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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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

 


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For Steve Prestwich – Take me to the river (7 June 2014)

Steve Prestwich Elly McDonald

Steve Prestwich (Pic: Sydney Morning Herald)

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

I want to write about Steve Prestwich without writing about Cold Chisel and that’s not possible.

I wrote about Cold Chisel, a lot, between 1979 and 1984, when I was a young rock music writer immersed in Oz Rock – the Australian pub rock music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was a fan. I was more involved with Cold Chisel – its music, its band members, its trajectory – than with any other band I wrote about. Cold Chisel is why I moved to Sydney. Cold Chisel is the reason I became a rock writer.

There was a night, in suburban Melbourne in 1979, when I was in a speeding car with hoons – okay, young male tradies, only slightly drug affected – with the car radio playing. There were too many of us in that car. I was squatting in the well of the back passenger seat, curled up to fit, squeezed in. I could hear on the radio the opening notes of a song that stopped my heart. There was a keyboard line – the same notes a metal wind chime plays – and there was a percussive build, a drummer getting jittery with his high-hat. That drummer was Steve Prestwich and that band was Cold Chisel. The song was Conversations, from their second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts.

I interviewed the lead singer, Jim Barnes, and the keyboard player and songwriter, Don Walker, a few months later, as designated music reporter (only very slightly drug affected) for a student radio station.

It wasn’t a great interview – Jim later pointed out my interviewing style was seriously stilted – but next time the Sydney-based band were in town, I interviewed them again, this time as a writer for the indie rock magazine Roadrunner. I interviewed Don Walker and Steve.

Mostly I interviewed Don. The interview was at 2pm, in the hotel room they shared, and Steve hadn’t quite woken up to the day. He was awake: he just wasn’t out of bed, and he wasn’t clothed. In anything. Just sheets. He stayed under the sheets, mostly keeping quiet, while Don and I talked.

Don and Steve encouraged me to move to Sydney and Don Walker always encouraged my writing – my rock journalism and also, later, the creative writing (poetry and short stories) I published across the mid-‘80s. My friendship with Don Walker had highs and extreme lows. His support for my writing endeavours was constant.

But it’s Steve I’m writing about.

I learned from that hotel interview a little about Steve. I learnt his father had been a drummer who played at the Cavern, the Liverpool club where the Beatles built their following. I learnt he came from a large family of boys and had a lively – and sharp – sense of humour. I think I understood from the outset that Steve was a straight talker, a ‘what you see is what you get’ lad, with no time for posers.

Steve was always Steve. He didn’t waste energy on pretension. Not long after I moved to Sydney, I was in another speeding car with hoons – this time, Cold Chisel, heading back from a gig at the Dee Why Hotel on Sydney’s northern beaches – and once again, that car was too full. I was squeezed against the rear passenger door, seated alongside Don Walker and his partner, rock writer Jenny Hunter-Brown. Steve was in the front passenger seat. The car radio was playing Top 40 soft pap: Babe, by Styx. The lyrics go like this:

Babe, I’m leaving, I must be on my way
The time is drawing near
My train is going, I see it in your eyes
The love, the need, your tears

Steve was making retching noises.

But I’ll be lonely without you
And I’ll need your love to see me through
Please believe me, my heart is in your hands
‘Cause I’ll be missing you

Steve by now had the passenger door open and was hanging out into the highway, poised to jump.

That was so Steve.

He was the guy who would chat with young fans, approachable and friendly, then break off mid-sentence to say, “Whoa! Railroad tracks! Get a load of the metalwork on YOUR TEETH!”

Steve didn’t do tact.

When I had a one-night stand with the guitarist, Steve made it plain he thought it laughable. There was an awkward few minutes when he teased me backstage. Jim Barnes, whose relations with Steve could be combative, stepped in, demanding ‘What’s this about?”

“Steve’s giving me a hard time because I fucked Ian,” I snivelled.

Jim looked from me to Steve then back again.

“Jesus, Elly,” he snorted, “I wouldn’t fuck Ian. Do you want me to beat Steve up for you?”

It might be only night in my life I had men fight over me.

There was another night Steve stood over me, laughing. That was the night I accepted white powder from a support band and had a kind of psychotic collapse. I don’t know what I actually did, as I had (and have) little recall. It must have been massive, as the fall-out was horrific. What I do recall is sitting on a chair just outside the change-room, sobbing hysterically, with Cold Chisel’s soundman Gerry Georgettis trying to comfort me and Steve standing by: in my memory, laughing. I’d like to think Gerry put me in a taxi but he didn’t: I know I was walking in stilettoes for two hours or more, with the sun rising over the Melbourne suburbs. I know that when I reached a friend’s house I hyperventilated for an hour or more and the people who looked after me say I turned blue.

That episode threw me. I was already tussling with the terrifying thought that the people I valued might not value me. That the people I thought were my friends, were not. For a long time, that image of Steve standing there, laughing, chilled me. Now when I think back, I acknowledge the fragmentary memories from that night might be inaccurate. I also recognise Steve laughing may well have been a default response to a ludicrous situation: whatever I had done was ridiculous, laughable – as ridiculous as fucking the lead guitarist.

This is not to say Steve was not sentimental. He believed in love. Real love, not the soft pap media drivel. Not long after we met he started going out with Jo-Anne, the woman he married, with whom he eventually had two children, Melody and Vaughan. Jo-Anne when I first met her seemed shy, which baffled me, as she was classically beautiful – tall, elegant, with high cheekbones. The two held hands. She sat on his lap. They nuzzled. Steve told me he believed in the wisdom of the phrase, “my other half”.

“Jo-Anne is that,” he said. “She is my other half.”

Steve wrote beautiful love songs. His melodic sense is often remarked on, but what I notice is the minor keys. Steve’s songs were wistful, poignant. They spoke of loss. Steve wrote Cold Chisel’s biggest hit single, Forever Now, and its most covered track, When the War is Over. With Don Walker, he wrote Flame Trees, a song about small towns and times gone by that I sing to myself, in the small town where I live.

I’ve never written a novel. But I have written an extended novella, and its opening line is “When the war was over…”

“When the war was over, the true terror began.” Thank you, Steve.

In the mid-80s, when my poems began to be published in literary journals, Steve asked me if I could help him get some of his mother’s poetry published. He gave me a sheaf of her work. Freda’s poems were good. It was a simple matter of formatting them and sending them to literary journals. I was happy for Steve, and for Freda, that some appeared in print.

Steve and Cold Chisel parted ways during a disastrous European tour and in 1983 the band broke up. Fifteen years later they came together for a “reunion tour”, which blew up in an explosive fight between Jim and Steve. I saw every one of Cold Chisel’s farewell concerts, and I’ve twice seen Jim Barnes live as a solo artist in the 30 years since then, but I’ve never been to a live show by any of the other band members or listened to their post-Chisel music.

I regret that. I would have liked to accept Steve’s invitation to be in the audience when he played at the Basement in Sydney. Except that I live 950 kilometres away. I did suggest we might meet up when I visited Sydney one time. But Steve was living in New South Wales’ Southern Highlands by then, taking sensitive photographs of nature, listening to wide-ranging music, and making a life with a new love. We were Friends on Facebook, so I could see he was happy.

He could see I was not.

“You sound depressed,” he messaged via Facebook. “Are you okay?”

Not long after, I received a Facebook invitation to ‘Friend’ a second Steve Prestwich page. Steve explained in the accompanying note that he was setting up a page specifically for family and personal friends, separate from his public page where fans could post.

I teased him, telling him he’d finally grown pretensions.

A few weeks later when I logged on my pc, I saw a sidebar headline on a news site: Cold Chisel drummer dies. My heart seized up, like it did that night in 1979, when I heard the first notes of Conversations. Please God, I thought immediately, let it be one of the other drummers who filled in with Cold Chisel after Steve was sacked. Let it not be Steve.

It was Steve. News reports informed me he had died during surgery to remove a brain tumour. I learned for the first time that he’d had surgery for a brain tumour 18 years earlier, while I was living in London. I read that he’d suffered head pains while rehearsing for a planned Chisel reunion tour and had recognised the symptoms. Cold Chisel band members had been with him as he was wheeled into the operating theatre.

I can only imagine how Steve’s death impacted Don, Jim, Ian and Phil. I can’t begin to imagine its impacts on Melody, Vaughan, Jo-Anne and Victoria. I know I felt wrenching grief.

When Steve asked was I depressed, asked me what went on, I told him I felt I was at a crossroads. He responded that crossroads are a good place to be: you get to make choices, you get to journey, new horizons open up. I can’t say for sure those were his exact words, because after Steve died, I Unfriended his Facebook pages. I couldn’t bear Facebook’s yearly reminders each time it was his birthday. I didn’t realise that by Unfriending his page, I would lose the messages he’d sent me.

Nearly two years after Steve’s death, I was at a writers’ workshop. I hadn’t written a poem since 1987 – 25 years. We were given thirty minutes to write free-form, and I was not the least surprised to find that what I wrote was a poem, For Steve:

Time was, you set the rhythm.
You kept the beat.
Singing, all the time, your head
Nodding to a melody line.
Your feet forcing out that beat.
You kept
The best memories, the ones that made me
Laugh. And smile. And grow pensive.
And now
I cry for you. Cry me a river, jazzman.
Let that river run through
A cavern, where the beat boys
Burst into the night.
Take me to that river.


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Marc Hunter – Forever Young (6 June 2014)

Marc Hunter Elly McDonald

Marc Hunter (Pic: Sydney Morning Herald)

I understand Marc Hunter could be cruel. I remember him for his kindness.

We met cute and we ended poignant. Marc’s parting words to me were among the kindest words I’ve ever been gifted.

But that was far down the track, ten years or more after Marc and I first met in late 1979.

I was 18 and I had just moved to Sydney from Melbourne. I was slightly overweight and not the least bit cool. That’s as it should be, as Marc knew what it was to be a fat teen and I don’t think he ever gave a rats about cool.

He was sitting on a bench by a bus stop on the overpass above William Street, where Victoria Street crosses Darlinghurst Road. These days the Cross City Tunnel toll road runs beneath this spot, and a high-rise building asserts itself where blue sky once was. The area immediately around the bus stop was dusty, with some rubble: a neglected spot with a semi-derelict bus shelter where junkies would shoot up.

As I walked across the overpass, on the pedestrian pavement, I saw Marc Hunter and I recognised him at once. Marc had been the lead singer of Dragon, a New Zealand band who achieved chart success in the late ‘70s. Like almost every other teen in Australia, I watched the TV show Countdown every Sunday evening, and I knew Marc Hunter as a very tall, willowy exotic, with strong features and fierce green eyes, whose costume was influenced by ‘70s glam rock and prefigured the New Romantics of the early ‘80s. Which is to say, Marc dressed somewhere between Pirates of the Caribbean and the Matrix. (On this day he was dressed down.) I knew the words to his hits, I could name bandmates, I could visualise their publicity posters. I hadn’t seen them play live. I didn’t yet know that a Dragon live show was stronger, more menacing and wilder than their pop hits might suggest.

I did know that Marc was no longer with Dragon. I knew he had been sacked by the band, who included his older brother Todd, in consequence of his drug and alcohol abuse and his unpredictable behaviour. I knew he’d released a solo album called Fiji Bitter. I knew he had spent some months in London, and travelling, and that he had only very recently returned. It’s possible I’d read an update in the paper that week.

So I had the advantage. I knew something about Marc Hunter. What he saw was a young girl in boots, striding towards him.

As I walked past, he said, “You’re very pretty.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

“If you were offered money, would you pose for Playboy?”

I considered, watching him.

“It’s just that we have a friend, a friend of our band, who was offered money to pose for Playboy.”

Playboy had launched its Australian imprint in February 1979. Media magnate Kerry Packer secured the rights and launched it as Australian Playboy, through Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), his magazine stable.

I gave the proposition a moment’s thought. “No,” I replied.

“Why not?” Marc asked me.

“Because I don’t know who I want to be later in life. I might want to go into politics” I said.

Marc reflected on this, and smiled.

I don’t know who raised the prospect of sex. Probably Marc. That would be a typical Marc gambit: say something outrageous, throw someone way off guard, and see how they react, how they reassemble.

I reacted the way I always have: by going on the offensive.

“If you want to have sex, we can do it here and now,” I countered, doing my update of a film noir femme. “Look. There’s a bus shelter.”

Marc backed right down. “My friends are collecting me any minute,” he said. “Their car will be along any minute now. Perhaps another time.”

We nodded at each other, and I walked on.

The next night I was partying at the Manzil Room, the legendary (and tiny) Kings Cross venue that served as a late night hang for musos. I think I was with Cold Chisel band members. Marc walked in with his partner Annie Burton, a well-known Sydney-based rock music writer, whose flatmate at the time, Jenny Hunter-Brown, another well-known rock writer, was Todd Hunter’s ex-wife and had recently begun a relationship with Cold Chisel’s Don Walker.

Marc was wearing a jaunty peaked cap, a Robin Hood hat. As I was introduced to him, he doffed his cap and gave me a slight bow. His eyes sparkled. Marc loved games. Score 1 to me.

I became a rock music writer. Dragon – without Marc – split up in December 1979. In 1982 the band re-formed – with Marc – to pay off debts. In 1984 they released an album, Body and the Beat, that was worthy of their talents. The single, Rain, was a joyous burst of energy co-written by Todd Hunter and his partner Johanna Piggott, who had played together over 1980/81 in the indie pop band XL Capris. (Todd had sounded me out, briefly, one night in the Manzil Room, for a job as the band’s wardrobe mistress.)

In 1985, keyboards player Paul Hewson died.

I did not like Paul Hewson. We had clashed. I’m not going into that story here. What was significant to this story, my story of Marc Hunter as I knew him, is that Paul’s death affected Marc deeply.

After Paul’s death the tabloids went wild. Perhaps not coincidentally, the next Dragon single was Speak No Evil. Reviewing that single, I pondered in print: “Is Marc Hunter going to sound 22 forever?”

Next time we met Marc remembered. “Thank you, “ he said. After his death, from throat cancer, at age 44, a collection of his solo recordings was released under the title Forever Young.

I was assigned to write a cover story on Dragon for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I put a lot of effort into writing that story. I had, if anything, an over-abundance of material, given Dragon’s astonishing – and tragic – history. And Marc had opened his heart to me. He had talked with little prompting about Paul Hewson, the band’s earliest days, their hardships, their reputation, their aspirations, his temperament. He spoke with passion. I remember him saying, with feeling, that rock’n’roll is designed to strip performers of poise. His heroes were the great interpreters of American popular song, performers like Ella Fitzgerald, whose poise seemed effortless.

The Hunter brothers contributed two pieces of life advice I continue to use as touchstones. The occasion was a Dragon gig at Sydney University. I had arrived early, backstage, and I did not know their road-crew. I felt their crew were disrespectful to me. When Todd arrived, I bleated a protest.

“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,” Todd advised.

Marc arrived. He looked at me appraisingly. “Stick out your tits and walk.”

When I feel someone’s trying to put me down, I recall that line: “Stick out your tits and walk.”

There are things I’m not including as I write. There were moments between Marc and his partner I witnessed, and moments between Marc and his girlfriends, that are nobody’s business. What was curious to me is that Marc seemed unconcerned when I blundered into his personal conversations. He was alternately completely calm, or amused.

The only time Marc savaged me was once in 1988, and he was so right. I had become embroiled in a quasi-cult, a “personal effectiveness” organisation. Participants in one of that organisation’s programs were assigned the task of creating a project as a vehicle for their personal “transformation” – as a means to “breakthrough”. Several participants threw their energies into a project designed to bring together members of Sydney’s Indigenous communities with white Sydneysiders. The key event was a fundraiser rock concert headlined by Dragon.

I danced all afternoon. The gig was great. Everything was cool until I mentioned backstage how (as I saw it) that concert had come about. How some of its organisers were part of this quasi-cult.

Marc never cared for cool. He exploded.

“You mean, this is part of SOMEONE’S FUCKING SELF-TRANSFORMATION?” he roared.

He was furious. He lashed out at me as an idiot for being involved with that group. Like I said, he was so right.

I’m glad that was not the end of our story.

Eighteen months later, my life had imploded. The quasi-cult had wreaked a reverse transformation. Instead of breakthrough, I was in massive breakdown. I was a danger to myself. I made painful plans to return to Melbourne.

This was the hardest time of my life – it has competition, but I think it was the hardest. I gained a lot of weight and was acutely depressed.

A short while before the sale of my home was completed and my belongings packed, I walked along a pavement and saw, through glass windows, Marc seated at a restaurant table, watching me walk towards him. He waved me across. He gestured for me to come inside and join him.

Marc was eating lunch with a friend who worked for a top booking agency, a woman I didn’t know. We had a conversation that felt odd, with this woman across the table, oblivious as she was to the emotional subtext. I was dissolving in the slough of alienation, evaporating.

Tenderly, Marc reached across the table and took my hands in his. He drew my hands towards him.

“So highly strung,’ he crooned. He paused. “So highly strung.”

Then, still holding my hands, he said: “You are a fine-bred race-horse.”

I nodded, unconvinced.

He held eye contact, and repeated softly: “You are a fine-bred race-horse. Never forget that.”

I’ve never forgotten.


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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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Cheap Poem, Winking – for Doc Neeson (4 June 2014)

Doc Neeson Elly McDonald

Doc Neeson / The Angels 1981 in Adelaide Photo by Eric Algra

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

golden-star

I never slept with Doc Neeson. Not that he wasn’t a charismatic man. Not that we didn’t share moments that felt intimate.

Doc is dead. Doc died today. It’s been months coming, but I cannot say the words. I hadn’t seen him since 1985. My memories of who Doc was are necessarily subjective, and partial to the point of being atomic fragments. But Doc made a powerful impact in my life. As I grow old – my vanity says, as I grow older – I realise the men I loved are the men I never slept with. Doc was, is, someone I loved.

We met in August 1979. I was enrolled at Monash University but spending all my time at the student radio station, locked in a DJ booth, smoking dope and spinning the first LP by The Police. I had fallen into doing radio interviews with touring bands, who included Talking Heads and Doctor Feelgood but also Australian acts like Cold Chisel and the Angels. The touring Australian bands stayed at the Diplomat Hotel in St Kilda and played gigs at St Kilda’s Crystal Ballroom. My Angels interview at the Diplomat was with Angels’ drummer Buzz Bidstrup (then calling himself “Buzz Throckman”), and, I think, Angels’ lead guitarist Rick Brewster and bassist Chris Bailey.

I don’t think Rick’s brother, Angels’ rhythm guitarist John Brewster, was there that day. I’d be confident Doc was not – but then, when and where did he tell me about his interest in the Black Theatre of Prague, its lighting effects and puppetry, and about his time at Flinders University, where, during Doc’s student days, my mother was a senior lecturer in Sociology?

Somewhere in a box in my parents’ garage there still exists the cassette of that interview. I played it to a man a few months later who commented quietly, “You sound scared.”

I showed up at the Diplomat lugging the biggest, clumsiest cassette recorder ever. It had two mini speakers – and by mini, I mean the size of wombats. Buzz and Rick were curious. “Are you setting up for feedback?” Rick asked. Buzz pulled a mini-cassette recorder out of his jeans’ pocket, the size of a cigarette pack: “Have you thought about getting one of these?”

Buzz tells me he remembers that interview. I don’t flatter myself when I say I’m not surprised.

Maybe I first met Doc backstage at a gig, maybe that night. I don’t remember at all. The first Angels’ gig I actually remember was at the Stage Door Tavern in Sydney, the first week after I moved from Melbourne to Sydney in September 1979. The bill was all bands booked through the hot agency, Dirty Pool: INXS, who’d moved to Sydney about that time – must have been one of their very first gigs; Matt Finish, whose lead singer and writer Matt Moffitt was a talent who achieved minor success but died young; Mi-Sex, a New Zealand band then enjoying a Top 40 hit (“Com-pu-pu-pu-pu-pu-com-pu-ter GAMES!”); and, top of the bill, the Angels.

I’ve just realised all four of those bands’ frontmen are now dead.

The Angels at the time were the top live act in the country. They had broken through with their 1978 album Face To Face and were touring in support of their third LP, No Exit. My favourite Angels’ songs date from those albums: After The Rain, Take A Long Line, Straight Jacket, Love Takes Care, I Ain’t the One… everything on Face To Face. Their live show was extraordinary, with Doc’s legendary frenetic performance and its dark twin in Rick Brewster’s entirely impassive figure, nonchalantly tossing off riffs that rang in my head and rebounded in crystalline spirals. For me, Rick’s guitar was musically analogous to the castles of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria; I think of Rick’s playing as baroque on speed. Though speed was not his drug of choice. (In about 1986 I met Rick in the street and he claimed not to recognise me. We’d slept together a few times, so I was stung. “Must be the drugs,” I’d laughed. “What drugs?” replied Rick. “I don’t do drugs.”)

Doc’s intense kinetics and Rick’s cardboard cut-out guitarist were flooded and swathed and swamped and lashed by vertical bars of blue and white lighting, then red, then yellow I think too, constantly changing, owing much to experimental theatre and German Expressionist film. The Angels’ lighting man was a rangy, laconic introvert named Ray Hawkins, who had done a university thesis on ‘Sydney arts bohemians of the 1930s and ‘40s”. I asked him – backstage, at a Hitmen gig – what that had involved. “Talking to a lot of old artsy Sydney bohemians,” Ray deadpanned. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “They are terrific.”

I realise I am now the approaching the age Ray’s Sydney bohemians were when he interviewed them. The rock musicians I met in 1979 have reached that age, if they’ve lived this long.

The Stagedoor Tavern that first night was crowded so close it was hard to move. I couldn’t see the young Michael Hutchence perform, couldn’t see any of his INXS bandmates: the crowd obscured the stage. I could hear Michael, though. I never had the best ears of the rock critics based in Sydney at that time, or the “best” musical “taste”, but I knew at once Michael and INXS were special.

That night, the Angels ruled. After the show, I stood near the mixer desk and watched as band members filed out through the audience (why would they do that? Memory is nothing but questions!) I remember what I wore: black suede strappy stilettoes; a tight black pencil skirt, from Target; a black short sleeve shirt; beaten gold hoop earrings from the Philippines; a lot of black kohl around my eyes, and copper-red lipstick. When Rick Brewster walked towards where I stood I stared him straight in the eyes, without smiling, almost hostile, and he winked.

A month or three later and it was New Year’s Eve, with the Angels playing on the steps at the Sydney Opera House. A massive, roiling crowd completely filling the Opera House forecourts. I was getting man-handled, so I made my way to the tower where the mixing desk was perched and showed my homemade ID card where the masthead for rock magazine Roadrunner displayed my name as a contributing writer. The crew were kind and hoisted me up into their tower. As a result I had a perfect view when a champagne bottle hit Chris Bailey in the head and a beer can hit Doc Neeson. Chris died last year, from throat cancer. He was a gentle, courteous man with a lovely wry sense of humour.

I must have seen a score or more Angels gigs between New Year’s Eve 1980 and 1982, when Chris Bailey left the band. After Chris left, I never saw them live again. But I did see Doc on occasion socially. I have particularly fond memories of the night Doc tried to teach me to drive. I don’t know how we connected that night – did we coincide at the same Japanese restaurant? Saki was involved – but in the course of the evening we visited my Kings Cross flat, where Doc went straight for the fridge, which was empty, except for a lemon and some lipsticks.

“I see you don’t cook,” he correctly surmised.

“If you want to lose weight,” he continued, ‘There’s this product called spirulina. I stir a few teaspoons into a glass of water before I go onstage, to give me energy. It expands in your stomach and fills you up so you’re not hungry.”

I was thin and had no interest in losing weight. Doc was thin too. Whip thin. Whippet thin. I find it hard to take in photos of him as he looked in later life: puffy-faced, ruddy, fat – like a sad drag queen, with dyed black hair and eyebrows that looked plucked. I am certain it must have been painful for Doc to see how he looked, too. He was a performer; he had an ego. More than that: Doc was a handsome man – a dynamic, flirtatious, sexual man.

I remember him as he looked that night: so tall; his bright eyes blue; his hair a natural black, and strong; his long dark eyelashes and his crazed, cunning Irish smile, that smile like sunshine on hillside, emerging from cloud.

That night, Doc tried to teach me to drive. I told him how my dad tried to teach me in an empty parking lot outside Safeway on a Sunday (no Sunday shopping in those days, so no cars). When I reversed, a large metal object – a part of the car – had dropped out of the undercarriage, leaving me and dad staring at each other, aghast. So Doc proposed teaching me himself. He had a beat-up car with manual gears and he’d show me how – in Kings Cross, Sydney’s nightclub quarter, on a chaotic, bustling Friday night. We were doing alright for about 100 metres, down Elizabeth Bay Road. We made it past the corner of Roslyn Street, almost made it to the Sebel Townhouse, home away from home for rock stars in Sydney. Outside the Sebel, there’s a hill. Okay – a bit of an incline. I pulled the hand-brake and it came away in my hand.

I will never forget the look on Doc’s face as I turned to him, holding the steering wheel with my right hand, the hand-brake loose in my left. I remember us giggling in the closed space of that small car, celebrating automotive malfunction on a night bright with the lights of Kings Cross.

The last time I saw Doc was in Kings Cross. It was 1985, just before I self-published a small book of poems, outside what was once the Plaza Hotel. We talked about writing, about my planned book. Doc told me George Bernard Shaw wrote a quota of 2500 words every morning. I was hungry. I don’t know how that came up in conversation but Doc produced a $20 note and insisted I take it. I didn’t want to. He insisted. He said he was commissioning me to write him a poem. He was wearing black stovepipe jeans. I was wearing loose black cotton ‘Chinese’ pants and a faded indigo short sleeve shirt. He smiled at me.

Last year, when Doc was sick and his friends were raising money for his treatment costs, I repaid that $20. Twenty dollars is nothing to repay Doc for how he contributed to my life, in that vivid time, when we were both young.

The poem? Not one of my best. But here it is, and it’s for Doc:

Cheap Poem, Winking

For B Neeson

As a shadow, she’s much bolder
than I – looms much larger
takes more risks, stretches out and
intrudes: she
ignores bolted gates, and enters
other people’s homes; has no fear
of anything concrete, anything private
anything closed. Unafraid
and irreverent, she touches
those I fear, and smothers
those I love
has no shame, no sense of place
reaches out: no restraint
In a mirror she’s much sharper
than myself – she’s much
lighter, more quick; so much more
the creature of light
being of colour
of angles, so much more
somebody’s dream, someone’s
image – a reflection, my opposite number
laughing back at me, wherever I
look: winking up
from whatever I make
I create
spotlit flirt, knowing
on paper
she’s more brilliant, so much braver
much more startling, more broad
for your dollar
(more a tease)
more alive, even disguised
even dismissed, even derided and
tossed off as a
cheap poem


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Reconstructing honours (2 June 2014)

In 1985 I was longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Young Writers Award. Really.

I state this with astonishment as until approximately 2am this morning I had entirely forgotten this fact – and I wonder how this can be. I wonder not only how I could forget completely (and for how many years?), but I wonder how it happened at all.

This much I recall.

In 1985 the sun came out. I remember that distinctly. For some years prior, from late 1981, I had existed in a vortex of panic and despair. Paradoxically, I remember all too clearly how that came about – those painful spirals of terror and shame. I won’t conjure their memory here. What that dark energy did serve to do was pump the poetry of out of me. Literally. Across that period I wrote poems, short but frequent, and intense.

A lot of young people write poetry and a lot of it is hideously embarrassing in retrospect. My juvenilia has its share of junk. But it also threw up poems that I can read today and I recognise their impact. They were short on craft, devoid of wisdom, but a few packed a wallop.

In 1983 I began submitting poems to literary journals. Truth is, I didn’t mind the boomeranged rejections. I was lonely, and those return envelopes took care that my mail box was always full. At that point I equated rejection with relationship. But then the odd thing started. I started to open letters informing me my poems were accepted. I had the bizarre experience of having one poem accepted by four literary journals to whom I’d simultaneously sent it. Unethical, one editor huffed.

One morning, I now recall, I opened a letter advising me I’d been longlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award. It was the Year of Youth – or the Year of Young People? – and the Awards featured a Young Writers section. I remember walking Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross, Sydney, where I lived, past the landmark El Alamein Fountain, tears spouting from my eyes so the fountain blurred.

I asked the psychiatrist I dated that week, is it possible to cry tears of pure joy? No, he answered. Tears always indicate pain.

What, specifically, had I done, to be longlisted? I was in the process of self-publishing a collection of my poems, disingenuously titled Other People’s Pain. But the book had not yet appeared. I’ve googled the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, in hopes there might be something in cyberspace that might assist my memory. I see the Awards as they exist today in most categories invite entries. I realise that’s how it was then, too.

I submitted entries. I think I submitted a short story and a short television script. The short story was titled Old Angus and it was published in Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, The Australian. I remember the Chief Sub-editor congratulating me on its readability. Most of the stories, he told me, were crap. But mine told a story.

Old Angus was a fictionalised account of my grandfather’s death. I wrote it for my father. After Old Angus was published in The Australian, the national radio broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, asked me to adapt it as a radio play, which in the event they chose not to produce. Their rejection letter stated that on reconsideration they realised the narrative did not lend itself to radio dramatization. Which strikes me as odd, since the story is a conversation between two men, and dialogue seems peculiarly suited to an aural medium. But, no mind. I didn’t mind then.

The other piece I entered for the Premier’s Award was a short script for television titled Callie. Callie is a pseudonym I’ve used for myself on and off over many years. It’s also the name of a goldmine in Western Australia, a goldmine that came good spectacularly on the stock markets in late 1991, showering me with funds to embark on a bucket list world tour. If 1985 was the year the sun came out, Callie was the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. But that’s another story.

I wrote the TV script titled Callie as an assignment I did as a student in a pilot program course through what was then called the Australian Film & Television School (later the Australian Film Radio & Television School – AFRTS). The course was a pilot for a Scriptwriting By Correspondence program, and I completed it over two years, from 1983 to ’85. The Callie assignment asked us to take our zodiac sign and write a character-driven piece that dramatized the qualities associated with that zodiac. I was born Aries. Aries are, notoriously, impulsive, vain, courageous, reckless, intemperate, loyal, irresponsible, loveable. I remember I had Callie pick a jumper off a sales rack and think it a bargain at $65, then find she’s misread the price tag and it’s actually $650. I did that once. Wishful thinkers, we Aries. Fantasists.

I’m fairly sure it’s Callie I owe for my NSW Premier’s Literary Award nod.

What I also remember is that even though it was the Year of Youth (or possibly the Year of Young People), the young writers longlisted for the Young Writer’s Award were not invited to the Awards Dinner. I hope and assume those shortlisted were.

I remember that particularly because literary columnist Don Anderson had a piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald about what a rort the event was. He wrote satirically and sarcastically about it being an evening of bored and drunken literary types, chucking bread rolls at each other. I promptly wrote to the organisers pointing out that while the literary types who float round the literary circuit might be jaded, the Young Writers might have found it inspiring to attend the function, especially as the year – 1985, the year the sun came out – purported to honour them. The organisers wrote back saying there wasn’t room for everyone.

I like Don Anderson. Scratch that: I Iove Don Anderson. As Associate Professor at the Department of English at Sydney University, he was my English Literature tutor the following year, in 1986. He was a mentor, supporter and friend to me. But I still think it sad he wrote a gonzo piece about drunks when he could have written up the young writers. Hard to blame him, though, for failing to do that when the young writers were invisible, indeed, were possibly not present.

So the evening that might have proved unforgettable passed like any other and eventually the entire episode was forgotten.

Until tonight. I can still how the El Alamein fountain looked, in the sun, viewed through tears.

El Alamein fountain