I’m a firm believer in the adage that experiences are more important than things and that investment in meaningful experiences that enrich your life in some way are a greater source of happiness than the latest gadget or iThing. Don’t get me wrong, gadgets and iThings are very nice, but I suspect my sons’ memories of the time their mum lost her job and flew them to Paris to eat a jambon beurre baguette at the top of La Tour Eiffel will remain with them for their lifetimes. And besides, who doesn’t like a nice ham sandwich!
I also do this with them with cultural experiences. Not to the point that they find it a pain in the neck (hopefully), but certainly to the point of being exposed to far more than I was shown as a child. I want them to see people doing cool stuff that, as a child, I only thought ‘other’ people did. So my kids are growing up knowing people who do real science for a job, or make music for a job, or paint or write for a job.
As part of their ‘compulsory music education’ I took them to the Sydney Opera House last week to see former Beach Boy, Brian Wilson, performing the iconic Pet Sounds album live on stage. Most people would be even vaguely aware of Brian Wilson’s mental health challenges throughout his lifetime and the impact that various treatments have had on him over those decades. I think we’re lucky to still have Brian Wilson alive, even if now he’s showing signs of how troubled his life has been.
The show was wonderful with Brian accompanied by a group of stellar musicians, including former Beach Boys partner Al Jardine, and Al Jardine’s son, Matt Jardine. Part of Matt’s role as a backing vocalist was to take over the vocal parts that are just too challenging for Brian these days. It was beautiful to watch and to hear the son of his lifelong band mate have his back. There were numerous standing ovations throughout the show from a full-house of just under 3,000 people.
Yet one high-profile critic wrote in his review, “Beach Boy was once genius but it’s time to let it go” and on Twitter wrote, “This has to stop.”
My kids probably won’t quite understand for another 30 years what they saw that night, but one day it’ll dawn on them that they saw one of the greatest songwriters we’ve ever had perform for them. Yes, he was physically past his prime, but his gifts to us are extraordinary. The kids often accuse each other of having ‘shit taste in music’ and that’s about the time I always chime in to point out that this is exactly the point of any form of art. It’s subjective. One of the things I was most sure about during my radio career was the simple fact that no matter what I did, or what I said, or which song I played – SOMEONE would hate it enough to want to tell me about it. Often abusively.
That Brian Wilson is now a senior who has been through some really, intensely rough stuff is without doubt. That his life has had negative impacts on him is also without doubt. But that he still wants to join us and play for us is his choice, and only his. We simply don’t have the right to tell people that they should stop doing the thing that has made them who they are just because they’re getting on a bit and aren’t as sharp as they once were. I couldn’t give a flying f*ck about Madonna or the fact that she’s still performing in not-very-much-at-all at however old she is. Her choice. Don’t like it? Don’t go!
To the critic who thinks that Brian Wilson is now too old and too damaged to go on and should stop performing for the rest of us because it apparently makes you, Dear Critic, a wee bit uncomfortable to see a person who is less than perfect doing their thing – you can only dream of 3,000 people standing to applaud you with tears of joy streaming down their faces. On numerous nights.
Rob Hirst has a new solo album out – released under his own name instead of one of the innumerable musical units that he’s part of.
The Midnight Oil drummer and songwriter celebrates his new songs with an unexpected collaboration with his artist daughter, Gabriella Hirst.
Rob Hirst oozes ‘proud dad’ as he talks about the achievements of the offspring of some of his bandmates.
“We’ve all got very talented sons and daughters now, all very grown up, and my daughter Gabriella is now in Berlin after finishing her courses at COFA in Sydney and the National Art School. She did very well, got a travelling scholarship and went to Berlin.”
Gabriella Hirst’s art is, indeed, striking and beautiful. And perhaps unsurprisingly, her work seems to share her father’s social and environmental concerns.
“She was looking out over a wasteland where she was in north-west Berlin, went for a walk in the afternoon and asked one of the locals why it was so deserted. He told her that until recently there had been a poplar forest full of birds but that despite the protests of locals the little forest that had acted as a buffer between quite an industrial area and the local residences had been levelled to put in a department store or factory.”
“But he also told Ella that he’d gone for a walk on the day they cut the trees down and found 24 birds’ nests. He sent them to Ella and she painted them as part of her Berlin projects in watercolours on silk flags, which the man then attached to bamboo poles and put back where the forest once was as a symbolic gesture to remind people of what was lost. Being ephemeral artworks, she expected them to be souvenired, which they quickly were, but they fly now from the balconies of neighbouring apartments overlooking this area.”
Rob’s album, ‘The Sun Becomes The Sea’, features 24 of his daughter’s bird artworks in the hardcover booklet version of the album, which he had made to protect Gabriella’s artwork but there are a few of them online.
“I was just finishing a bunch of songs that I’d been doing over a couple of years down at Jim’s (Moginie) studio and I thought for the first time that I’d put it out under my own name rather than under the Ghostwriters or whatever. It’s just one of those lovely synchronicities where she was finishing her artwork at the same time and agreed that I could use these beautiful watercolour birds for the sleeve of the book and for the new website which finally links the Oils, the Backsliders, The Break, Angry Tradesmen, Hirst and Greene, Willies Bar and Grill, etc.”
“I just thought it would be a nice gesture and I had such fun making these songs.”
I point out that a similar ‘nice gesture’ recently backfired somewhat for U2.
“I would never be so presumptuous as to upload these 11 songs on people’s iTunes!” Rob laughs, “It’s available for those that seek it out and like it and there’s the option for people to go to a few of those old-fashioned record stores that still exist, and which we really want to support, and get the hardcover booklet with all of Gabriella’s birds and other information on it.”
The exhibition of Midnight Oil’s incredible place in the Australian music industry was a huge success at the Sydney exhibition hosted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum and will be hosted by Newcastle Museum early 2015. How does Rob Hirst feel about his life’s work being treated as a museum piece?
“We had so many people come through and they were pleasantly surprised. I think they thought, ‘Oh Rob’s dug out a few old posters and stuck them on the wall with blu-tack’ or something. In fact, we spent about two years working on it; this is me, curator Ross Heathcote, Virginia Buckingham, Wendy Osmond who did the art direction on it.”
“We’ve got a special film which runs an hour and fifteen minutes made by Rob Hambling about the making of ’10 to 1′ with Nick Launay producing back in London all those years ago, and we’ve sourced all this film from 1984 of the band backstage in South Australia at Memorial Drive, and at Main Beach on the Gold Coast. There’s a lot of home movie footage, the Exxon banner from New York City, a full stage set-up of the band with the exact drums, guitars, amps, backdrop, lights and even the PA to be authentic from 1987 to 1989 which we toured on the back of the Diesel and Dust album.”
“There lots of little early recordings that have never been heard, a song we’ve never released before, and the pièce de résistance is a replication in a box which has sticky carpet, three screens when you walk in and a curtain you pull behind you. It has footage of the band playing at the Tanelorn Festival in 1981 and there’s two sets of headphones you can choose from – one is loud, the other is really loud – and you can stick to the carpet. There’s elbows that come out from the side of the box so that you can be elbowed in the ribs. What I was trying to do was replicate what it was like coming to see Midnight Oil back then at the Mawson Hotel, the 16 Footers or the Ambassador or whatever.”
I enquire as to whether the box also has the special scent that some of our more notorious venues had. Rob Hirst assures me it does.
“I’ve poured so much Tooheys New into that carpet, you’ve got no idea, and I’ve ground some lemon chicken and sweet and sour rat or whatever into it. Remember in NSW in those days the liquor laws stated that the pubs had to pretend to provide a meal if they were serving liquor late. No-one would ever touch those meals but they’d be knocked off the bar and into the carpet. So after three months in Manly it’s getting quite fruity in there!”
“It’s funny, one of the last surviving venues down here (Sydney), The Annandale, has just ripped up there carpet. The carpet was legendary. It was despicable. They could have scraped it for a new form of penicillin! But they shouldn’t have thrown it out. I’d have taken a square metre of it and put it in what became known as ‘Rob’s Folly’, but is now known as ‘The Royal Antler Room’ which is the Narrabeen pub that Midnight Oil first started playing all those years ago.”
“The curator, Ross Heathcote, named it ‘Rob’s Folly’ because he was bemused by the idea. He didn’t think I’d ever build it, but over six months with a couple of hard-working, underpaid friends we actually made it. It looks like a giant road case but it’s big enough for two or three people to cram in and get blasted by Midnight Oil at the Tanelorn Festival.”
Rob describes the opening of the Midnight Oil exhibition at the Manly gallery with great affection and it’s obvious that he still finds great joy in every tiny connection that his career has afforded him – from those with names to the ‘unknown’ members of road crews. Indeed for just a moment he sounds a bit misty when reminiscing about the night of the opening and the loyalty of the huge crowds who were not only Midnight Oil fans but turned out in droves to see the exhibition. I gently accuse him of getting mellow and soft in his dotage as he describes this ‘gathering of the tribes’. This quickly turns his thoughts to Newcastle.
“Newcastle will be the same. After all, Newcastle meant so much to the band. We went time and time again until we finally did a huge gig on Redhead Beach. We expected to find maybe a couple of thousand people, but there must have been 25,000 or 30,000 people on the beach. That kind of paid us back for all the hard work. We’d spoken to The Angels and (Cold) Chisel who’d just preceded us a little bit, and they said, ‘If you get places like Newcastle you’ll get the most loyal audiences on earth’, and that’s what happened. And of course a few years later was the earthquake benefit and we were lucky enough to be on that bill as well, and that gig goes down as one of the great shows we’ve ever played.”
Midnight Oil, of course, achieved success with not just a lot of hard work, but what Rob Hirst describes as an ‘anti-plan’.
“We’d heard all these terrible stories of bands that we’d loved that ended much too early, before their time, through no fault of their own. They were brilliant musicians, songwriters, performers, but through management or lousy agency deals or record company stuff-ups they hadn’t fulfilled their potential. So we looked at them and because Pete and I had done law – Pete finished law, I didn’t – but we knew our way around a contract a little bit. So when we signed with an independent label, even though we were being chased by the majors at the time – that made us too anxious, so we signed with an independent label which we called ‘Powderworks’ after the first song on the first album and gradually eased ourselves in.”
“I think that stood us in good stead because we were able to build this very loyal live crowd – initially in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong and then interstate. But because we took it softly, softly, I don’t think we made the horrendous mistakes that some of the other great Australian bands had done.”
I point out the obvious that Midnight Oil weren’t trying to seduce an audience with songs of sex and drugs and rock & roll like every other band, but were insisting we have a look at contemporary Australian issues.
Again, Rob is amused, “Yeah, we were decidedly unsexy and we didn’t take anywhere near enough drugs although I was on ascorbic acid (vitamin C) for about 15 years.”
“Probably two of the most maligned rock managers of the time were Gary Morris who looked after us, and Chris Murphy who looked after INXS, although Gary also looked after INXS initially but then just us once he realised we were more than a handful.”
“Those managers were much feared and not very liked in the industry, but they were fiercely loyal to their bands and Gary not only was a real strong-arm, Rottweiler kind of manager which you need to protect a young band that has big ideas but no money in the bank, but he also threw all these crazy ideas at us all the time. One in every 100 of his crazy ideas was brilliant and we’d actually do it.”
“The best bands seemed to have been the most unlikely bunch of people – and I include their management in that – all thrown together and all providing different talents to an end that make the sum much stronger than the individual.”
“With Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel, for example, the songwriters weren’t the singer. In the case of Chisel it was Don Walker writing for Jimmy (Barnes), and with the Oils it was Jim (Moginie) and myself writing for Pete (Garrett). There were others in the band that were great performers – Pete was this extraordinarily charismatic singer, Jim was a whiz in the studio, Martin (Rotsey) was great with arrangements … and everyone kind of had their place.”
“Back in those days you actually sold albums, they weren’t all pirated or downloaded for free so we could quickly pay back that poor bank manager in Chatswood and get going and make our own career even thought we didn’t play Countdown and we didn’t play the industry game.”
They most certainly didn’t. And I suggest that to a then-young and female Australian music-goer, Midnight Oil could appear a bit intimidating. A bit cranky.
“We were a bloody-minded bunch of bastards back then and, yeah, we were cranky all the time. If you look at photos from that time we look really cranky. A lot of bands want to look cranky but we were actually cranky because we were tired and probably hungry and pissed off about something.”
Yes, I detect Rob Hirst pulling my leg a bit, but only a bit. He admits that if you were anywhere near the front of the stage during a Midnight Oil gig, or The Angels, or Rose Tattoo, Cold Chisel, whatever, you were a member of a fairly tough breed. I assure him I was happy at the back of the room but I suspect the safest place may have been behind the drum kit.
False rumours have just done the rounds that Robert Plant had knocked back $500-$800 million to reform Led Zeppelin. Big numbers. What would it take for Midnight Oil to perform together again?
“Robert Plant. I really admire the man, he keeps reinventing himself. It’s long not been about the money for people like that. But it’s one thing cruising around the pubs and just playing a medley of your greatest hits and a lot of bands fall for that trap. But I think Midnight Oil is among that bunch of bands that would be much too musically curious to have ever done that.”
“If we were ever to get back together, it would almost certainly be with new material and we’d have to feel we were contributing something rather than just some nostalgic act in sparkly jackets doing the clubs. Whether that will happen I have no idea.”
In a recent interview Rob pointed out that it’s important we talk about depression, that we acknowledge the importance of mental health in order to help people.
“It’s not just my mum, there are other members of the family who have suffered from it and it is as strong as any other inherited disease. And possibly more lethal because we don’t talk about it and don’t address it.”
Rob and his daughters sang ‘Someone Scared’ at his late mother’s funeral and he suggests that this song was the catalyst for the full album.
It’s a terrible thing to admit, but as a high school work experience kid I spent a week at Powderworks when Midnight Oil’s ‘Bird Noises’ EP was being pressed on to gooey black vinyl. I simply wanted to know how music worked.
I wish I hadn’t been such a good kid and had actually nicked one.
And frankly, I’d have pinched one of Gabriella Hirst’s beautiful silk birds from the poplar forest, too.
Don Walker is a notoriously private man. He just does not talk about the personal stuff. But he does talk about himself, about music and words and prose and work and Chisel and just about anything else you choose to throw at him.
He speaks slowly, deliberately, and laughs with a quiet, low rumble. Don Walker is also very dry and very funny.
Once a scientist who worked on Australia’s F111 program, Don says he worked for a little while with “whatever modest skills I acquired in aerodynamic engineering. I can’t say I was very good at it.”
Words matter to Don Walker and it’s obvious that language is a great love for the man who has written some of Australia’s most iconic rock songs, “I think my love of words, language and humour – which is very much part of it – comes not so much from reading but from listening to regional speech in Australia, listening to the way people talk.”
“I love the enormously intelligent use of language that you get in regional and grass roots Australia. I like to laugh and Aussies say stuff that makes me laugh all the time. I try and write in a way that’s close to conversation, and the conversation that I know is the way that I talk, and the people around me whose company I enjoy, talk.”
Don Walker grew up in Grafton on the north coast of NSW and says there was little choice in radio listening, “Where I grew up there used to be two stations. 2NR was the ABC station on the north coast, and the local commercial station was 2GF. So 2GF was where you went for music; they didn’t play any music on the ABC except for classical programs, so the music that was played on the local commercial station was the music we heard.”
“It was a peculiar kind of faux-country music; a lot of American stuff, but some Australian stuff, and in that curious period between Elvis and The Beatles. Elvis hit and then it all went quiet when he joined the army, but The Beatles hadn’t happened yet, so there was a fallow period there where all sorts of wild and wonderful but now-forgotten things happened in music.”
“Last year, a mate of mine who grew up in the Wheatfields in WA told me he’d seen a movie called ‘The Tree of Man’ which I haven’t seen but apparently it’s the greatest movie of the last 10 years or so. In this movie he was shocked into that period of 1960 listening to commercial radio. He and a friend who worked in a record shop gathered three CDs of what was on the radio in that period and gave them to me. It’s a real shock to listen to them because these are not songs that are widely played since, so to listen to three CDs of them now plunges me straight back to sitting on a verandah on a farm when I was 10 years old. It’s wonderful stuff. ‘Big Bad John’, quite a bit of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline.”
‘Big Bad John’ is one of my own musical memories so I suggest to Don that I could probably sing him all the words of it and throw in a bunch of bad trucking songs about the ghosts of little girls to boot.
“That’s right!” laughs Don, “Six days on the road and I’m gonna see my baby tonight’, or ‘Wolverton Mountain’, or ‘From A Jack to a King’, all that kind of stuff!”
Our memories are strongly driven by sounds and smells and I suspect that as we get older, the guilty pleasures we have in music from years ago and may not have admitted to previously, are now songs that we love and will play loud in the car with the windows down, perhaps to the horror of our kids.
Don Walker is one of Australia’s most esteemed songwriters so of course I had to take the opportunity to try to get him to confess his musical sins to me.
“There’s plenty of stuff that I can go back to and I’d only admit between you and I that at a certain stage I was very passionate about ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’. It is interesting to go back and listen to stuff now and see if it sounds as good as I thought it did at the time. ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’ now sounds appalling! If you put on ‘Bitches Brew’ (Miles Davis) now, it sounds pretty good. So, there are examples like that, ‘bad fashion’ things that you do in any era.”
“I’m sure among the stuff I’m listening to and liking now there’s some pretty horrible stuff. You’re going to ask me what?”
Yes. But Don isn’t telling.
I share with Don that I had recently played The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ in the car for my kids to listen to because I think it’s one of those things that pre-dates my own record collection but still sounds wonderful. Indeed, ‘Pet Sounds’ was released in the year of my birth. So even if the lyrics are a bit cheesy, if something was beautifully recorded and produced does it redeem it somewhat for him?
“Well, you can’t dismiss something just because it has cheesy lyrics, any more than you can dismiss something because it has cheesy music. Often in those combinations there’s treasure.”
“But The Beach Boys, I never got it, or I never bothered. I think because when I was young, nobody in the banc could actually play – nobody could do a solo – and when I was 20 or 25 that was important. But I’ve been doing a lot of long car trips over the last few years and a couple of years ago I bought a ‘best of The Beach Boys’ and listened to it and started to wake up as to why so many of my musical friends are fanatical Beach Boys fans. Not so much musicians, but people in the music business, radio people and music journalists. I started to get it, to realise that this wasn’t just another pop group, there’s actually something unique and extraordinary that’s happened here and everyone else is just imitators. I kinda knew that, but I never got it myself. Now I do.”
Don Walker is perhaps best known as Cold Chisel’s main songwriter and through that band gave Australian rock music fans a new voice. With 40 years of songwriting under his belt, does the legacy of songs like Khe Sanh – released in 1978 – weigh on him?
“Well, it’s nice! There’s a good living in that kind of thing. But once songs like that go out and are adopted by people as part of that canon of what they like to listen to, then it becomes a little bit remote to me.”
“The last five years or so, occasionally, I’ve done Khe Sanh myself with just piano, but that sounds utterly different so I can kind of own that again. It becomes a story with some chords, but it doesn’t sound remotely like Jim (Barnes) and Cold Chisel on the radio because I can’t sing like that. I’m very proud of it. We were a bunch of young guys and we did some good stuff. It’s good that people like that and it holds up decades later, but it’s a little bit remote from my daily life.”
“I didn’t sing Khe Sanh originally. I just wrote it and showed it to the other guys in the band. Jim’s been singing it as an integral part of what he does live, but not me. Neither are any other Cold Chisel songs. It’s just in the last few years I started doing this other piano version of it. I wasn’t avoiding it in all that time, it’s just that it’s not something that sounds like what I do, and it’s not the way that I sound when I sing.”
“With such a song that’s as widely loved as that, if I get up and sing it somebody might yell out, ‘That’s not how it goes!’ he laughs, “The other thing is it’s gotta a lot of words and everybody else knows them better than I do so what if you get half way through and you get stuck?!”
In 2009, Don released his book ‘Shots’ – a collection of short autobiographical pieces. Reading ‘Shots’ reminded me of the way Leonard Cohen uses words, but Leonard Cohen makes me wonder just which words are lies.
“I don’t think songwriters lie, but they certainly make stuff up. Is that lying? It’s an essential part of songwriting.”
“Many years ago I was listening to someone do an interview with Paul Kelly, and they were digging in way beyond, ‘What comes first, mate, the lyrics or the music?’, they were digging in to just what happens and how do you come up with lyrics,”
“Paul said, ‘I make stuff up.’ I burst out laughing, I thought that was brilliant. Of course, you make stuff up. Is that lying? Yes, definitely. Sometimes it can tip over if you pretend it’s the truth. So if me or Laughing Lenny write something that is not fiction but purporting to be a factual account, but that tips over into something that didn’t actually happen, well … you’re on the edge.”
Where does Don Walker place the Canadian wordsmith, Leonard Cohen?
“The big attraction for Leonard Cohen, and like The Beach Boys I’ve become a Leonard Cohen fan late in life – never took much notice of him before the last five or ten years but the big attraction is his humour. I don’t think anything has got much legs if it hasn’t got humour. You can look around and look at all the recording artists in history and divide the ones who have humour from the ones who don’t. And that’s a pretty profound thing, that really sorts them out, and Leonard Cohen is one of the funniest people out there, and one of the driest in his lyrics. And that’s why now, late in life, I buy every Leonard Cohen album.”
Jimmy Barnes, of course, has deflected a lot of the heat of Cold Chisel’s success from the rest of the band, but after Chisel disbanded Don Walker has put himself up front.
“It’s never all about me, even when you’re up there in front of a band. It’s about the songs and the story. You’re trying to put that over and connect. You’re trying to whisper in the ear of everybody who’s listening, whether you’ve recorded something that’s being played on the radio or if you’re playing a big show and there’s thousands of people there. It’s just one person trying to communicate to one other, and in some situations there’s a lot of ‘one other’. It’s not about ‘you’, the person standing up there.”
“The fascist thing about it is that people can’t talk back,” laughs Don, “And for people in our position, the beautiful thing.”
I find it interesting to think about how songwriters see their own work given how precious it can sometimes become to others. To fans. To listeners. We listen, we love, we lose. We perhaps get married to the words in these songs. Live our lives through them. Die. We carry them with us and consider which of them we’d rescue from our burning house or take to a desert island. But how does the songwriter, the storyteller, see them?
Don chips me about just wanting to ask what his favourite song is, but I think it’s more complex than that and he concedes it’s difficult to answer.
“There’s a lot of stuff over the decades and I don’t think of them as valuable or otherwise. Although there’s a few things I’ve written that I would regard as ‘value-less’, but I’m not going name them. I admire people who use their songs to help people – that has value – but the songs I value most often have no correlation between how good a song is in my eyes and how well-known it is or how much money it’s made or anything like that. It’s not an inverse correlation either.”
“Probably one of the most – in my heart – beautiful songs I’ve ever written I wrote about 15 years ago – at the turn of the century! When I wrote it I thought, ‘This is going to be massive all over the world because it’s such a beautiful song’, and I wrote it about a personal situation but it was universal, it had what I thought was a beautiful melody, it was simple, and it had everything that I thought was good about songcraft. And yet, everybody who heard it in the publishing world acknowledged how good it was but I couldn’t get it recorded.”
“So that’s what I’d call one of the top five songs that I’m proud of and yet nobody knew about it for 13 years.”
“But Missy Higgins has just recorded it and done a stunning version of it (The Way You Are Tonight) and now people are hearing it. In the meantime, there’s a lot of other songs I’ve written that are enormously popular and have been all over the airwaves that I didn’t think were nearly as good.”
Don Walker is a storyteller, but are there stories he hasn’t been able to get out yet?
“Yes, yes there are. There are things like that that have hung around in the back of my head for a long time, but they’re difficult to describe because describing them will be in the song or in the prose writing and I haven’t figured out a way of doing that yet. Where they live now is in pictures and movies and landscapes and feelings and maybe a few scraps of words.”
How does he know when the song is done. When the words are finished. When to stop and leave it alone.
“You just know. It’s like a big bell goes off. ‘This is right now.’ And it’s something that is the same with a piece of prose writing. I can’t explain that but I utterly know when something’s right. At the same time, the reverse side of that is that you utterly know when something is not right. But knowing it’s not right doesn’t mean that you know how to get to where the bell goes off. I’ve put things out without waiting for the bell to go off, when they’re not quite right but good enough.”
Will he tell me what they are?
“No. But there’s an internal thing that defies all logic. Surely, all of these things are subjective. What is right to one person is not right to another, but there is something in me – and I know it exists in others – where it’s not a subjective thing, there’s an utter certainty when something is right. And a nagging, cold dissatisfaction and itch when it’s not.”
Meanwhile, after a 40-year career in the music industry, Don Walker is still touring larger shows with a full band, and smaller intimate shows to just a few dozen people.
“The beauty of doing things like that is to deliberately put myself in a situation where I didn’t know if I could pull it off and I had to do some work. I had to do a lot of preparation and figure out a lot of things I hadn’t had to figure out before to make a show of that length work with just me and the piano.”
I suggest that to do so is gutsy.
“It’s not so much the size of the audience. It doesn’t really matter. It’s what’s going on onstage. In that situation I have no band and nothing to hide behind. So I have to make it work with those few tools. That’s confronting. I did a night in Nundle and it worked. The night I did in Mayfield, the first set didn’t work. I just couldn’t make it work. The second set worked and everybody got it and we all had a good time.”
“I’m hoping that they didn’t feel like it was a waste of their time. That they’re thinking, ‘That was a worthwhile thing to do’. That’s what I’m wishing and hoping for. People’s time and attention is valuable and if you’re going to use it up you’ve got to do something worthwhile, make it work, and try and figure out a way of transporting them into the stories. Sometimes you don’t manage that and if you don’t manage that, well that’s a failure and instead of transporting them somewhere, you’ve seat-belted them into a dark little room for an hour when they could have been enjoying themselves.”
When all is said and done, what does Don Walker feel he’s gotten right?
“The things that I’ve done right have nothing to do with music because they’re far more fundamental things than that, and they’re not public things. There haven’t been many of them and there’s a lot of things I’ve done wrong. But they’re the things in the end.”
“While I’ve been doing this interview, I’ve got a call from my daughter. It’s in that world where you really succeed or fail. If there’s a couple of things I like myself for, it’s in that world.”
And with that, I encourage Don Walker to go and call his daughter.
Megan Washington says that ‘Skyline’, one of the tracks on her new album ‘There, There’ is about ‘choosing hope’.
“I think that’s a choice we have to make daily. Choosing happiness and choosing positivity is something that you have to make a priority. For me, it’s a daily thing.”
“That song was inspired a few years when I became very ill and woke up in hospital, figuring out how I felt in that moment and what it meant. Those moments can be extremely formulative? Is that a word? The highest of highs and the lowest of lows is when you galvanise your resolve to overcome things and that was one of mine.”
Whilst not new to the music industry it would be surprising if her audience hadn’t increased substantially after her appearance on ABC TV’s Australian Story and her frank discussion of growing up with a stutter. It was wonderful to watch the flood of support from many thousands of people sent to her via social media after the program aired.
“To be honest with you, I cried a lot after that. I watched the show – because I couldn’t not watch it – with some friends and we made a dinner and watched it.”
“Afterwards, the overwhelming – you used the word ‘flood’ – and I think that’s a great description of it, all these people … it wasn’t so much the goodwill that struck me, it was the resonance, the ‘me toos’, that I heard and I found really moving. I found it incredible that people could see some of themselves in what I had said.”
“You’ve got to understand, I don’t know any other version of life than my life. It isn’t like I never had a stutter and then I suddenly got one. This is how existence is. To see that brought so many other people together with each other, not so much with me, there was a real sense of us being on the same side, the same team. It’s great.”
People like to tell each other who they are.
“I think it’s universal. When I meet anybody the first thing they want to do is tell you their story. People like to tell each other who they are. It’s not surprising to me when people do this and drop the act, stop acting out their role.”
The shortest song on Megan Washington’s new album was written in just a few minutes and she says she had the aim of trying to describe a sensation.
“There must be a word for that like ‘onomatopoeiac’ but that describes the sensation, the sound reflects the sensation. There must a word for it, a German word!”
“I wanted to write a song about falling in love that was less about falling in ‘lurve’ than literally FALLING in love, falling down the stairs or something. The dizziness or giddyness that comes with that. That was the plan. It is the shortest song I’ve ever written.”
Megan Washington’s new album ‘There, there’ is out now and is our 1233 ABC Newcastle Album of the Week.
You can hear Carol Duncan’s full interview with Megan Washington in the audio attached.
If you missed Megan’s exceptional TedX talk, the link is here.
Scottish musician Eddi Reader has spent decades travelling the world after leaving Scotland for England at just 18 years of age. Having been back in Scotland now for the last 13 years, Eddi says she’s had to make the effort to learn about what the deal that created the United Kingdom actually means for Scottish people. And she says it’s a dud deal.
“It’s quite a massive control of your life. You pay your tax and it all goes 600 miles away and someone else decides what to do with it. I lived in England for 28 years and I lived in Scotland until I was 18 and then came home just 13 years ago, so I’ve really had to get to know this place again. What really struck me was the terms of the deal – I didn’t realise that we weren’t equal. I’ve been voting for Labour or left-wing parties all my life because that’s what my family voted for, I just continued to do that. But what I discovered is that it doesn’t affect what gets in or out of parliament in London.”
Scotland matters to a lot of Australians. The 2011 Census showed that 130,000 Australian residents were born in Scotland and there another 1.7million with Scottish ancestry.
“I think there’s a lot of affection for Scotland and it’s clear to me in my travels is a real affection for Scottish people. I noticed in Australia recently that people feel a real connection to Scotland, every time I opened my mouth people wanted to ask me about it because they perhaps have a grandparent from Scotland. I was very touched by that.”
“But I think a lot of people have been unaware of the terms of the union, the contract. I myself wasn’t aware, so I think this debate that really took off a couple of years ago has actually made a lot of Scottish people ask the question, ‘What is the terms of the contract and why don’t we know that?”
“Most Scots are incredibly generous and most Scots want a union. I believe in a union. I am committed to unity, generosity and sharing, but there’s no sharing going on in this deal. Scotland receives a grant. For every public service pound spent by the government voted into westminster England gets 85 pence, Scotland gets 10 pence and Wales gets 5 pence.”
“The parliamentary union, as our democracy has grown, as women got the vote, as people who were not rich became people who could vote – nobody ever reassessed what the deal was so we’ve been living in this blind association which has caused frustration, resentment, blame and actual division – if Scotland is allowed to have the government it chooses, and spend its money the way it chooses, then I think we can create alliances with England which are much more solid and real. A true relationship is people that compromise with each other, this union we have isn’t really a union.”
Eddi Reader has been very vocal about her support for a YES vote for the referendum, but has been strongly criticised for doing so.
“I couldn’t believe it! When we were asked to make a democratic choice, I thought it was just a case of analysing what the deal was – it’s either yes or no. It was my duty to look at the deal and make a decision. I realised that I was falling down on the side that says ‘yes’ because I want my children to be confident, I don’t want them to leave like I did when I was 18. When I left at 18 there was no record industry in Scotland, there was no big publishing company – but now we’ve got amazing art. There are young people out there who know more about Scottish culture than I was taught. So there’s a confident nation happening here.”
“As soon as I said I was taking the YES position there was a headline in The Scotsman saying that my family were associated with the IRA. I was also told that in the House Of Lords, in the Hansard minutes, a Lord said that ‘if we had an independent it would be full of people like Eddi Reader murdering Robert Burns songs. Now I don’t mind if people don’t like my music but to stand in a public forum and attack my livelihood – I was getting a kicking by people who are very powerful. This is a powerful force that are against people making a democratic choice – it’s not like having 200 people on Twitter saying, ‘your music is rubbish’.”
“We have 59 MPs (out of 650), then there’s the additional layer of the House of Lords. There are about 775 of them, NONE of them elected. ALL of them appointed. So that means we have 4% voting power in the Westminster parliament.”
Eddi hopes that the rest of the world is bearing witness to Scotland as the referendum nears, “We’re a grassroots people. I’m an ordinary citizen making a democratic choice. I’ve been called a Nazi. I’ve been called a nationalist and I don’t even care about tartan! I just want to live in country where my vote counts.”
“There are a lot of scare tactics at the moment. Apparently people over the age of 75 have been told to stockpile food because they won’t get their pensions! We’ve been told all the banks are going to move out of Scotland, the businesses are going to move out of Scotland.”
“There are some people who have been really scared. But I’m not scared because of pragmatism. Finland is the same size as us, doesn’t have oil, and is doing fine. I just don’t understand why they think everyone is going to stop working if we vote YES. I’m still going to pay tax. I’m still going to do tours. My neighbours are still going to work. Why do they think Scotland can’t run an economy?”
“Scots in their voting patterns have voted for far more left-wing policies than they’ve ever been allowed to have but people say, ‘How are you going to pay for it?’ Well, the same way anyone else does.”
“My only worry is that if it’s a very narrow majority for YES, every single one of us will need to make sure we don’t get ripped off.”
Does Eddi think the referendum will be successful?
“I don’t know, I only have my one vote, but it can be powerful. I think that for people who vote NO, a lot of it will be because they’ve been scared.”
James Reyne has an enviable career in the Australian music industry – first appearing on ABC TV’s Countdown in 1979 with both of his arms in plaster after being hit by a car in Melbourne.
Australian Crawl held court around Australia’s pub rock scene for just seven years, but the sound of the band and the themes of their songs are the story of numerous Australian summers.
As a solo artist, James Reyne has released over a dozen albums, continued to tour Australia and internationally with audiences of up to 200,000 people.
ABC Newcastle’s Carol Duncan caught up with James Reyne ahead of his Anthology tour.
“I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have. I’ve developed an attitude over the many years that I’ve been doing this that it’s amusing. You can’t let most of it worry you. Certainly most of the people of my generation who were in it for the wrong reasons or the shifty ones have been weeded out. There are still a couple floating around and you run into them occasionally and think, ‘How is this person still here?’
Knowing my attempt to get James to name names will be rebuffed, I ask anyway.
He laughs, “No, I’m not going to name any names because they’re usually quite litigious people anyway.”
“I just think it’s quite amusing. It’s like a crash-course in human nature. You see a lot of extremes of human personality in quite a short time, and up close!”
“I’ve made some fantastic friends and there are some wonderful, wonderful people who work in this industry and most people are genuine with depth and credibility.”
James Reyne, particularly given the success and image of Australian Crawl, is perhaps seen by many as the quintessential sun-kissed Australian, yet like so many of his generation of peers he wasn’t actually born here.
“The ten-pound Pom thing, and Adelaide – the ten-pound Pom into Adelaide. It astounds me. A little city like that, the amount of music that came out of there either British or Scottish-based. We owe Adelaide. But yes, I was born in Nigeria,”
“My father was an Englishman in the Royal Marines, he was ADC to the Queen, but he left. He didn’t want to be a career soldier. He got a job with BP and he was posted to Nigeria. My (Australian) mother and he were not long married and they went to Nigeria when he was posted there. He’d be out in the field and she’d be sitting in a house in Lagos and my brother and I were both born there.”
“I was tiny, three or four, when we came to Australia. I have a really vague memory of one little thing in Nigeria, but I don’t really have any other memories of it.”
James Reyne is heading toward 40 years in the Australian music industry with a career that has taken him to stages around the world with massive audiences, but names Creedence Clearwater Revival as one of the first bands he remembers hearing on the radio.
“There were probably things I heard before that but I remember hearing Creedence and thinking, ‘Wow! What is that? I want to do that!’ I’d have been 10 or 11 and it was probably Proud Mary or Born on the Bayou or something like that. I’ve been a total fan of John Fogerty ever since. I love all the Creedence stuff and some of his solo stuff. Like everybody, it was my formative years, I just love all that and that led me into other things and I was just hooked,”
“There was a great show on the ABC called ‘Room to Move’ and it was hosted by a guy called Chris Winter. I think it was a Sunday or Monday night, quite late; we used to listen to it on the radio under the bedclothes. A few years ago I did a show with Tracee Hutchison on ABC 2 and Chris was our producer, I remember going, ‘Chris Winter WOW!'”
“He was brilliant, and I was hooked. His whole approach, his on-air style, his whisper – it was brilliant. So I fell in love with that, it was the first sort of album show. Then I started to get into albums with my friends at school. We’d collect albums and we had a little folk club – we got quite serious about
“I remember really loving records from Creedence, Little Feat, Ry Cooder, Jerry Jeff Walker but I think Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks ‘Last Train to Hicksville’ – as a whole album there’s not a dud moment on it. So if anyone can find it, get it. It’s brilliant. The whole history of Dan Hicks and his influence – he was in a band with a guy called Robert Hunter who essentially invented the San Francisco scene. This is before The Grateful Dead and so on. I was really in to the sociology of it – the background of who influenced who,”
“I used to pore over the album covers and sleeves and read all the liner notes. I don’t know that there’s much you can put on liner notes now that would be as interesting as they were then. That was your only access because there was no Google or anything. Your only access to any information about the band is what was in the liner notes.”
By the time James Reyne was just 20 years old, his band with a group of art college mates had been renamed Australian Crawl and taken off on the pub circuit, and although James admits that although they had no idea what they were doing, they were having fun.
“I was never thinking, ‘This will be my career’ or ‘this will be my job’ or ‘this will be something I’ll do for another 30 or so years and keep doing’,”
“We weren’t very good. The first band was terrible! But you’ve got to do your apprenticeship and you start learning. But I wasn’t aware of it, we were just doing it.”
James Reyne has always appeared to be a complex person; well-spoken, intelligent, thoughtful, possibly a bit feisty. What about the 20-year old James Reyne?
“I was at the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School and it was about then that we all had to make a decision, are we going to do our tertiary courses or are we going to do this band thing? I guess it wasn’t so much ‘serious’ but we figured, ‘I guess you’ve got to make a decision and if you’re going to do it you have to dedicate yourself to it’.”
“But the 20-year old was, I dunno, pretty happy-go-lucky. He had a big mouth.”
Was he confident?
“I guess relatively confident, but if I saw what I thought was a ‘real’ band or anybody from a real band somewhere down the street, (I thought) they were a cut above me. I never thought I’d be breathing that rarefied air. I just thought ‘those guys must have an extra gene’.”
“Joe Camilleri. I’d see The Falcons all the time, I’d see The Sports, I’d see The Pelaco Brothers and Joe and Steve Cummings were in The Pelaco Brothers.”
“Where we grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, in summertime they used to have bands come down and play in the boat clubs down there. Every club had a boat house that they’d put a stage in and bands would play in there,”
“In my last year of school I used to go to a place called Reefer Cabaret in Melbourne at a place called the Ormond Hall and I remember I loved Arial, I loved Spectrum, Chain – I loved all those great 70s Australian bands. I remember going to the Myer Music Bowl when Thorpey (Billy Thorpe) had 200,000 people there. I was a fan of all that stuff. I remember seeing Skyhooks before Shirley (Strachan) joined. I was aware of Shirley, I didn’t know him, but I was aware of him because there was a surf band that played around where we grew up called Frame and Shirley was the singer of that band. He was such a personality, everybody was aware of him.”
“It was certainly a very unique time and a very formative time for Australian music, for Australian rock and roll and pop music. This is pre-Countdown and any of that stuff and there were so many great bands around; The Dingoes, Carson – I was a huge fan of Broderick Smith. What an incredible presence on stage, incredible singer and harmonica player. He was in a band called Carson, sort of boogie/blues band, and then they went and formed The Dingoes,”
“I used to see as many Dingoes shows as I could. There’s a pub in Prahran called the Station Hotel, I used to go to the Station Hotel quite a lot and they’d have Saturday afternoon sessions where The Dingoes would often play. That would just devolve into fantastic mayhem.”
I’ve interviewed James Reyne a few times over the last 20-plus years and I’ve never quite felt convinced that he’s entirely at peace with his back catalogue of wonderful work. I have often wondered if he perhaps underestimates the importance of his music to his fans. Is this why it’s taken so long to get Anthology together?
“Well, it’s actually got very little to do with me! A record company merger meant that the new label realised that the Australian Crawl back catalogue wasn’t available digitally, and although they can kind of do whatever they want because they own the masters, they asked if I wanted to do it and bring it up to date. I paid for my more recent solo records so I made a list of about 50 or 60 songs, cut it back down to about 40. And good on them. They’ve put the solo stuff on there, the ones that people would know, but it’s a good cross-section of all of it right up to the most recent stuff. Why did it take so long? I never thought of it! It’s just the story so far, I’ll keep making records.”
But has he been dissatisfied with the big machine of the music industry?
“I’m not so naive as to think that’s just the nature of how it works. You’re there as long as they need you and then you’re not and that’s fine and that’s the way it works. No, it’s not dissatisfaction, a lot of my amusement or ammunition I can get for song writing is just human beings. So aspirational but so easily impressed. People get so easily impressed with all sorts of things, not just the entertainment industry,”
“But I think we’re all aware now with the media generally people are drip-fed what they’re supposed to be hearing and seem to lap it up. And adopt these opinions! They read a crappy headline and that becomes their opinion and they know all about it! Well, no, you don’t. You haven’t studied the situation in the Middle East. You don’t know.”
“In terms of the entertainment industry I find a lot of fodder in the way people are so easily impressed and so aspirational about all this silliness.”
In a time when independence is increasingly a healthy option for artists and creatives of all sorts, does James Reyne feel there is a disconnect between the work of an artist and what a corporate entity only sees as ‘product’?
“I think the role of the big, big record companies is getting less and changing. Certainly changing, they’re less significant in the scheme of things. They’re still there and still part of it but I think the disconnect between art and commerce is always going to be there.”
And yet independence is creating a healthy relationship between the artist and the audience, particularly via crowd funding – Kate Miller-Heidke being a good case in point. Kate says that crowd funding O’ Vertigo cuts out the middle man and brings her back into a relationship with the people who love her music.
“That’s right. I think the response was so good she raised more than she needed, which shows how loyal her fan base is. I didn’t understand it when it first started happening, but I do now. I think it’s a very viable development.”
“The last four solo records I’ve made I’ve paid for myself and then licensed them to a distribution company – it gets quite expensive and you’re never really going to make your money back.”
“I still love writing, I write more now than I ever have and I think I write better because it’s a craft and I’ve been doing it longer, I apply myself more to it now than I ever have.”
“I’d like to think I’m a songwriter who is always learning, trying to get better and trying to improve the craft. I’m quite self-critical. I’ve also written a few other things but I won’t talk about them because I’ve learnt that you jinx them until these things get up and running!”
James Reyne’s career has also included varying degrees of success as an actor – harking back to his tertiary studies at the Victoria College of Arts Drama School. Is there more he wants to do other than music?
“Oh plenty! I’ve got about five things bubbling along at the moment. A few times people have said, ‘James, you’ve got to write the book’. I’m not going to write the book! The world doesn’t need another rock autobiography and I think unless you can write the real book and name names,” James laughs, “you’re going to get the pasteurised version of something of nothing ….” Who wants to hear that stuff? It’s boring. It’s been done. That’s not to say anything bad about anyone who has written a rock biography, because some of them I know and they’re lovely people. Mark Seymour wrote a great one. I loved Mark’s (book). He’s a friend and a good writer.”
On a roll, the tongue remains firmly in cheek.
“I always wanted to do ‘Australian Crawl The Musical’ and you either do it as a really bad kids’ play and get kids to play it with terrible home-made props or you do the most stonkingly gay thing you’ve ever seen with a chorus of boys in tight board shorts! We could do that!”
I suspect I’d be happy to see either version and after interview number whatever over a couple of decades, James Reyne actually sounds more genuinely comfortable in his own skin than he ever has.