Elly McDonald

Writer


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Jimmy Barnes and me: Working Class Boy, Working Class Man, and the clueless killer fat chick

Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2017)

Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes (Harper Collins 2016)

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A boy and a girl are seated on the top step of a flight of stairs in a grand old house. She is 19, he’s five years older, almost to the day. Their knees are touching.

He leans close towards her and says, “You’re a killer.”

She is dismayed. “A killer?”

His turn to be taken aback. “It’s a compliment,” he reassures her. “A killer. I think you’re fantastic.”

The girl adores him. She still adores him 37 years later, even though she’s barely seen or spoken to him since December 1983. A chance meeting on a Kings Cross street in 1985, a moment backstage in 1991, a note in about 2001, another moment backstage in 2007, then a book signing in St Kilda in 2017.

The boy is Jimmy Barnes, known and loved these days as an Australian rock music icon both as a solo artist and as lead singer in the band Cold Chisel. The girl is me, and the book Jim autographed for me at a book signing yesterday is Working Class Man, his second volume of autobiography, following his memoirs of a brutal childhood, Working Class Boy.

Working Class Boy is a gut-wrenching account of a childhood filled with neglect and violence, of a young boy struggling to survive a dysfunctional Glaswegian Scot family who migrated to Australia in 1961 and moved around Adelaide’s tougher, working class suburbs. It is compelling reading, beautifully written, with a fluency, passion and wit that surprises me not at all from the Jimmy Barnes I knew. The voice is authentic. I could hear him speaking in the written words.

I loved every page, every paragraph, of Working Class Boy. Yes, some parts horrified me. Some made me cry. Some helped me understand things we had (and have) in common I hadn’t understood before.

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I was born in 1961. My family moved to Adelaide in 1963. We lived in what’s known as the “leafy green suburbs”, the pleasant suburbs housing the professional classes. We lived at the base of the foothills overlooking the plain Adelaide fills, in a place called Glen Osmond, just up the road from the Arkaba Hotel, where Jim and his brother John roomed for a time as young adults.

My dad had Scottish heritage – his name was Donald Angus McDonald – and my great-grandparents were Gaelic speakers. They came from south-west Scotland, and/or from the isles. Some of them were very probably Irish migrants to south-west Scotland, like Jim’s folk. Some of them were Irish from County Galway, the heart of the bilingual Gaeltacht. As best I can tell, they were all heavy drinkers.

Although my father grew up in a nouveau riche mini-castle and his father was a big man in his country town, a self-made man with a successful business, my father grew up with family violence. He very seldom alluded to it. It was only when he was dying, earlier this year, that in his last weeks he fleshed out a little of the kind of violence he witnessed between his parents. Within our family we’d all always known there was something dark and frightening, some things unexplained, but we’d never heard details. It was painful.

Hearing my father recount in plain terms what he’d been subjected to as a child helped me understand some of my dad’s own more erratic behaviour, and his drinking. I could also clearly see, reading Jim’s book, more reasons my teenage self felt an affinity with Jimmy Barnes: if I wrote a list of my dad’s best qualities, and his worse, then wrote a list of Jimmy’s best and worst qualities as I saw them, the lists would be identical. They were cut from the same cloth.

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As soon as I finished reading Working Class Boy, I posted on Facebook:

Belatedly, I’ve finally read Jimmy Barnes’ memoir of his childhood, Working Class Boy, a remarkable work. On a personal level, there was so much in the voice, the reflections, the humour, the insights, the choices, the LANGUAGE that brought the Jim I once knew present. Which was a pleasure for me.

On a writerly level, I am blown away. Writing a coherent narrative takes skill. No surprise Jim is a great story teller. No surprise he’s articulate and rock-my-socks-off intelligent. But writing skills come through practice. I hadn’t realised he was so practiced. (Two previous attempts totaling c.60,000 words before a 100,000 dam-burst.)

Writing dialogue takes a great ear. Jim has that. In spades.

On a wisdom level – I always knew Jim as super-astute, with an off the charts EQ, but the maturity he demonstrates here through his writing has me worried. I’m only five years younger. Can I get that wise, so soon?

Jim’s wisdom is hard won. I would not wish to travel the road he has to acquire it. God bless him.

I am so eager now to read the follow-up, Working Class Man. This will be where I start to recognise more people, places, situations. I did meet Jim’s mum, his sister Linda and his brother John [also his siblings Alan and Dorothy, in passing], but I didn’t get to know them; arguably a lot of the people I met in the next stage of Jim’s life are also people I never truly ‘knew’, but we did share experiences and we share witness.

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I knew Working Class Man would cover the period when I knew Cold Chisel – the band’s last four years, the height of their success and their ferocious last year or two – and there was so much I never understood about what went down, what happened between specific individuals, why they behaved the ways they did across that time. I wanted to understand, because I felt I’d been part of the emotional turmoil, that it affected me, and it had blindsided me.

And now I have read Working Class Man.

Early in the tale I meet friends we had in common, when Jim and I both still lived in Adelaide, moving in different circles but, in Adelaide, a large country town with zero degrees of separation, interconnected.

We share some history, this town and I
And I can’t stop that long forgotten feeling…

(Flame Trees – lyrics Don Walker)

Here on the pages is my friend Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel’s first manager, and his wife Helen. Helen taught me to go-go dance when I was six or seven. She was a nurse with a close-knit group of bff’s including Mary, one of my earliest babysitters, who became one of our family’s dearest friends. Through Mary I knew Helen and through Helen I met Vince.

Vince when I met him was a minor pop star, sharing vocals in a band called The Valentines with a cheeky singer called Bon Scott. Bon Scott went on to sing with an Adelaide band called Fraternity, later fronted by Jim Barnes (with his brother John on drums), while Bon went on to front AC/DC. That’s Adelaide for you: the city of churches and serial killers, the town that spawned Bon Scott , Vince Lovegrove, Cold Chisel – and, less remarkably, me.

This is a review – or more correctly, a response – to Jimmy Barnes’ books Working Class Boy and Working Class Man. For a few years there his story and mine dovetail, so forgive me indulging in “sentimental bullshit”, settling in to play “Do you remember so and so?”, as Cold Chisel’s principle songwriter Don Walker put it in his lyrics to Flame Trees:

I’m happy just to sit here at a table with old friends
and see which one of us can tell the biggest lies

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I first met Jim Barnes in Melbourne. He was standing at the edge of a stage in a St Kilda venue, alongside his bandmate Don Walker, staring down at me. I was staring up, in my Anne of Green Gables floral-sprigged mauve frock, my hair the straggling remains of a dropped-out perm, my chubby upper arms straining at the cuffs of short puffed sleeves.

“Who’s in this band?” I demanded.

I was enrolled in Law/Arts at Monash University, then considered a second-tier suburban university, an offer I’d taken up over the offer from the more prestigious Melbourne University Law School due to some forlorn desire to be just a regular suburban girl. I wasn’t succeeding. I was a misfit, and I spent my days smoking dope and spinning the turnstile at the student radio station, 3MU.

3MU had lined up an interview with Jim and Don’s band Cold Chisel. Except no one owned having set up the interview and no one wanted to conduct an interview. I volunteered. Now here I was standing beneath a stage during a sound check.

The next time Cold Chisel came to Melbourne I interviewed Don and Cold Chisel drummer Steve Prestwich in their hotel room in St Kilda. I wrote it up as an article for the Adelaide-based rock magazine, Roadrunner.

In the hotel room, Don Walker considered me as if I were brain-gym puzzle. I asked Don what he was thinking.

“I’m wondering what social background you come from,” he said.

I told him my father was a director of a household name corporation and my mother was an academic. His mother was an academic too, but Don didn’t mention that.

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The band put my name on the free list at the door to see them play one of Melbourne’s big beer-barn suburban venues, and at Don Walker’s invitation I joined them in the band room after the show. It was the tail end of Chisel’s 1979 Set Fire To The Town tour, promoting Cold Chisel’s second album, Breakfast at Sweethearts. The band joked it should be called the Let’s Get Fat tour. Sure enough, Jim did not look well. He was puffy,lunshaven, his eyes were glazed, his skin a bad colour, smeared with a greasy sheen, and he was out of it, off his face on god knows what. He nodded bleary-eyed recognition to me.

When Jim was functioning, which seemed to me most of the time, he was funny and bright and kind. Over the next year, after I moved to Sydney and started writing regularly for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine), I saw a lot of him. Briefly, he shared a house with Vince Lovegrove, just around the corner from my place. Then he moved into that grand old house where we sat together at the top of the stairs, also not more than a few minutes walk from my small flat. Bandmates referred to that house as “Jim’s castle”, which puts me in mind of the grand country house my dad grew up in.

Jim and I both lived in Paddington, an inner-city Sydney suburb then in the process of gentrification. Boundary Road formed the boundary between Paddington and Sydney’s red light district Kings Cross. In those days I alternated between dressing in jeans and flannel shirts and dressing in what might kindly be described as outdoor lingerie. It wasn’t uncommon for hoons visiting Kings Cross from the outer suburbs to pick up prostitutes or bash trans people to mistake me for a hooker. Sometimes they were menacing. One time I was pursued: I ran, but they ran faster. I knew the short cuts and ducked down a hidden through-walk. I knew I couldn’t make it to my own home before they spotted where I’d gone, so I ran through the wrought iron gates to Jim’s grand house and hid in the portico by his front door. I watched these boys trying to track where I’d gone. They sniffed around like hellhounds then finally gave up. My heart was pounding.

Jim and his housemates were out at the time. That night I told him the newspaper headlines would not have looked good: ‘Girl raped on rock star’s doorstep.’

Jim grinned and shot back, ‘While rock star at the beach!’

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Elly in 1983, the year Cold Chisel split

When I first met Chisel I was a fat teen with binge eating disorder, post-anorexic. As one venue promoter correctly surmised, you could write my sexual history on the head of a pin. The surfers, apprentice plumbers and neophyte heroin addicts my popular older sister hung out with had zero interest in me. Being seen with a fat chick was an embarrassment.

So when Don Walker referred to me, approvingly, as an “earth mother”, I failed to hear the compliment and was mortified. When I walked through Kings Cross and saw a porn mag titled Deviations featuring a special issue on fat chicks, my immediate thought was: “That’s me. I’m a sexual deviation.” (My eating disorder did my friendship with Don no favours. I had it in my head that Don only liked thin women, and, since I valued Don’s good opinion, that meant that whenever I felt self-conscious I’d get defensive, even semi-hostile, around him.)

When Jimmy Barnes told me I “looked the way a woman should look”, it was the first time I’d heard male affirmation.

More important, and certainly more intimate: Jim taught me how to punch.

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Jim met and fell in love with Jane, the woman he married, not long after we met. But his relationship with Jane was turbulent. He did a lot of drugs. He drank a lot. When I complained I didn’t have money to buy groceries, Jimmy told me I could live on speed and booze. He must have liked that line, because he repeats it in Working Class Man. I didn’t have Jim’s constitution. I couldn’t afford groceries so I lost weight. Men started taking more sexual interest in me. I stayed cautious.

At Vince’s house, the lead singer of a young support band tried, politely, to chat me up. I was so unused to being chatted up and I couldn’t deal. I flung helpless looks towards Jim. He laughed.

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Jimmy Barnes with Vince Lovegrove and Vince and Helen’s daughter Holly, Jane’s sister Jep Mahoney at front

Jim writes of Cold Chisel in Working Class Man that “These four guys would eventually become my family. The family I always needed.” With much less cause, I too regarded Cold Chisel as family. Although my birth family, living in Melbourne, were nowhere near as explosive as Jim’s birth family was, as a family unit we were not, across those years, in good shape. My father accused me years later of choosing to live first interstate then overseas in order to be far away from my family. He was not wrong, though it hurt me to admit it.

For me, Cold Chisel were the big brothers I never had.

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Jim could be protective. There was a night when white powders were being passed around and when I reached for my turn, Jim slapped my hand.

“Not that! That’s smack,” he warned me, sharply.

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The huge breakthrough album for Cold Chisel was East, released May 1980. Before it came out I watched Chisel rehearse for the album tour and I remember I was irritable. I recall Jim being unimpressed when I criticised the harmonies on Twist’n’Shout, so maybe that was it.

In the train on the way back to Kings Cross with Don Walker and Don’s partner, the rock writer Jenny Hunter-Brown, I remember Don looking at me like I was a toddler in need of a pacifier and handing me a Walkman, a small cassette player with mini-headphones.

“Here,” he said. “Listen to this.”

It was East, the first track: Standing On The Outside. I was so shocked by how slick and tuneful those first bars sounded, but I didn’t want to let go of being grumpy and give Don the thumbs up. I listened with a stiff face to the whole track, then took the earphones out.

“What do you think?” Don asked.

I think I said, “It’s good. It’s very good.”

Cld_Chisel_East

In Working Class Man, Jimmy writes that when Don presented Standing On the Outside to the band,

“I felt like I was singing a song that came from somewhere deep inside my soul. I had been standing on the outside all my life, never being allowed to taste or touch the world that was just outside my reach.”

Jim writes that on East, Don “came up with a lot of songs about outsiders. We were outsiders, and we were surrounded by outsiders and misfits. There was something about the outcasts from society that fascinated him. Maybe that’s why he liked me.”

Me too. Maybe that’s why Don liked me when he met me, too.

Jim asked me which of the songs from the East live playlist I liked best. I told him Tomorrow (the set opener) and Star Hotel.

Jimmy met my eyes: “Me too”, he said.

In Working Class Man he writes, “Star Hotel let me sing about not being good enough, not being wanted or worth anything, and wanting to tear down the world because of it.”

Until I read that line I didn’t realise this was the “me too” we shared. I came from a relatively privileged background, Jim came from what is sanitised as “disadvantage”. But we both had a fundamental sense of being worthless, and a desperate fear of being abandoned. We both had deep wells of anger and terror.

When Jim writes in Working Class Man about near hysteria at the prospect of being separated from Jane when she fell ill in America, I cried:

“The idea of being separated from Jane again made me feel sick. I couldn’t lose her. If I let her go now I might never see her again. I always had the feeling that I would end up alone. I didn’t deserve her. I couldn’t let her go. […] I was definitely hysterical now. I was crying.”

That is so precisely how I felt about being part of Chisel’s circle. I was terrified of being expelled. I felt that Jane didn’t like me, and I can’t blame her. At my fattest I once trod on her while wearing stilettoes. But not to make light of this (so to speak): it was not easy for Jane being married to Jim. Even then, there were so many hangers-on pressing for Jimmy’s time and attention, and some had no scruples about how to achieve that end. There were individuals hanging out with Chisel who Jane disliked and mistrusted, mostly with good reason. I didn’t try to see things from her perspective. I resented her for seemingly separating Jim from people who had been his friends – for separating him from me.

I hated watching Jim cease to be my friend, and I was beyond terrified to lose my friendship with Don, for much the same reasons Jim and the band valued him: because Don was the big brother of big brothers, the stable one, the calm, capable, trustworthy one, the one who made sure what needed to get done always did get done. What a burden Don shouldered.

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Cold Chisel, with Don Walker at centre

After I spoke with Jimmy at the book signing this week, I spoke with Jane. I leaned in close and said, “Thank you for keeping him alive.”

Jane instinctively pushed back, saying “It wasn’t me.”

“I know,” I replied. “He did that. But you both did that. You did it together.”

She half-nodded, warily. I know better than to put the burden of someone’s survival, of someone’s thriving, onto their partner. I asked if I could hug her. She wasn’t keen.

“After 30 years…” she began. I hugged her anyway.

I was over-emotional, and it’s not right to force another person’s emotional space. But for years I’ve recognised I was wrong about Jane. Jim ceased to be my friend after he and Jane married and committed to a life together, but Jane was and is, it seems to me, very likely the best thing that’s happened to Jimmy Barnes.

You made his life,” I whispered, as I hugged her.

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Years after Jimmy left Cold Chisel, years after Cold Chisel broke up, I was living in London. It came to my attention Vince Lovegrove was living in London too.  I made contact and we talked on the phone.

Vince told me he’d worked with Jim when Jimmy Barnes toured Europe, and that Jim had not been in a good place.

“He’s a mess,” Vince told me. “He is drugging and fucking around and he’s filled with self-loathing. He can’t bear to look at the man in the mirror.”

This was not long after Michael Hutchence’s death and I was filled with fear that, like the INXS frontman, Jim might kill himself, intentionally or otherwise. I was in denial. I was angry at Vince for being the bearer of bad news, and for a moment – a long moment – I believed he was exaggerating the mess that was Jimmy Barnes because he was jealous of how much Jimmy meant to me, and because by exaggerating the depths of Jimmy’s personal decline it might distract from his own decline.  This long moment – this extended denial – contributed to me not following up the plans Vince and I made to meet up.

I regret that now. Vince was killed in a car crash in early 2012. Friends are valuable. Friends don’t cease to matter because years have passed.

Do you know I reach to you
from later times…

(Letter to Alan, lyrics by Don Walker)

I now know, after reading Jimmy’s account of his solo career and life across the years when we didn’t see each other, that Vince was not exaggerating. I now know that Jim very nearly did kill himself, in circumstances not unlike the circumstances in which Michael Hutchence died.

I am profoundly grateful my friend is alive.

I am profoundly grateful he wrote this harrowing book, painful as it’s been for me to read. I am grateful to his family and the friends who love him, who have been by his side.

I know Jimmy Barnes didn’t write this book so that people he wouldn’t recognise in the street could reminisce 35 years later about their brushes with fame. Seems to me he wrote it for himself, yes, as therapy; and also for the people who he loves, the people he perhaps feels he owes explanations; for people who are children of family violence, children of alcoholics and addicts; and for the people who share experiences similar to his of addiction, self-loathing, the fear of abandonment, the terror of loss.

When Jimmy was a child, he used to run away from his family, all the way down to Glenelg Beach, and watch the world from the jetty. I did something similar. I had a beach where I’d climb over a clifftop guard rail, curl up in a small sandstone depression in the cliff, and watch the sun set into the waters of Gulf St Vincent.

Jim didn’t write this book for me (or just for me). But I open the front leaf of my copy of Working Class Boy, and I see in Jim’s scrawl

Jimmy_Barnes_autograph

And I am grateful.

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Review: Shots (2009) by Don Walker

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Don Walker (second from left, seated) with Cold Chisel

At its best, Shots is prose poetry:

He’s got himself up in this smock affair over the top of coloured jeans and a scarf collection very few of which are scarves, all of them bestowed, nothing there that ain’t worn as a joke. He has real crow-black hair, dull with a couple of orange patches burnt into the sides. He can be very funny but when his eyes are pinned he’s cold as a crocodile. He’s seen death and he knows it’s any moment and not far off and no fun and he’s back here he knows for a short time and he’s getting as much of everything as he can catch while he can still move and he ain’t moving […]

At its best, Shots is social history, or social satire, or Bildungsroman:

‘Who do you wish to see,’ says the same secretary and I tell her ‘Frank’ like I’ve told her so many times before. ‘Who do I say is calling?’ That’s to tell me no matter how many times I come in here I ain’t worth mentioning. I tell her again. ‘Ya got an appointment?’ she says and I say, ‘I have to pick up a cheque.’ ‘Frank’s too busy today unless you’ve got an appointment,’ she says. I do this every week. I got no dignity now I need that money, so I’m pleading, ‘Could you just check with him, please?’ She wants to see a bit more begging before she tells me to sit down and she’ll see what she can do and then she sits there and does nothing, radiating contempt. When others come in she lights up a big smile for them, shows them through to Frank’s office, comes back – ‘Frank knows you’re here’ – then gets on the phone to a girlfriend, then lunchtime comes and Frank and his visitors pour out of the office and hit the top of the stairs without Frank noticing I’m there and they loudly head off somewhere to eat too much with a view of the river for a few hours then a girlfriend comes and collects the secretary and they head off for lunch, the girlfriend looks at me like I’m a mollusk that’s been dead a few days rotting somewhere inappropriate, they leave giggling, the girlfriend doesn’t ask the secretary who I am.’

At its best, Shots is lucid and explicit:

Back home the new record, East, is released, and goes better than anyone imagined. Success brings its comforts, though I don’t write as much. Looking back, that night in Paris was something of a high point. I was immortal till then. Maybe that’s the way it is for everyone. Immortal, and never knowing it, up until a certain point. Then a pin is pulled. Everything’s the same, but somewhere a clock begins winding down, and it can never be arrested. My companions and I, we ate and drank in remembrance and celebration, but over the next three days in London all profound flowerings were for me rendered meaningless, and many things besides. These days I’m a passenger, my whole being bent towards a little girl an ocean away. News of her came in a phone-call, then letters, first from London, then Johannesburg, then photos of a blonde, fragile-looking daughter.

Shots, I’m given to understand, refers to shots of liquor: short, strong, intoxicating gulps.

Certainly, the text is not quite sober. The typewriter has been drinking. There are filters casting shadow over every page, tonal filters of sepia and psychedelics. Was that Faulkner I detected in the rural opening sequences? Thomas Wolfe’s Depression New York a little later? Some Kerouac, some Bukowski, some Henry Miller? It’s not really my scene so it’s hard for me to nail. Stylistically, it seems to be a mélange of every blue mood from the Weimar Republic to Y2K; from art movements (Otto Dix and German Expressionism) to mid-century noir to late twentieth-century pop culture homage (Tom Waits?). Sequences set in red-light district hotels. Sequences set in specialist comics bookshops. Sequences set in nightclubs. Blade Runner in Kings Cross.

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Rudolf Schlichter, Hausvogteiplatz, 1925

There is a feel of early twentieth-century modernist art, the kind of art Goebbels labelled “degenerate” and that Cold Chisel referenced in the cover art for their album Twentieth Century. There are femmes fatales, hot to trot rich over-educated girls who knock on his hotel room door then, once undressed, perch on his bed with a “hot flushed face” while the boyfriend bangs on the locked door.

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Otto Dix, Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926

There are women who knock on his hotel room door and undress to reveal “cheap satin lingerie with suspenders and stockings and little bows etc.”

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Christian Schad, Self Portrait, 1927

There’s a recurring Girl who Walker calls “the Fritz Lang girl”. Those who knew Walker across the late ‘70s and ‘80s will know who she is. She’s foregrounded as someone “I love her now like a sister”, and in that hint, and in the throwaway “She’s got a sister”, a major relationship, a love, is ellided.

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Fritz Lang Girl, Metropolis, 1927

This is where my ‘I’ steps forward. Because I am not a neutral reader.

Maybe I’m a little pissed off he foregrounds people I didn’t care for and ellides people I did.

I think this role of hardboiled unmoved observer refusing to respond directly, relating to his world only obliquely, is a form of Romantic hero, a Bogart character: “You pays your money you takes your choices” – or, as I once put it to Don Walker, “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”

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Bogart taking his chances

When he writes, “I know to watch her and not make any move is the only thing that might possibly confuse her”, or “she’s pretty obvious with a lot of fluttering and rubbing up and I’m like a fence post ‘cause I take me fun in my own world not here”, or, “she’s right there she is not gunna leave so I’m getting bored and start thinking I wonder what her tits look like purely out of aesthetic curiosity”, I’m reminded of Don Walker as I knew him in 1980, complaining at a party about a woman who he said kept trying to talk to him and who would not, according to him, “get the message” that he was not interested. I asked him how he sent that message.

“I gave her a frosty look,” he told me.

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A frosty look from Bladerunner’s Deckard (replicant)

I told him a frosty look is not sufficient. I told him women might mistake that for his habitual expression. I told him he needed to be more direct.

I still think he needs to be more direct, not least in Shots.

I don’t understand his ellipticism. I never did. Don Walker has a particular view of the world that I can’t share. It’s not something I relate to.

I begged him that if ever he didn’t want me to talk to him, to be direct, to tell it to me straight. He looked puzzled.

“But you’re not a problem,” he said. “You don’t want anything.”

 

Three stories, told with thudding directness (but that would be me):

Story #1: In mid-1980 Don Walker and I had our first falling out. I didn’t know what I had done wrong. I demanded he tell me. After some rattling on my part Don told me a person who was a close friend of the band who I did not realise was a close friend of the band had told him I was overheard describing one of the band members’ girlfriends as “a moron”. I was distraught: because I did know that person was a “close friend of the band”; because I would not have said such a thing, even if I thought it, being terrified as I was of the band members’ girlfriends; and because it scared me to believe that Don would cut off our friendship on another person’s hearsay without telling me what I’d allegedly done ‘wrong’, and without giving me an opportunity to defend myself.

I sat down with Jim Barnes at Jim’s house and told him how upset I was. I asked Jim if Don had mentioned this incident to him.

“No,” Jim had answered quietly. “One thing about Don is he will never discuss that with any other person. I know Don. He would never mention it.”

He’d just end a friendship.

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Jim Barnes (far left) with Don Walker (next to Jim) and Cold Chisel

Story #2: About Paul Hewson – the bloke with the coloured jeans and the scarves in the quote at top. Don and Paul were at Benny’s nightclub in Potts Point, well after midnight, in 1984. My ‘friendship’ with Don by then was in tatters. Paul Hewson advised me to try the chili con carne on the menu. “Con carne”, he said, with relish, leaning too close in to my face. “It means with meat.” He smacked his lips. I did not look impressed. He changed tack. “Don obviously doesn’t like you much,” he said. I turned on my heel and left. But I waited outside, sitting on a low wall, so that when Paul and Don exited the nightclub I could block their path and hurl verbal abuse at Paul. He wilted. He cringed. Lots of people remember Paul fondly. I remember him for that night and I despise him. Don walked past fast with a frozen face.

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Paul Hewson (far left) with Dragon

Story #3: One day in late ’85 or ’86 as I was striding along Ward Avenue in Kings Cross I met Don Walker. This was not unusual. By this time relations were somewhat more cordial. We lived two minutes from each other, equidistant from the spot where we coincided on this occasion. What was unusual was that Don was walking very, very slowly, and clutching his hand was a small girl in a dress.

“Hello,” I said. “Who’s this? Friend? Relative?”

Don looked me in the eye and said, solemnly, “Daughter. Danielle.”

My reflex reactions kicked in.

“Daughter?” To the small girl: “A daughter is a very important person. Hello, Danielle.”

To Don I said, “Will Danielle be staying with you?”

As Don started to reply the small girl looked up at me and said fiercely, “I can’t stay too long.”

Don and I locked eyes.

“Then I’d best let you both get on with your day,” I said.

Don Walker had a daughter. His life had changed.

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For Jenny Hunter-Brown:

Other People by Elly McDonald (1981)

Long and gentle (soft dusky pink),
A girl in a coffeeshop
Closes up, jagged like an oyster.
Her face blurred like a moonstone.

huddled, hunted, in massive tawny furs
(a memory, but raw as a freshly-flayed kill)
can’t feel, can’t breathe, drains away…
her ankles loll like broken necks

The girl in the coffeeshop
Keeps her chin level,
Talks tired and calmly: I’m not
Really crying, she says.

 

 


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Woman of Substances: A journey into addiction and treatment – by Jenny Valentish

Jenny ValentishJenny Valentish’s book Woman of Substances is subtitled “A journey into addiction and treatment” and sets out to explore how addiction is triggered and plays out specifically in women, across a range of behaviours: drug abuse, alcoholism, abusive or obsessive relationships, eating disorders, self-harm and self-mutilation, and other compulsive behaviours, including sex and theft. She investigates social and historical factors as well as neuroscience, endocrinology and psychiatric approaches.

Organised in three parts, (Part One: Predictors of a problem; Part Two: Gendered adventures in addiction; Part Three: Woman’s Lib), this book is part sociological research, part memoir. Both aspects resonate with me. Valentish writes as someone who came of age in south-east England’s music scene in the early ‘90s, who published a fanzine, was publicly represented in the tabloids as a music groupie, who was immersed in music and drugs and alcohol, was sexually abused, who relocated to the other side of the planet, has intimate experience of addiction and (arguably) mental illness. She now lives in regional Victoria.

We have common ground. I was a rock music writer from ages 17 to 29, writing for rock music publications, pilloried as a teen by Molly Meldrum on Countdown as a “stupid female”, constantly negotiating the crosslines between sexual experimentation, peer perception and shame, witnessing drug and alcohol abuse, occasionally participating, with intimate experience of other forms of addiction, and mental illness. I crossed the planet, in reverse, to spend my 30s in ’90s London. I now live in regional Victoria.

Like Jenny, I am fascinated by the challenges posed by writing memoir.

Jenny Valentish describes her personal experience woven through her research findings as a “case study”. As it happens, one of my freelance employments is editing the psychiatric case studies required of trainee psychiatrists. It’s all too easy for me to condense and mentally reformat Valentish’s accounts of her personal experiences as third person psychiatric reports. It’s easy, too, for me to follow her accounts of different treatment methods and wellness strategies, as set out in the book’s final section. Truthfully, that section is so lucid I would recommend it to anyone who hopes to learn what works.

She writes wonderfully.

I nearly did not read this book. I’d seen a review that commented on how direct her language was, presenting as an example,”I had a cock in my mouth by the age of seven.” I took that to be the book’s opening line. I was concerned this would be a sensationalist, exhibitionist narrative – the “crazy woman as attention-seeker” trope. A part of me felt I already knew this story. Why revisit it through someone else’s darkness?

To learn, to contextualise, to rethink, to reframe, to empathise, to better understand. Because it’s well-researched. It’s useful reporting. It’s entertaining. It’s encouraging.

I had some predictable responses. I found it impossible not to map her experiences against mine, not to place us in relative positions on a graph mapping “Just how bad was that?”

There are no prizes for being the most out-there addict. That said, as a reader, and as someone who had thought our experiences might be loosely comparable, I was shocked, actually distressed, by much that Valentish recounts. I felt outraged on behalf of her 14 year old self, being inducted into music scene sex; her 18 year old self, raped in an alley; her 26 year old self, fleeing an abusive ex across oceans; her 7 year old self, sexually abused by a neighborhood teen – outraged by the continuum of her experiences. I felt shocked, confused, by the extent of her substance abuse. Why would she subject herself to that? How did she function, build a career?

The “Why would she subject herself to that?” is, obviously, the question the project addresses. How did she function, build a career? Seems to me that side by side with – or within, or fronting, or inextricable from – the identity Valentish presents on the page, the person who stumbles and trips and can’t articulate coherently, there was the person who functioned just fine, thank you ma’am, within her chosen environments, aided by considerable intelligence, her talent, her resilience, her humour, other character traits she doesn’t make explicit, and by her social capital (education, beauty, middleclass background).

In the final section, the section about treatment options and the experience of weaning off addictions, Valentish writes briefly about narrative therapy. This is the process whereby a person articulates their story and then, with an appropriately qualified therapist, they “look at some of the dominant narratives that they are using to give themselves a hard time: ‘I’m to blame’, ‘I’m an alcoholic’, ‘I’m a bad mother’ or ‘I’m a failure’. […] The therapist and client will then look for the subjugated narratives of resilience, courage and strength, and work on lifting those to the fore.”

My brother-in-law is clinical director of a private psychiatric clinic and is a senior psychiatrist within the public health sector. Narrative therapy is an approach he promotes. I have gleaned a few hints observing him and asking him about his work, and a strategy I do find useful is consciously noting how I am telling my story – to myself, to others – and consciously exploring ways of representing it that are true to those events and yet empowering.

Jenny Valentish I think employs this strategy too.

In the Acknowledgements section Jenny Valentish writes: “I realised afterwards, once I’d signed off on the book, that I skimped on the love, support and good times. Certainly they’re more obvious now (who really basks in those good fortunes in their twenties anyway?), but they were always there from family and friends, keeping me afloat. To this end, Women of Substance is a memoir of addiction, not a memoir of a girl.”

Good point.

She writes: “My life should have been a Duran Duran video. Exotic climes, open-top Jeeps, gleaming hotel lobbies with marble floors and ceiling fans rotating lazily over potted palms. I should have been thumping hard-oak boardroom tables and powering through airports in my safari suit.”

This is Jenny Valentish being self-deprecating, aware of middleclass privilege. I know I too have benefited immensely from class privilege. In fact, chunks of my life have been a Duran Duran video, especially, but not exclusively, my life in London advertising agencies. I still get to check-in occasionally to glamorous hotels with thriving indoor plants, and though my cashflow is constrained, to say the least, I live very comfortably, in a beautiful upper middleclass environment, and I do not lack.

She writes: “I’m lucky. While Woman of Substances isn’t exactly a beach read, my own experiences only skirt the edges of awful possibility. With my drug use I was just a tourist, albeit the type that overstays their visa. I didn’t get into trouble with the police. I didn’t drive under the influence, or even learn to drive. I didn’t overdose or take drugs with anyone who did. I didn’t get rushed to hospital. Nobody beat me up. I didn’t need to have sex with anyone for drugs, nor for drug debts. I didn’t want kids, so I didn’t accidentally drink through my first trimester, or use through a pregnancy. I had a secure childhood and parents who were able to look after me.”

Me neither. Me too.

Quite apart from the shock of how sordid many of Jenny Valentish’s experiences were (and I say “sordid” as a descriptor, not as a judgement), the shock for me in reading this narrative was realising just how conservative I’ve been. Yes, there were a few months sucking bongs at age 17. But my dope-fiend career was cut short by my complete inability to draw back, a failure I recall one rock musician friend murmuring must be “a terrible handicap for a girl”.

There was the one occasion I attempted to snort cocaine off a mirror; my long hair fell forward and wiped the mirror surface. (That same musician friend laughed and remarked how popular I must have been.) There was the time backstage when I reached for a proffered white powder and a rock musician friend, a famously drug-abusing rock musician friend, slapped my hand sharply, saying “Not that! That’s smack.” There was the life-changing, hideous episode with white powder backstage that led to a blackout and a blow-up my brain never stored in memory. There was the sleazy paparazzo with his date-rape drug.

Thing is, after age 18, I never smoked dope. After 21, I stopped drinking, almost entirely. After the white powder episode, I never touched white powder. After the date rape, I moved back to where my parents lived. As I once told an old friend, I never met a drug that liked me. Every time I tried an illegal substance it blew up in my face (so to speak), and I immediately stopped.

For a so-called groupie (“bandmoll”, we called it), I wasn’t even promiscuous. Over time, in my twenties, I had sex with more men than the girls I grew up with did – I think. But highly discriminately. And rarely.

Eating disorders? Overspending? Compulsive behaviours? Impulsivity? Stalking? I put my hand up. I did those other things that fit within the realm of addiction.

This is not a review; this is a personal response. My personal responses to what Jenny’s written are complex. Foremost, ultimately, they take the form of a chorus of “BRAVA!”, directed with a metaphorical bouquet to Valentish.

Woman of Substances


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“Really, I am the interesting one here” – notes towards an article about fame, hero worship and stalking

Sian Prior, Shy: a memoir (The Text Publishing Company 2014)
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist (Transworld Publishers 2016)

Nearly three years after its publication, I’ve finally read Sian Prior’s memoir Shy. I put off reading it partly because I know it recounts Sian Prior’s relationship and break-up with a (famous) man I once knew slightly, and I felt me reading it would be prurient. Also because as I listened to Sian being interviewed on the radio, back when the book was first released, the interview was interrupted with the news that another (famous) man I once knew slightly had died, and that plunged me into writing five commemorative pieces for Five Dead Rock Stars whose lives had intersected with mine, and that threw me into a depression that lasted 18 months or longer.

I also put off reading Shy because… really, shy? Not my particular problem.

I did get as far as putting the book on request at my local library. When I was notified it was available to collect I chose not to. I had even discussed the book, tangentially, with my psychologist. Then this month, seated on my psychologist’s couch, discussing my father’s imminent death, I broke off and said “I see you have Sian Prior’s book Shy on your shelves.”

“Yes,” said my psychologist. “Would you like to borrow it?”

And even as I replied “Yes”, she reached across and handed it to me.

For a week or more, while I wrestled with my father’s dying, I didn’t open Shy. Then, when I did, I found it addressed many issues I share with Sian Prior: the death of fathers, the loss of lovers, the imaginary man, the invisible self, the unstable self, the magnet that is fame, the halo effect.

As I so often do, I recorded my first responses on Facebook, that antidote to (and aggravator of) the invisible self:

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Embedded in this book about social anxiety is a book about fame: specifically, the impacts on a talented but insecure woman of being with a famous man. Both Prior and [Carrie] Fisher are fearless inquisitors of how and why The Male Hero affected their sense of self.”

Sian Prior, Shy (p.247):

“… although every famous person is different, fame itself doesn’t change much. It always attracts the same kind of prurient and obsessive behaviour. It always draws attention towards itself and away from everything else. It makes potentially more interesting things fade into invisibility. And fame can make the famous feel like gods. Perhaps it’s inevitable. All that relentless positive reinforcement. Toxic.

For me, that paragraph resonates like a 3-hour church bell-toll.

Prurient and obsessive behaviour? Oh my. Oh yes. I recognise that. Toxicity? Yes. Yes. Yes again. Fame makes the famous feel like gods? Interesting. Seems to me it mostly makes them feel like shit. But other people are keen to cast them as gods, to hero worship. The “I am a golden god!” moments, as immortalised in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, are perhaps inevitable. In 1984, as a rock writer, I wrote a profile of INXS’s Michael Hutchence where he talked about his “Golden God” moments.

Before I go further I need to make a Declaration of Interest, or a confession, or what you will. I am a stalker. I might prefer to couch that in layers of modifications and justifications, explaining it’s really a bit more complex than that, but the simplest truth is this: I am a stalker. I stalked a famous person for years. I scared him and I made his life – and his then-partner’s life – wretched. There is nothing in my life I regret more, that I am more ashamed of, than this. That the person I stalked has been generous and kind, has been gracious, doesn’t alter that. That his then-partner became – and remains – a close, supportive friend is a gift I do not deserve. That they responded that way over time does not change the fact that had stalker laws existed in the early ‘80s, we would have faced off in court.

In 12-Step programs, they say you’re only as sick as your secrets. I say you’re as sick as your unforgiven transgressions. I am thankful for forgiveness.

Sian Prior – who is not a stalker, who lived with her famous partner for ten years – writes:

“He was a fantasy figure. So often silent. So often absent. If we’re going to continue this amateur psychologising, I’d say I projected onto him a whole lot of qualities he never had. Filled in the gaps with whatever suited me. […] I edited out the evidence that didn’t fit my fantasy. Because that perfect, imaginary version of him was my safety zone …” (Shy, p.249)

I knew the man I stalked wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t hope to displace his partner. But I needed – believed I needed – what I saw as his calm and strength. I remember telling my psychologist, the woman who gave me Shy to read, that stalking this man who’d been my friend was my way of keeping the planet spinning on its axis, my defence against overwhelming, catastrophic anxiety. I needed to know where he was, to see him. I only felt safe when I could see him.

Sian writes: “There was a woman sitting in front of me talking to her friend on a mobile […] and at one point she said to him, ‘So what is your strategy for feeling safe with other people?’”

Ten years ago, a ‘life coach’ asked me to complete this sentence: “When I’m alone I ….”

My instant response? “CAN RELAX!”

The life coach startled. “You find other people stressful?” she yelped. There was a pause.

“There are things we can work on to change that” she offered, slowly. Another pause. “But perhaps that’s not something you want to change?”

We agreed it was not a priority.

Sian Prior continues (Shy, p.249): “There’s something more I need to say about love. You’re not going to like this. It will make you squirm. The object of my love may have been imaginary but the love was real. It was the strongest thing I’d ever felt, stronger than my shyness. No wonder I didn’t want to let it go.”

The resonating bells are ringing again, this time a long meditation of Tibetan chimes. Last year, I wrote a blog piece that echoes that paragraph. I called it On Love. And not being able to speak.

It was my way of saying love is real, even when the relationship is fantasy.

This week I read someone else’s blog post, a woman who describes herself as a “matchmaker” pairing up shelter dogs with prospective owners. She wrote about the desire she sees in humans to have a love object, to have a dog, to have anyone, they can love unabashedly, without being challenged by questions of anthropomorphism, reciprocation, fantasy, projection.

I recall being a mature age student at university, talking with a young classmate. She told me, earnestly, that she didn’t put up barriers against love. Barriers like gender. She might be bi-sexual. It was possible the love of her life might in fact turn out to be not a man but a woman.

I remember looking back at her and replying, seriously, that if anyone had asked me when I was her age, I would never have guessed the great love of my life would turn out to be a dog. But it did.

She turned away. I think she thought I was taking the piss.

Earlier this year, I read Carrie Fisher’s memoir, The Princess Diarist.

As so often, I responded on Facebook.

Elly FB 2 Feb 2017:

Finally got around to reading Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diarist. She spends so many pages klutzing around, apologizing in advance in terror of Harrison Ford’s reaction, justifying herself to us (justifying herself to herself).

Then she goes ahead and makes herself vulnerable anyway.

When she’s not doing the vaudeville shtick, when she’s re-experiencing the bewildered 19 year old mated with A God, she’s very touching.

So far I’m only on their second weekend. She’s (finally) made him laugh, made him momentarily human. She treasures that moment as a high point in her life.

I haven’t yet go to the unearthed poems, which I don’t doubt are excruciating.

But good for her for telling the earth maiden’s side of the story.

Her poems are not excruciating, or no more so than my own juvenilia, written during my stalker phase.

One could never call me a quitter
I take something right and see it
Through till it’s wrong
Auctioning myself off to the highest bidder
Going once, going twice
Gone
Sold to the man for the price of disdain
Some are sold for a song
I don’t rate a refrain.

I guess it was all going just a little too well
If I wasn’t careful I’d be happy pretty soon
Heaven’s no place for one who thrives on hell,
One who prefers the bit to the silver spoon.
Then just when I’d almost resigned myself to winning
When it seemed my bright future would never dim
When my luck looked as though it was only beginning
I met him.

Sullen and scornful, a real Marlboro man
The type who pours out the beer and eats the can
A tall guy with a cultivated leer
One you can count on to disapprove or disappear
I knew right away that he was a find
He knew that you had to be cruel to be kind
Given this, he was the kindest man I’d ever met
Back came my sense of worthlessness
And my long lost pains of regret
I was my old self again, lost and confused
Reunited with that old feeling
Of being misunderstood and misused.

Sold to the man for the price of disdain
All of this would be interesting
If it weren’t so mundane.

(The Princess Diarist, pp.110/111)

That’s Carrie, the 19 year old Carrie of 1976. But it could easily be 18 year old me, in 1979 – or more pointedly, 22 year old me in 1983, recalling 18 year old me.

Which could be interesting, if it weren’t mundane.

Interesting. An interesting concept. My sister tells me that whenever I start a sentence “It’s interesting that…”, what follows is not.

Sian Prior writes about what’s interesting and what’s not; who’s interesting, who should be:

‘So Lucky’

They looked.
I felt them looking.
I worried about what they were thinking.
I couldn’t act normal because I knew they were watching.
I straightened my back and lifted my head higher.
I chose my facial expressions with care.
But I knew they were not really looking at me.
They were looking at him.
And I hated that.
I hated that their focus on him prevented them from seeing me.
Even though I hate them looking at me.
What was that?
Was that the difference between being shy and being an introvert?
Or between being a shy extrovert and an introvert?
If I had been an introvert I wouldn’t want them to look at me.
I might be relieved to walk away and let them take his photo.

I didn’t want them to take my photo.
But I wanted to be the one they were interested in.
Or the equally interesting one.
That’s why I fought it so long and so hard.
Found ways to have my say.
Pushed myself out into the world.
I didn’t want to be interesting only because I was with him.
But I wanted to be with him.
He made me feel interesting.
Interesting, isn’t it?

(Shy, pp.116-120)

In a Daily Mail article (11 Oct 2016), Tziphorah Malkah (the erstwhile Kate Fischer) said of her past relationship with magnate James Packer: “He’s going on Mariah’s [Carey] reality show. He is that bloke, really I am the interesting one here. He is just like fiddling around.”

Tziphorah wrote on Facebook (12 Oct 2016): James Packer will do ANYTHING to continue to be associated with me! And who can blame him? The whole world knows that I’m the most interesting thing that has and will ever happen to him.

People laughed at that. They laugh because now Kate Fischer is no more and Tziphorah Malkah is a broke, trainee aged-care nurse who is obese. Being poor and fat renders women uninteresting. But Tziphorah Malkah had a point. She, as Kate Fischer, had a successful career as an international model and a budding career in major films when she met Packer. Her story since is interesting, in a dark fable kind of way.

Elly FB 21 Feb 2017:

Many years ago I was friends with Jane Campion the film director. She used to say that as a young woman she hoped to find An Artist and be His Muse. Then when she got dumped, again, she started making fierce dark angry art at art school, and her art teacher encouraged her. She realised she was author, artist – not model or muse at all.

Jane Campion made Bright Star from the POV of Keats’ love Fanny Brawne and was roundly taken to task in reviews I read for making Fanny the focus when the “real” “Bright Star” was the poet, Keats.

By the way – see what I did there? I found a way to make reference to a former friend who is famous. Not just any friend who drifted away over time but who said and did things that influenced me: a famous friend. I’d like to think if Jane were not famous we’d have renewed our friendship in recent times on Facebook. But she is, if somewhat less so than she was, and she is inaccessible to me now.

Carrie Fisher has a lot to say about being interesting by association:

“Having grown up around show business, I knew that there were stars and there were stars. There were celebrities, talk show hosts, product spokespeople, and then there were movie stars – people with agents and managers and publicists and assistants and body guards, who got tons of fan mail and could get a movie financed and who consistently graced the covers of magazines. Their grinning familiar faces stared proudly out at you, encouraging you to catch up with their personal lives, their projects, and how close they were to being the most down-to-earth of those famous-to-earthlings.

“Harrison was one of that epic superstar variety, and I wasn’t. Was I bitter about this? Well… not so you’d notice.” (The Princess Diaries, pp.59/60)

That’s just part of an epic, poetic depiction of fame as personified in The Hero. Here’s how she warmed up:

“When I’d first seen him sitting on the cantina set, I remember thinking, This guy’s going to be a star. Not just a celebrity, a movie star. He looked like one of those iconic movie star types, like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy. Some sort of epic energy hung around him like an invisible throng.

“I mean, let’s say you’re walking along in the twilight, minding your own business (your own show business), and there’s fog all around you – a mysterious sort of cinematic fog. And as you continue walking, you find that you’re moving slower and slower, because you can barely see a few feet in front of you. And all of a sudden the smoke clears. It clears enough for you to imagine that you’re beginning to ever so slowly make out the outline of the face. And not just a face. This is the face of someone that painters would want to paint or poets wax poetic about. An Irish balladeer would feel compelled to write a song to be sung drunkenly in pubs all over the United Kingdom. A sculptor would sob openly while carving the scar on this chin.

“A face for the ages. And seeing him sitting there in the set that would introduce him to the world as Han Solo, the most famous of all the famous characters that he would come to play – well, he was just so far out of my league. Compared to him I didn’t even have an actual verifiable league. We were destined for different places.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.59/60)

It hit Carrie hard. She continues:

“I looked over at Harrison. He was… God, he was just so handsome. No. No, more than that. He looked like he could lead the charge into battle, take the hill, win the duel, be the leader of the gluten-free world, all without breaking a sweat. A hero’s face – a few strands of hair fell over his noble, slightly furrowed brow – watching the horizon for danger in the form of incoming indigenous armies, reflective, concerned eyes so deep in thought you could get lost down there and it would take days to fight your way out. But why run? It couldn’t really be such a hardship to find yourself lost in such a place with all that wit and ideas safely stored there. Hey, man! Wait a second! Share the wealth here. Give the face to one man and save the mind for another and both would have plenty. But no! This was the ultimate living example of overkill. So how could you ask such a shining specimen of a man to be satisfied with the likes of me? No! Don’t tell me! The fact is that he was! Even if it was for a short while. That was way more than enough. It would eventually get exhausting trying to measure up, or keep up. I was a lucky girl – without the self-esteem to feel it, or the wherewithal to enjoy what there was to enjoy it and then let go.” (The Princess Diarist, pp87/88)

This is the toxicity. How could the famous, the shining specimens, not feel like golden gods? But who is it the more exhausting for? Who tries to measure up, to keep up? The lover or the beloved?

An editor friend was arguing yesterday about the misuse of the word “icon”, especially as applied to celebrities. I replied, “It’s not so different. An icon is a portal to the divine.”

An icon is itself a divine artefact.

How tiring, to be someone’s idol. How tiring to keep the earth spinning, the planets aligned. How tiring to be assigned responsibility for someone else’s sense of self-worth.

“I’m a hick,” I recall saying to him.

“No,” Harrison answered. “You think you’re less than you are. You’re a smart hick.” And then, “You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.” (The Princess Diarist, pp.106/107)

The man I stalked has many times tried to soothe my unhealed wounds.

I remember crying “But do you LIKE me? Do you LIKE me?”

Like some demented Sally Field impersonator desperately clutching at her tall, inanimate, manly Oscar.

I remember my friend replying “I like you ENORMOUSLY. I just don’t understand why you do this.”

I remember the first time I realised he found me interesting. I was looking down at a pub table. I remember exactly the cosmetics I had on my eyelids. I looked up and he was across the table, watching, watching me looking down.

I remember sometime after our one night stand (which didn’t last a night), sitting on that same bed, asking him: “Why did you have sex with me?”

I remember him replying carefully, “Because I found you physically attractive.”

I remember hissing angrily in disbelief.

Carrie Fisher writes:

“How I’ve portrayed Harrison is how Harrison was with me forty years ago. I’ve gotten to know him a bit better over time, and as such somewhat differently. He’s an extremely witty man and someone who seems more comfortable with others than he is, or ever was, with me.” (The Princess Diarist, p.181)

I can relate. She continues:

“Time shifts and your pity enables you to turn what was once, decades ago, an ordinary sort of pain or hurt, complicated by embarrassing self-pity, into what is now only a humiliating tale that you can share with others because, after almost four decades, it’s all in the past and who gives a shit?” (The Princess Diarist, p.186)

Interesting.

Sian Prior writes: “I thought we were a poem. In the end, though, we were just a string of platitudes.” (Shy, p.248)

I find that interesting, even if mundane.

persephone

Persephone about to be abducted by a god (Hades, Lord of the Underworld) – Gathering Flowers by Albert Lynch


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The girl with the glamorous job

This week my geriatric father noticed the covered porch and decking area in my parents’ back yard is perfect to stage plays.

“Our first challenge,” he announced, “is to identify an audience.”

So it is with writing memoir pieces. Just as not even my brother-in-law is keen to watch McDonald family amateur theatrics, few can be genuinely interested in reading yer average memoir blog. I have an 84 year old friend who has kept a journal every day since age 12. I love him, but would I read extracts? I think not.

Last time I posted some memoir pieces, close on two years ago, I was met with resounding silence, followed by squawks at my candour / callousness. A dear friend suggested I continue writing but not write about myself. I know that friend has my best interests at heart.

One obvious problem with memoir pieces is that they entail writing about other people. Many years ago I published a book titled Other People (and other poems). Yes, those Other People might have been strangers in public places. Or they might have been people in my life whom my friends would recognize.

My friend-from-long-ago Don Walker tried to get around this issue in his memoir, Shots (Black Inc, 2010), by not naming anyone bar his Cold Chisel bandmates. I read an interview Don gave where he said it’s a terrible transgression to expose another person in print. I’m not sure how effectively Don got around this self-imposed constraint, as I haven’t yet read his book, but he’s a brilliant writer who lived interesting times so doubtless some day I will.

But back to me. LOL.

In those far back days, some people (magazine editors) thought readers (young women) might like to read about me. Not so much me, as that generic type, the Girl With a Glamorous Job. I was a rock music writer for 10 years. Apparently that was perceived as glamorous, as between 1980 and 1984 I was asked to participate in three feature articles profiling Girls With a Glamorous Job. I was also asked to write or be interviewed for two articles on sexism in the rock music industry, and to contribute to a radio program on that subject. Go figure.

I’ve made it difficult to write memoir pieces about that period of my life by the simple act of burning my mementoes. Almost everything burned or was shredded: the photo of me hanging off Jimmy Barnes’ shoulder, gazing at him adoringly, him charismatic, gazing straight to camera; the cryptic typed note from Don (WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF – I think it referred to the Girl Who Cried Woof); the plastic tag reading EXCESS BAGGAGE – ACCESS ALL AREAS gifted to me by an international star I hung out with in Sydney; the photo of said international star and me having dinner at the notorious Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar in Kings Cross, me starry-eyed (again), him looking like he’d posed for similar shots a time or two before; the various glossy 8×10 pics of friends playing live on stage I’d souvenir’d from rock photographers. Most of the 450 articles I’d written about rock bands. Letters, postcards and admin stuff documenting my life in Oz Rock.

Almost the only thing I kept was a letter Don Walker wrote me some years later, after I had moved to London. It contains a lovely anecdote about a London dinner party and the etymology of the bird name “jabiru”. The fact Don was wrong about the origins of “jabiru” only makes the letter the more delightful. (Does this count as exposing him in print?)

I also kept a handful of my articles that either had personal significance to me or that I thought were rather good. And I kept the magazine articles about me as a Girl With a Glamorous Job.

Here, for the delectation of whomever is still reading, are those articles, in reverse chronological order, with comments:

Cleo, March 1988:

A writer and publicist, Elly loves to party and to go to the movies or theatre. This sociable woman [yes, that’s what they wrote] walks “absolutely everywhere”, goes to the gym three times a week and loves to dance. She believes physical activity should be enjoyed. On being 26? “I feel confident about growing older, there’s no way I’d go back to being 20.” Her philosophy: It helps to smile a lot. Life is about fun for oneself and for others.

Did I say LOL? How about, ROFL? It’s true I walked everywhere (I had no car), true I was a gym-nut and true I loved to dance. It’s also true there was “no way I’d go back to being 20” (to quote Don Walker again, in a recent interview he said he’s not nostalgic for the early ‘80s; I don’t think I’m nostalgic so much as puzzled about that period of my life). That stuff about feeling confident, about embracing ageing, about smiling a lot? So not me. And godalmighty, what’s with the “fun for oneself and others” nonsense? That was never me. Even at that interview, what I tried to talk about was the gap between the ideal and actuality. I tried to talk about eating disorders. The writer’s eyes glazed over. She stopped taking shorthand notes and I guess I decided to just go bimbo.

Elly McDonald Writer 4

‘Girls with glamorous jobs’, Dolly, 1984 – by Andrea Jones (an outstanding rock journalist)

Elly McDonald would never have contemplated a career as a rock journalist – let alone writing about rock’n’roll – had it not been for a fateful encounter with Cold Chisel four years ago.

Elly was an 18-year-old arts/law student at Monash University in Melbourne when she got involved with the campus radio station. They assigned her to interview Cold Chisel, who were, then, just on the verge of their huge success.

Looking back now, Elly cringingly [good word choice] recalls how inexperienced she was in both the art of interviewing and the ways of rock and roll. But despite this, the interview developed into a deep friendship with members of the band and it inspired her to do more interviews with other bands.

“It was an interesting time for the pub rock scene and people [Don Walker and Steve Prestwich] kept telling me to base myself in Sydney and write for RAM.”

So, at 18, Elly moved to Sydney, with the intention of working for an agency which handled bookings for bands. But when that prospect fell through, she took her friends’ advice and started writing for RAM.

“My first work was unsolicited. I wasn’t being assigned any work and the big features were generally being assigned to established writers. So I was doing features on bands who very often had no recording contract at all.”

Since then Elly has written for The Australian, Nation Review [in fact pre-dated my rock writing], Cleo, Rolling Stone and several literary publications.

“I prefer to do interviews after a show. I like to give the band 30 minutes to calm down after coming off stage and then do the interview, because all the thoughts I’m feeling about them as a band [wtf] are still fresh and the band is revved up and the atmosphere is there.”

Of all the bands Elly has been associated with or enjoys going to see live, her favourites are INXS, Midnight Oil and the now defunct Cold Chisel. Yet, of all of these, only Cold Chisel are personal friends [in 1984 that might have been stretching it].

Elly was quick to point out that being a rock writer didn’t guarantee that you instantly [or ever] became best friends with your favourite bands.

“Although you have the opportunity to meet people who may be interesting, short of actually throwing yourself at them [a tactic I never gave up on], the chances of you continuing contact are very slim – even if you do get on well [or are a drug dealer]”.

Though Elly did say that being a journalist meant you sometimes got into unusual situations with rock musicians. One of the most amusing of these, Elly recalled, concerned INXS and a cover story she was writing for RAM.

“I went down to Canberra with the band and I was meant to do an interview before the show and then come home with the road crew afterwards. For some reason Michael was really nervous [wired] and we didn’t get to do the interview – even after the show.

“We went back to the hotel and watched TV and every time I made interview noises, Michael would suddenly get intent on a piece of the action [that’s how Michael de-tensified]. Two’clock came and went and the road crew disappeared and there I was stuck in Canberra. Four o’clock came and went and eventually the band said, ‘Well, I guess we’d better go to bed’.

“I said ‘Hang on a minute, what about the interview?’ and Michael said ‘Oh yeah! The interview! … What are you going to do about bed?’ [I cannot believe I kept telling this anecdote.]

“I told him I didn’t know since the road crew had gone and he said ‘Well, I’ve got a spare bed in my room so if you come and sleep with me, we can do the interview’. [Shame! Shame!]

“So we actually did that, with him sitting in his bed and me sitting in my bed, gossiping away. It was like a real girls’ all-night pyjama party and it was really enjoyable in a totally, totally innocent way.”

Elly carefully pointed out [but too late] that meeting famous pop stars was not the motive behind her work.

“I am firstly a writer and the subject – rock’n’roll – comes a long way second.”

For anyone interested in creative writing, Elly said rock journalism was a good springboard. And freelancing, she explained, gave her a lot of freedom. “I am completely flexible and I have the freedom to do anything I want, to develop any interest I want.”

There are drawbacks though, like no holiday pay, no paid sick leave, no paid expenses [none of which I’d mentioned or indeed had ever given a moment’s thought]. Plus, the rock press’ rates of payment are only about a quarter of the recommended level.

“I do occasionally have terrible fears of being a little old lady living on cat food,” she joked. [That was no joke. ROFL many times over.]

Though these days Elly has many other creative irons in the fire, she maintained, “I’ll continue as a rock writer as long as I’m able to get the satisfaction out of it that I do now” [about one more year].

Graeme Shearer 2

‘The powerful business of rock music’, Cosmopolitan, 1982 – by Jacqueline R Hyams

Elly McDonald’s by-line is rapidly becoming familiar around the music scene. At only 21, she’s a Sydney-based rock writer, doing regular weekly columns for The Australian, frequent articles for industry “bibles” like Rolling Stone, The Record and RAM, as well as a number of other different publications.

She describes herself as “a typical rock and roll misfit” but, joking aside [why do they think I joke?], Elly’s a pretty, thoughtful sort of girl, overtly conscious of the writer’s responsibility to both audience and artist, whether reviewing a long awaited rock concert by an overseas artist or commenting on a new band that might be tomorrow’s success story.

“It’s very hard to get a balance between what you, the writer, actually think or feel about a band’s music and what you’re going to continue thinking,” explains Elly. [Say what? I think I meant it’s hard to know whether the band I rubbish now might not become the next big thing.]

In fact, she has a fairly musical background and plays the piano, guitar and viola quite well. [No, I played piano quite well and sang quite well. I’d done a few lessons on both the guitar and the viola.] Even at 13 Elly loved rock and roll and had dreams of being a record producer [for a nanosecond – also video director]. But writing seems to come easily to her; while still at school she wrote underground film reviews for the now defunct Nation Review.

Three years ago, while studying law at Monash University in Melbourne, Elly stumbled upon rock writing almost by chance. “The university has a radio station, 3MU, and at that time it was pretty disorganized. They’d set up an interview with Cold Chisel but nobody wanted to do it. It seemed discourteous to forget it, so I volunteered, wandered into the middle of a sound check and said ‘Who’s in this band?’ My knowledge of Australian rock was pretty sketchy then!”

But she got the interview [well, I was bloody there, weren’t I?]. And the next time Chisel were in town they rang her and asked her to do another one. “By that time I’d decided I liked it and had written a few more. But I was lucky; I interviewed the bands that kept playing and the ones I chose went on to have an extraordinary amount of success.”

Abandoning her studies [aptly put], Elly moved to Sydney and, she recalls, “through naivety rather than guile” managed to get the chance to write articles for RAM, “by ringing people I didn’t really know” and actually asking for opportunities rather than sitting around waiting for things to happen. She is, she explains, a great believer in risk taking – “you should always stick your neck out.” [My authentic voice. Sticking one’s neck out does occasionally result in losing one’s head.]

Eventually, Elly’s enthusiasm was noticed and editors started to hand out assignments. These days, nearly everything she does revolves around the industry; a night out means either going to a concert to do a review or going to see a band who might be long-time friends. But she claims she never made a conscious decision to become a rock writer: Rather, it was the realization that she could learn about any specific aspect of the industry by writing about it that spurred her on.

“I want to know how it all works so that one day I can get involved in something myself – if you use your commonsense you can have access to all kinds of people and discover, as a professional observer, much more than you would in any other situation. I’m very taken with the idea of getting into rock management even though it would not be the easiest of jobs [and I lasted just one day working alongside Vince Lovegrove when he managed Divinyls].”

Because freelance writing in such a specialized field is so competitive [read: because freelance writing pays so poorly and is not a fulltime gig], Elly has had to supplement her income by working part-time in a friend’s shop.

The women who genuinely love the business often drop out, Elly feels, because they just aren’t strong-minded enough. “It’s easy to believe the things they tell you about yourself in this industry but you have to present yourself in the way you want to be treated – and of course, you want to be treated well. And if you say something offbeat, you’d better be prepared to stick by your opinion because it’s bound to become public.”

I think this interview must have taken place shortly after I had a showdown with Oz Rock legend Ross Wilson in the Sebel Townhouse Bar over whether savage record reviews can be justified. I argued they can: as a critic I am honour-bound to provide a consumer service, warning prospective buyers off crap albums; I am not a publicist or A&R lackey. Ross argued a reviewer has a responsibility not to burn the artists but to provide constructive feedback. We had an audience. Out of that evening, Ross’s bandmate Eric McCusker, from Mondo Rock, became a friend of mine.

The journalist, Jacky Hyams, has a much more interesting story than I do. After many years in senior editing roles back in her native London, she published a memoir, Bombsites and Lollipops: My East End Childhood (John Blake, 2001), about growing up in a gangland family, with a father who was mates with the Kray Brothers. Jacky has a blog at jackyhyams.wordpress.com 

Elly_McDonald_Writer Cosmo

‘Women in rock OR Dorothy in the Land of Oz OR It’s a Long Way to the Top – If You’re Not a Band Mole! [sic]’, Tharunka, 1981 – by “Heather”

The last interview is with Elly McDonald. As well as having to contend with insolent attitudes towards females, she has to cope with the fact that she’s all of 20 years old.

We met at a Kings Cross coffee shop, and talked over cups of coffee and the noise of the clientele [sic – all spelling, grammar and punctuation errors hereafter are Tharunka’s].

Elly started out on doing a series of interviews for Monash Radio: “which I doubt a single Monash student would have listened to or remembered. Monash Radio basically is a group of people who hang around the radio station smoking dope and playing cards – and playing records when they remembered. But quite often they forgot to put the switch on so it doesn’t get broadcast.”

Elly then progresses? to “Roadrunner”, “Ram” and [is] now a regular freelance contributor for the Australian.

“I am now a journalist who writes about rock as opposed to a rock writer – and there’s a huge difference. It was accidental that I fell into rock – and it wasn’t until I’d been doing it for a good nine months that I suddenly woke up and realized what I was [that happened?]

“Even then it was obvious it was a dead end job. There are no career prospects for a rock journalist unless you move into other facets of rock or other facets of journalism.

FROM RAM TO THE AUSTRALIAN

“I like the idea of writing to a non-rock audience. I like working for people who my bylines mean nothing [to] and who need convincing rock is worth covering at all, in the arts pages, which the editor does.

“One of the real pitfalls for rock writers is they start writing for the industry and start being ultra-conscious of whether or not attitudes they express are going to go down well with both the public and the industry factions. They start being terribly fashion-conscious [trend-conscious] in music and in criticism. And they also get this dreadful sort of personality journo, famous-rock-writer syndrome.”

TEETHING DIFFICULTIES

“When I first started on ‘Ram’, I had this paranoia, and it was paranoia, that the first relatively intelligent, 24 year old who walked in, who happened to be male, was going to oust me immediately. I don’t want this to reflect in any way on the people who worked for ‘Ram’ but it is male oriented, it is a male scene.

“But most of the problems I ran into was because of my own naivety. When I first started out I didn’t notice the difficulties of sexism. When I play back old taped interviews, there were a lot of propositions there. And I never, ever knew (laugh). It’s only now that I’ve got to be sort of paranoid and slightly more knowledgeable about it that I’ve been aware of a lot of the sexism.”

VENUES

“Venues are one of my big hates in rock and roll. There are few I find tolerable to spend six hours in. – Venues – yuk … what can I say!

“I’m very lucky in a way that if I really wanted to pull rank – if they’re close friends I can hide backstage and if they’re not, I can hide behind the mixer where they’ve closed off an area, so I don’t have to put up with extreme congestion – people standing on my toes, elbows in the face, beer all over my bodice and people pinching my bum all the time – sometimes I do that voluntarily and it usually deters me for a couple of months. So venue conditions – all I can do is look at it and say – ‘ain’t it awful’!

“Mind you – I’ve been thrown out of a few venues – I was thrown out of Bombay Rock (Melb), three times in a row. Just to give you an idea of how some venues operate was when – this was a long time ago – the Angels lighting guy [Ray Hawkins] went backstage, to do his job obviously, and the bouncer said ‘hey mate, you can’t go back stage’. Ray just ignored them, what else can you do (laughs), and they yanked him outside and beat him up. I was going ‘hey, he’s with the band’ sort of thing – they wouldn’t believe me and ended up shoving me out in the street. I had in my pocket at the time my Ram accreditation, my Monash Radio accreditation, my Dirty Pool card, which was the Angels management company at the time, and they wouldn’t let me see anyone. They wouldn’t let me back in the venue. Short of getting a fist in the face like Ray, there was nothing I could do but go home. Both those bouncers were sacked before 12 the next day.

“The second occasion is probably one of your sexist horror stories. I was invited to Bombay Rock by a major band [Icehouse] who were playing. The usual procedure when you’re on the guest list was not to line up in the queue (which this night stretched about four or five blocks), but to go straight through to the ticket box – tell them you’re on the list, they check it, and you go straight through. But the bouncer wouldn’t let me in to the ticket box. So I waited in the queue – 60 minutes later – not on the guest list! There was no way I was going to fork over $6 having waited for an hour, I had also paid a hefty taxi fare to get there. So I caught a cab over to where friends were playing (I though a couple of suburbs away), and I knew they were coming afterwards, so I went over there, and waited for them cause they’ll get in free no worries.

“Turned out that the venue was a long way away, which added immeasurably to my taxi fare, I got there, I came back with the other band [Cold Chisel], I got in with no trouble. I asked the band’s manager what had gone wrong – what had happened was, there had been a very long guest list so he’d gone through and crossed off all miscellaneous females regardless of the fact he knew me personally, he knew I was a friend of the band and that I’d been personally invited there by the band and that both in my social and professional capacity had every right to be there. So I was fairly uncontrollable after that.” [Ah yes. The charming Ray Hearn, messin’ wid me.]

And the third time?

“The third time I’d rather not mention – (laugh). The third one had nothing to do with working in rock [because there was no third time].

“But then again, there are so many people who stand there and bluff till kingdom come that, yes, they are the lead singer’s girlfriend, and yes, why the hell won’t you let them in. There are enough girls who do know all the names and do know all the right things to say. Sometimes the bouncers have a hard job.”

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY

“Last year I worked 50/50 Melb/Sydney, so I had quite a lot of experience with people, bands and attitudes as well as how things work in both cities. There’s a huge difference in the way the two cities operate musically. But it keeps a good balance effect.

“It seems to be moving back towards Melbourne. The smaller bands seem to be more interesting and creative in Melbourne. I think that’s partly because in the ‘79/’80 period when Sydney was really right on top, these little Melbourne bands were looking up at the commercial monsters and thinking – ah, that’s [not] what I want to be.”

FUCK UPS

I put this question for each of the women, purely for its humorous connotations. But in the case of Elly McDonald, I had to tread a touch lighter; for two reasons: Firstly, being notably young in her field gives less time to look back and laugh, and secondly, because of the well known incident when Ian Meldrum called her a “silly female” on national television. Without going into too much detail, the incident occurred when Ian decided to have a special section in Countdown where he picks up mistakes in the rock media:

“You might be getting at the Russell Morris incident. There’s a fair story behind that. It all comes back to me being at fault, but not quite at fault in the way that it appears. I did realize he was using a cordless guitar. I would like that to be known (laughs). It was simply bad wording on my part. If I had looked at it for more than two seconds I would have noticed – and changed it. I apologized to Russell, he apologized to me, Ian Meldrum hasn’t – but never mind.

“In Sydney it was a big joke – ‘Elly wouldn’t know a guitar from a walrus’.”

Elly was confused by the walrus. I did not recognize Russell was playing cordless guitar and I could have stared at my review a long time without ever recognizing I was in error. I wish my editors had seen what I could not. Also, about that apology from Russell – I went to review a pub gig of his and he gave me a lift home, except ‘home’ in Melbourne was my parents’ house in Camberwell, as distinct from my own flat, in Sydney. Russell was happily sitting on my parents’ kitchen bench swinging his legs when I mentioned my folks were asleep upstairs. I have never seen a man so startled. God knows how he thought I planned to deliver my apology, but he was out of that house in seconds. The next time I visited his record company, Mushroom, their publicity manager Michelle Higgins made cracks about me still living with Mummy and Daddy. I can’t say relations between me and Mushroom, and its artists, were ever good.

CRITICAL WRITINGS

“If I didn’t like a band I had to review – there’s no point going out there and running them into the ground. Mainly ‘cause that’s too easy. There are still too many bands who are still in the developing stage, you could kill in one blow. But why? Even if it was wildly averse to my personal taste you’ve got to look at it from the points of view, is there an audience for that band, if so why does that audience like them?

“As Ed St John (Rolling Stone) once said of Australian Crawl – the inherent faults are so obvious they’re not even worth mentioning.”

WOMEN MUSICIANS

“I think they’re in the best position of any women in rock and roll because where they prove themselves is on stage. If they can cut it on stage, it’s very hard for people to put you [them] down. Where it hurts, of course, if where people putting you down is interfering with your ability to do your job well. Women muso’s are in a good spot, because they’re not necessarily obliged to get involved in the politics.”

Speechless. I was so naïve. Even years later, in 1990, I was oblivious. I was asked to write an article on sexism in Oz Rock as it affected women recording artists by Shona Martyn, who was then editor of GH a.k.a HQ magazine and is now publishing director for Random House Australia. She mentioned a couple of women singers whose careers had not developed. I immediately phoned my former RAM editor Anthony O’Grady for the inside story then phoned Shona back saying “Anthony O’Grady says there was no sexism, they just weren’t good enough and record companies are brutal.” I did no further research and dropped the story.

ADVICE TO BUDDING FEMALE JOURNALISTS

“I wouldn’t advise any young, intelligent woman to take up rock journalism because there’s no prospects – other facets of the industry, sure, the day a woman is put in the A&R position in a major record company I’ll cheer, but I think that day is a long way off yet. Again, I don’t want to put anyone down – but they put you into PR ‘cause you’re pretty and ‘cause you smile. But A&R, this is when credibility comes in – [it’s thought that] if she suggests to sign up some band, chances are she’s fucking them.”

Elly McDonald Writer 2

 

 

 

 

 


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For Steve (2012)

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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Backstage (1982)

never believe these people aren’t dangerous

They lie They betray the curve

of jaw neck shoulder

from you I wanted tenderness

Trust and dependence I recall the nights

spent waiting

in cyclindrical gas chambers, backstage

With the band The elite

this might be hell, this doomed this

Damned this Dachau I

can’t live can’t breathe this

Poison bitter this

this spited air