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.
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.
The best memories, the ones that made me
Laugh. And smile. And grow pensive.
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.