Elly McDonald

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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 a 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

 


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Roadtrain (1986)

Hugh is getting tired. The more tired he gets, the faster he drives. His eyes are glazed; he should be wearing glasses, but he always manages to leave them behind. Constant small losses; Hugh isn’t thinking about it.

Hugh, in all truth, is trying hard not to think at all. The highway is hypnotic – not winding (no deviation), but occasionally undulating, up and down. Endless white dots are an arrow down the centre, an imperative leading straight to the horizon. Hugh feels as if the white dots power this road. The van is on a conveyor-belt; the white links are the chain on which the mechanism turns. The van rolls forward, propelled by white lines, and to Hugh it seems that speed and destination have been pre-set. A process is in train, and no choice remains but to keep the van on course.

“Where are we heading?” asks Liam, from the back. Part-Irish, part-Aboriginal, Liam is low-voiced and sleepy-eyed. He trusts Hugh.

Hugh does look away from the road. “Wherever the white lines take us”, he says, and Liam, who is used to Hugh’s deadpan humour, nods.

“You’re not still thinking of Jim and Derry?”

Hugh thinks too much. He loves Liam for his intuition; Liam can always tell what’s on Hugh’s mind.

“Naah”, Hugh mumbles, after a pause. He knows he should throw out a throwaway line. Failing anything suitably ironic, he bites his lower lip. Liam leans forward; all he can see of Hugh’s face from behind is the harshness of the ridges marking brow, eye, cheekbone and jaw. Hugh is craggy, closed and worn – sensitive to too-close scrutiny. Right now he feels alone. He can tolerate Liam, but Hugh’s glad the rest of the band is asleep.

The van crests a slight rise. Hugh feels completely disconnected. He imagines he is dreaming, sitting in the care of a long rollercoaster, staring at ground far below. In the dream his hands are off the wheel. He’s waving at the ground, and the expression on his face is amazed.

Over the rise, on the upwards side of an oncoming hill, a roadtrain is ditched. All down both lanes of the bitumen behind it are black and grey skidmarks, coiled tight, doubling back almost over each other. Gouges savage the sides of the road; gravel has thrown up banks, furrowed troughs. As Hugh drives by he stares at the truckie, squatting beside his broken rear axel. The truckie looks scared. Half-blocking the road on the far side of the truck is a long, dented wheatbin. All down the road, twice the roadtrain’s length, are its entrails – spilt wheat, training blood betraying a wound.

Hugh can’t take his eyes off that truck, that wheat, that man. In the late afternoon glare he sees the wheat’s brightness not as gold or blood-red but as flame. He sees Derry and Jim, trapped in the cabin of the roadcrew’s truck: Derry unconscious, barely breathing, Jim screaming, desperately trying to bash through fire. The truck, glowing molten, roars in the heat. It lies on its side, by the side of a highway. Jim can’t get out, and even in his dreams, Hugh can’t reach him. They’ve been trapped there in Hugh’s mind a year now.

“Here”, says Liam, gently. “I’ll drive…”roadtrain2_96694170


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Vince Lovegrove. Legend. (8 June 2014)

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

golden-star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince thought that was hilarious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was when I heard about the Twelve Angry Women.

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s my attempt:

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

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

He was loved.

Vince Lovegrove Elly McDonald

Vince Lovegrove