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.
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, during treatment for brain cancer, suffering side effects of the treatments, his hair still its trademark black. 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
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
spotlit flirt, knowing
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