of Paul Slovic’s work is unproblematic:

“According to Slovic, the problem with statistics is that they don’t activate our moral emotions. The depressing numbers leave us cold: our minds can’t comprehend suffering on such a massive scale. That is why we are riveted when one child falls down a well but turn a blind eye to the millions of people who die every year for lack of clean water […] As Mother Theresa put it, ‘If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’”

Other obstacles to empathy? Relative power. Lehrer quotes UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner: “’The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially appropriate behaviour. You become very impulsive and insensitive […]’.”

Keltner bases this conclusion on the outcomes of his experiments including the so-called ‘dictator game’, in which designated subjects are given hypothetical ‘money’ and instructed to distribute it (or not), as they choose, to a fellow subject within the experiment. Most ‘dictators’ in these experiments are surprisingly benign, choosing to gift about a third of ‘their’ money to the person they’ve been paired with. But if you put the two participants in separate rooms, so the dictator cannot see the penniless person, generosity dries up. Social isolation has this effect. (I wonder, too, whether being paired with a direct counterpart encourages giving. Would the dictators give away as much if the pool of supplicants dependent on their largesse was larger, a “mass” even, in Mother Theresa’s words?)

We live in a world of creation and delight and simultaneously a world of pain. In our daily encounters, and on social media, we are constantly confronted by suffering. Sometimes we choose to harden our hearts and other times we let it bleed.

Oh, the bleeding hearts!

We are sick at heart for the loss of a little girl named Madeleine. For what her loss has done to her parents. We are sick at heart for that dog pictured in a Facebook post, the canine equivalent of Paul Slovic’s starving African orphan. We are sick at heart over young women emerging from years imprisoned in basements, subjected to sex slavery. For the children working as indentured labour, or slaves, in countries far from ours. For the people closer to home who sleep rough. Or stay in unsafe domestic arrangements out of fear. For the people derided, abused, injured and killed for being conspicuously different. For the victims of others’ explosive rage.

I have very little education in ethics. Or politics. I have not followed closely debate over the efficacy of international aid (whatever forms it takes). I am not skilful in how I express myself exploring these matters.

What I do know is it does matter.

It matters that we care, and that we express our caring, even if clumsily.

Currently I am reading, belatedly, Martin Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I didn’t get hooked by the first 100 pages. The sequences describing Australian servicemen in combat in Syria in WW2 then as POWs working on the Burma Railroad were gripping but I found the romantic backstory tedious. I thought much of the writing was overly literary.

Then the romantic subplot took an unforeseen turn and it seemed Flanagan was saying, “This, too, is tragic. This too is pain and loss that asks to be acknowledged.”

This interests me, as, through his central character, Flanagan repeatedly reflects on sentimentality, the expression of emotion, the centrality (or otherwise) of emotion, and the cultural significance of strategies such as optimism, magical thinking, fatalism and stoicism. And also, it seems to me our culture offers a hierarchy of compassion, with some forms of suffering ‘privileged’ over others, and some categories of victim accorded more sympathy than others.

With the romance, Flanagan seems to suggest that domestic tragedies can have similar weight to historical atrocities. Or I as reader am inferring that.

So what causes us to care, and what is ‘worthy” of concern?

It’s a truism to suggest we are most likely to care if the issue as it presents touches on something in our personal experience. My father supports Seeing Eye Dogs and Guide Dogs organisations. He does this because his father and his grandfather both became completely blind. But recently I was with a man whose face screwed up at the sight of a guide dog with owner. This man explained that he despises the entire concept of a seeing eye dog, precisely because his grandfather was completely blind. His grandfather felt strongly that it was ethically wrong to train a dog in such a way that it lost autonomy as a being in its own right, to reduce it to a functionary, an extension of a human. Similar starting point: blind grandfather. Different expressions of compassion.

The other thing that strikes me about the “I can relate” aspect of compassion is that our personal experience might bear only the most tenuous relationship to the event or circumstance that pricks our heart on behalf of another. There are issues – deprivation, catastrophic loss, abuse, exploitation, helplessness – that we identify in someone else’s situation, that we feel we share. But frankly, the gap between my experience of that issue and the situation I see playing out on the TV news might stretch any relationship to the point of metaphor. Is it the case that I feel deprived, abused, exploited, helpless, whatever … whereas what I see and respond to elsewhere is “real” deprivation, abuse and so forth?

This brings us back to the hierarchy of compassion. And the primacy – or otherwise – of feeling.

My position at this moment is that exercising compassion has value almost regardless of what prompts it. If, as is increasingly argued, what we understand as our ‘Self’ is an ever-changing complex of neural networks that reinforces the pathways most used, then I’d prefer the street named Compassion to be well-trod.

In the play A Streetcar Named Desire, a fragile woman confides she has always depended on the kindness of strangers. She is not an entirely sympathetic victim. She is not Weary Dunlop, not a war hero. She is not Malala. And her faith in kindness is abused.

But I think she has, essentially, the right idea. And I think there are worse things than to be a “bleeding heart”.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Du Bois


Leave a comment

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

Image