Elly McDonald

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

Steve Prestwich Elly McDonald

Steve Prestwich (Pic: Sydney Morning Herald)

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

golden-star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s Steve I’m writing about.

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

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

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

Steve was making retching noises.

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

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

That was so Steve.

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

Steve didn’t do tact.

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

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

Jim looked from me to Steve then back again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could see I was not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Marc Hunter – Forever Young (6 June 2014)

Marc Hunter Elly McDonald

Marc Hunter (Pic: Sydney Morning Herald)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That stopped me in my tracks.

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

I considered, watching him.

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

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

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

“Why not?” Marc asked me.

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

Marc reflected on this, and smiled.

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

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

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

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

We nodded at each other, and I walked on.

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

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

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

In 1985, keyboards player Paul Hewson died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marc never cared for cool. He exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded, unconvinced.

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

I’ve never forgotten.


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Someone Famous, With Girl – for Michael Hutchence (5 June 2014)

Michael Hutchence asked unexpected questions. Like, “How do you say, ‘I love you!’ in Mandarin?”

“My” Michael – Michael as I knew him – was not the mythic Michael of the tabloids. “My” Michael was a sweet, rather whimsical boy with cosmos-encompassing curiosity. When I think of Michael, I think of Snufkin, the character in Finnish author Tove Janssen’s Moomintroll books. Snufkin has a round head, shaggy brown hair and big brown eyes, and that’s how “my” Michael looks in memory: a round face on a stalk neck. Snufkin was a wanderer, seeking spring and summer meadows: that was Michael. Snufkin was a provocateur, baiting authority and despising convention. As did Michael.

I first heard INXS at a live gig at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern, just after INXS moved from Perth to Sydney and just before the Stagedoor Tavern was closed down. INXS were bottom of a four-band bill. I couldn’t see the stage so I couldn’t see the band (the crowd was packed for the headliners, The Angels), but they sure sounded good. I was writing for a rock magazine called Roadrunner and I marked INXS as a band for me to interview.

The interview took place in February or March 1980, about the time I started writing for RAM (Rock Australia Magazine). I didn’t write the first INXS piece in RAM, but my article ran in Roadrunner, and a few years later I wrote RAM’s first cover story on INXS. Some of the more sensational Michael quotes from that RAM cover story were lifted by Sydney’s tabloid newspaper, The Sun.

In early 1980, INXS were still playing small venues. I interviewed them in a joint off Oxford Street where capacity must have been less than 100. The entire band sat around a table, eager to talk about their music. At that time an interview must have been a novelty. Michael’s curiosity showed up as alertness. He sat with spine long, long neck; not the languid, mannered stance familiar in later years. But whatever the body language, Michael’s physicality always spoke to me of dance. He stood, he sat, he moved like a dancer. On stage, he danced. Michael had vitality and grace.

He also had bad skin. When people started talking about Michael as a sex symbol, I was initially nonplussed. He was a skinny kid with pockmarks. Recently I watched again a music video from 1981, “starring” Michael: Speed Kills, written by Cold Chisel’s Don Walker for the soundtrack to the film Freedom, with Michael on lead vocals. In that clip I see the emergence of the “mythical” Michael – the cool dude with white hot sexuality. I didn’t see it at the time.

At the time, when we sat in that small dark room and talked, Michael was barely through his teens and was dressed like a fan of French new wave cinema, in a Breton fisherman’s long-sleeved t-shirt with horizontal stripes. He told me he was fascinated by post-War bohemianism, especially the literary and artistic bohemianism of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I thought of Julie Christie, before she became a film star, a boho chick living with actor (and art school grad) Terence Stamp. Michael would have loved Julie Christie.

He talked textiles. Michael’s father Kell had been a textiles trader in Hong Kong. Michael loved colour and texture and trends, so he loved textiles. And he loved Hong Kong. He loved noise and close-pressed flesh and variety and change. Bewilder me, he beseeched. Fascinate me.

Michael could be mischievous, if I may use that word to cover a multitude of, literally, sins. In that first interview, he brought up one of my Roadrunner reviews that he said had made him laugh. It kicked off with some cruel comments about a band who at that time shared the same booking agency as INXS, a brother-sister combo called the Numbers. I liked the Numbers. I just couldn’t resist the impulse to be bitchy about their platinum blonde good looks. Michael had a bit of bitch in him too. Andrew Farriss, the INXS keyboard player and main writer, did not approve. Andrew never took to me, at all.

What sealed it for Andrew was that cover story I wrote in 1984. INXS were touring in support of their album The Swing. I had reviewed their previous album, Shabooh Shoobah, for RAM, and I’d loved it, so RAM’s then-editor Greg Taylor sent me off to Canberra with a specific brief: get an interview with Michael Hutchence.

That may have been the beginning – or an early instance – of that issue that plagues so many successful bands: the focus on the frontman, eclipsing other band members.

As the band and I travelled together to Canberra, I mused on the outfit saxophonist and guitarist Kirk Pengilly’s girlfriend Karen was wearing. It was white and flouncy with pastel trim. To me it looked like a cake decoration, perhaps a wedding cake. In the published article, I reported that reflection. I didn’t know Karen was an aspiring fashion designer, who succeeded in a career as an accessories designer. After publication, I heard Andrew felt my comment was disrespectful.

Michael didn’t have those inhibitions. Michael truly did not have a lot of inhibitions. The Canberra gig was wild; it took months for me to figure out how to remove the Bundaberg rum and coke stain from the drink spilled on my favourite top. It took hours for Michael to come down from his post-performance high, sufficient to consider an interview. By the time I turned the tape recorder on, we were both stripped naked, in our separate beds, in the hotel room we shared that night. For me as a rock writer, it was unprecedented, and frankly unexpected.

That’s when the question was asked: “How do you say ‘I love you!’, in Mandarin?”

Michael was in love. He was dating Michele Bennett, who had studied Mandarin at Melbourne University. Michele was exquisite and Michael was besotted. That did not preclude other flings. But I found it touching, and Michael and I did not fling.

I went round one time to the home Michael and Michele shared with New Zealand singer Jenny Morris, who became an INXS backing singer. The boys were ready to party. The girls were upstairs: Jenny singing, her voice melodic, honeyed and seductive; Michele was tweaking perfection, putting on her makeup.

“This can take hours,” Michael grimaced. He looked and sounded proud.

When INXS were recording their international breakthrough album Kick, I bumped into Michael on Williams Street, the arterial road leading up to Kings Cross. He invited me to hang out with him at the recording studio, Rhinoceros Studios in inner East Sydney, the hippest studios in town. Slack hours in a studio recording an album can hang heavy: an hour of studio downtime lasts longer than an hour of standard time. But I’m not sure that’s the reason Michael invited me. I’m not certain he was enjoying extended downtime with his fellow band members just at that point. They were there, except Andrew, but Michael mostly talked with me.

As I was leaving, I passed Andrew Farriss in the corridor.

“Hi!” I said brightly. “It’s Elly!”

“I know who you are,” growled Andrew, brushing past me.

What did Michael talk about, that day?

He talked about romance. He talked about sex. He was intrigued by the concept of designer baby sperm donations. He was interested in donating to a sperm bank – a sperm bank, I think hypothetical, that specialised in supplying sperm from donors with outstanding talents or attributes. He talked about who and what he found attractive. Princess Stephanie of Monaco. I couldn’t see it, but to Michael she was “Hot!”

He told me his theory of romance. Whether that was a theory of the moment or a life-long perspective, I cannot say. But Michael told me he saw romance as a masqued ball. The dancers are in costume. They circle each other, flirt, retreat, flirt some more. They engage in stylised games to hold each other’s interest. The first one who drops their mask, loses.

Game over.

Early in 1985, I met up with Michael in a Kings Cross night club and we talked poetry. I was preparing to self-publish a small book of poems. I told Michael I couldn’t sleep, pages of typeset proofs scrolled relentlessly through my mind. Michael had a talent, among his many talents, for appearing to listen intently while quite possibly screening out much that was said. He did ask questions about my poems. But the question, unexpected, that struck me was this: “Am I in there?”

In truth, several famous Oz rock identities were “in there”, in my poems. Michael was not.

It was too late to write a Michael poem, a poem for “my” Michael, to include in my collection. But I did write a poem for him, which was never published.

I called it Someone Famous, With Girl.

stops at the sound of
his name called by
a stranger – then
recalls
who she is and forgets
himself: it’s you
he smiles (he always means it)
he laughs (and feels abashed)
her eyes mirror his
she is his (they always are)
they are both young
veterans
they both can
remember
moments of belief, of the only kind
he’ll know
all strangers
his kind. He is
kind, or he could be, this singled out
outsider
he takes her
camera and asks
Am I in there?

Michael Hutchence Elly McDonald

Michael Hutchence with Michele Bennett (pic: Daily Mail UK)


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

Doc Neeson Elly McDonald

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

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

golden-star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was thin and had no interest in losing weight. Doc was thin too. Whip thin. Whippet thin. I find it hard to take in photos of him as he looked in later life, during treatment for brain cancer, suffering side effects of the treatments, his hair still its trademark black. I am certain it must have been painful for Doc to see how he looked, too. He was a performer; he had an ego. More than that: Doc was a handsome man – a dynamic, flirtatious, sexual man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheap Poem, Winking

For B Neeson

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