April has the reputation for being the cruellest month, so when the great Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s death was announced on the first day of this month, it seemed the veracity of the old adage had been confirmed yet again.

Yevtushenko’s death resonated with me, not because I was a great admirer of his work, but because it reminded me of being a university student caught up in the adrenaline rush of discovering new ways of thinking, encountering new voices in literature, and readjusting my own world view to accommodate this flood of new information that bombarded me every day.

One of my favourite indulgences was transforming much of the material I was exposed to into new forms. I wrote stories based on music I was hearing, and poems from stories that had elicited deep emotional responses. Paintings, speeches, films – they all generated  combinations of words in my mind that had not been used or configured into thought before. It was strange and intoxicating.

One poem that worked its way into my mind and ‘epiphanised’ its way onto a page in my notebook was Yevtushenko’s poem, Gentleness.

This can’t go on:

is after all injustice of its kind.

How in what year did this come into fashion?

Deliberate indifference to the living,

deliberate cultivation of the dead.

Their shoulders slump and they get drunk sometimes

and one by one they quit;

orators at the crematorium

speak words of gentleness to history.

What was it took his life from Mayakovsky?

What was it put the gun between his fingers?

If with that voice of his, with that appearance,

if ever they had offered him in life

some crumbs of gentleness.

Men live. Men are trouble-makers.

Gentleness is a posthumous honour.

I particularly was struck by the truth of the line orators at the crematorium / speak words of gentleness to history, and the last two lines struck me with great impact. A simple, obvious truth, never articulated before in my universe.

So here, dusted off from the ‘cool-room of history’, is my hurriedly jotted response to my first reading of that poem. unedited and offered here as a gentle, posthumous act in honour of Yevgeny.



‘Gentleness is a posthumous honour’,

Said Yevtushenko enigmatically to the educated class,

Benevolently bestowing his wisdom on the dislocated mass:

Urging empathy in the knowledge that ‘in any man who dies

There dies with him his first snow and kiss and fight’.


And what a fight.


We tell all who’ll listen to resist the lure of that long night,

Rail against the fading light, utilize our living right

To squeeze our world into a ball, slow death’s progress to a crawl.

Be prepared for the ruck and maul, the everlasting all-in brawl –

The wrestling of a rough reprieve, the knowledge of one last ace up sleeve:

‘We feel most alive when the sensation’s strong’, so says the song.

That’s why we want those who remain to recognize the loss, to wail and grieve

To feel the absence of those once among

The crowded throng in the heart’s front bar,

That place where our most wanted are;

Those our departure will most likely scar.


It may be ‘honour’ but one hardly felt

When the lifeblood stops and the chances melt

Back into dust, or air, or time – or another’s breath;

Yevtushenko, like us, ‘still not used to human death,’

Confuses gentleness for numbing ignorance, or worse:

A misguided desire to drive the hearse, the final curse,

The final joke! – Driving suggests control, like playing head nurse

In the overcrowded infirmary of those recently dispersed.


May poetry continue to give off smoke, and may his poems continue to spark response.





 A review of ‘Sweet Action: The Ultimate Story’

 The Sweet

 Sony Music. 3 DVD Boxed set. Released 2015.


A hearty serve of pop confectionery. The ‘Sweet Action’ DVD box set. Photo: Ken Grady

In a year when people are reeling from the loss of the greatest glam rocker of them all, David Bowie, and a new generation is only now discovering his sublime back catalogue, it is probably not the best time to release a monster DVD box – all 440 minutes of it – comprehensively covering the full career of those cartoonish Chinni-Chap glamsters, The Sweet.

Truth is, set against the quality of Bowie’s work that is posthumously dominating the charts at the start of 2016, The Sweet often sound embarrassingly twee. Especially as we are reminded here that they ripped off ‘The Jean Genie’ in ‘Blockbuster’ and that Andy Scott went as far as releasing a single called ‘Lady Starlight’ in his determination to align himself with the Bowie comet of fame.

Having said all that, this set does have a number of charms if you allow yourself to place what you’re viewing into its proper historical context.

In the early seventies, The Sweet had a string of bubblegum / glam hits, mainly penned by Nicky Chinn & Mike Chapman, the Stock-Aitken-Waterman equivalent of their time. They hawked manufactured pop confection delivered in satin super hero outfits and outlandish boots, and all of the hits they foisted upon their public that you probably once loved but have now forgotten are here. Many of them are, in fact, included multiple times. ‘Fox On The Run’, for example, gets a run seven times throughout the running time of the box set.

I was a teenager during their moment in the sun and admit that I do have fond memories of snogging sessions at suburban parties whilst hits such as ‘Ballroom Blitz’ blasted out of the host’s parents’ stereos.

On disc one in this set – ‘Sweet On TV’ – such old memories flood back because almost all of the dolled up adolescents who are frugging away in the myriad of TV studios across the UK & Europe depicted here look like composites of every girl I ever had a teenage crush on back in the day, and every teenage lad awkwardly swaying in direct opposition to the stomping beat of each hit here, looks just like I did in the surviving photos of me from that era.

I also have to confess to seeing the band in their heyday at Adelaide’s Apollo Stadium, taking a perverse glee in watching disgusted mums & dads hurrying their young offspring to the exits in protest at the obscenities to which the band subjected the mostly pre-high school aged crowd – naked girls were projected onto the big screen, twisting themselves into shapes that formed the letters S-W-E-E-T as the band stormed on to the stage; Brian Connolly apologising that his voice was unfortunately ‘totally fucked’ which resulted in  Andy Scott taking over lead vocal and subsequently changing the lyrics of ‘Blitz’ to ‘…and the girl in the corner was playing with her twat…’. Totally un-PC good times…

Some of the magical cheesy moments on this disc are highly enjoyable – Andy Scott’s indian headdress on ‘Wig Wam Bam’ perhaps topping them all. A number of endearing miming mishaps raise a smirk, as does Brian Connolly’s unchanging blonde coiffure (that is, at least up until the clip for ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’ where he changes his ‘do’ to resemble a 1920’s ‘bob’ (akin to something like Mia Farrow in ‘The Great Gatsby’!).


The back cover of Disc One. An overstuffed bag of mixed lollies! Photo: Ken Grady

The clip for the song ‘Call Me’ is perhaps the most jarringly out of place here: it seems to be performed by a completely different band, but on closer inspection it actually turns out to be the now Connolly-free original line-up –  all of whom have had makeovers of disastrous proportion. The moustachioed afro look constitutes an affront to the glam gods! How were the lads not struck down at the time by Aladdin Sane thunderbolts for this sacrilege?

There are 43 tracks in all on Disc One – so no complaints about being short changed – and this number includes a mind-blowingly but unwittingly hilarious clip of the pre-Sweet incarnation, The Elastic Band, from 1968, which features some of the most uncomfortably self-conscious choreography you will ever see. It is almost worth the price of the whole set just to witness this!

A 1974 concert performance from the German TV show ‘Musikladen’ is a nice bonus too, no miming and a harder edged sound is apparent here. There are plenty of Hendrix-ified guitar solos, some Daltrey-esque microphone windmilling and some Queen-ish multi-layered harmonies in places – suggesting that they potentially had all the essential rock moves in their repertoire and perhaps, greater long-term success could have been theirs if if they had aimed at being a hard rock outfit from the outset, instead of opting to be a jingle-laden teeny-bop singles band instead. It was those poorly judged early stylistic decisions that doomed them to spending the rest of their career chasing a consistent audience and musical credibility.

Overall, film quality is extraordinarily good on this disc especially considering most of these TV performances would have originally been filmed on videotape, I would suspect.

Disc Two is entitled ‘Sweet Music Clips’ and the 17 promo clips of their hits are accompanied by a 1974 documentary from a program called ‘Scene’ and 15 more ‘rare’ television appearances.

The promo videos start with ‘Alexander Graham Bell’ featuring the band in conservative satin outfits, and subsequent clips show their wardrobe becoming more flamboyant over time. The long-forgotten ditty, ‘Jeanie’, has them foot-tapping in unison at the beach wearing highly fashionable flip-flops and also has drummer Mick Tucker wearing a sleeveless t-shirt which features a design that was also used on David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ album cover – 45 years before the Starman’s final release!

Generally, the promos here suffer from a lack of directorial inspiration and originality – most are just merely performances on sound stages or in recording studios. Andy Scott’s ‘Krugerrands’ being the only real exception to this approach but with its use of fish eye close-ups that turn the faces of the 1980’s bouffanted blonde models into grotesque nightmarish visions, it is a disappointment too.


Back cover of Disc Two. Some of the bonus cuts are ‘rare’ for pretty obvious reasons… Photo: Ken Grady

Watching the ‘rare’ TV appearances section of the disc messes with your mind. The majority of the clips here are from the 1990s and 2000s – and it has hard to come to terms with the revolving door succession of lead singers who tried to fill the late Brian Connolly’s shoes, all of whom struggle for credibility.

And hearing their most familiar song intro being worded thus: ‘Are you ready Steve? Andy? Bruce?’, is disconcerting to say the least.

Listening to the German hostess of the ZDF-Fernsehgarten program pronounce ‘Fox’ in her introduction as she says ‘Und here is ze Sweet with ‘Fux On The Run’’ proves to be a classic TV moment, even though the band who emerge to perform by the swimming pool after this have devolved to look like a bunch of oddly shaped middle aged mutants by 2014.

The featured documentary opens with the band arriving at the BBC in the daggiest looking limo in existence. A metaphor for their inability to lift themselves out of the second division of rock acts perhaps?

The plummy female voiceover, from the BBC’s Sarah Ward, is grating as she adopts a condescending tone which provides a stark contrast to the band’s working class accents on display in the interview excerpts.

There is a bizarrely fascinating section where the band discuss their stage outfit choices and have their hair washed and make-up applied as part of the 10-hour preparation they undergo before making a three minute stage appearance on an episode of ‘Top Of The Pops’.

An interview snippet with their business manager, a man who bears an unsettling resemblance to former ‘Number 96’ soapie star, Joe Hasham, reminds us that business considerations were always put ahead of artistic or aesthetic considerations. The Sweet were always simply a commodity, never an art installation in progress.

As an insight into the machinations of the rock industry of the seventies this film can be seen as a valuable archival document, and, as such, is certainly worth watching – at least once.

Again, the picture and sound quality on this second disc is uniformly excellent.

The final disc in the set is pretty much inessential – and appears to be included only to justify the ‘ultimate story’ claim in the set’s title.

This disc consists of two live shows. The first of which is a fifty-five minute set recorded at the iconic Marquee Club in London in 1986. Here the band is seen in full mullet and headband wearing form, head-banging heavily through some cod metal numbers with only a few hits sprinkled through the short set. I think it Is Paul Mario Day on lead vocals here – there is no accompanying booklet or any liner notes included to confirm line-ups  –  sounding like a cross between Ian Gillan and The Cult’s Ian Astbury, whilst trying his hardest to look like Dragon’s Marc Hunter.


Back cover of Disc Three. Enter at your own risk! Photo: Ken Grady

It transpires that this is a solid but uninspiring set – mostly because they sound more like late era Uriah Heep than The Sweet.

The video transfer is OK: the sound is good, but the vision suffers from a lack of clarity, particularly in the longshots from the back of the venue.

The second show featured here is from a 1991 German concert, where I am guessing that Mal McNulty is now the lead vocalist (hard to keep up with The Sweet’s personnel changes at the front of the stage– there have been at least 11 mostly indistinguishable lead vocalists over the years in all the various combinations that have existed under their moniker).

Sartorially, they are presented here all in black, with big hair. McNulty wears the ubiquitous hard rocker’s studded leather jacket. The band plays with energy, but its hard to shake the idea that you are actually watching a tribute band rather than the real thing.

Over half the set is made up of their solid gold heyday hits – all played with a high degree of competence but not a lot of passion. At one point, McNulty, between songs, shouts out the obligatory greeting: ‘Hello Hanover!’. This is met with widespread indifference from the crowd, eliciting the honest assessment, ‘That’s not very good’, before the singer implores the crowd to be louder because ‘[they] are making a video tonight’. Sad.

Another equally sad moment is when McNulty introduces Andy Scott before he sings ‘Lady Starlight’ and he actually points at the wrong band member as he does so!

The crowd does actually rouse itself towards the end of the set as the band roll through a sequence that includes ‘Blockbuster’, ‘Teenage Rampage’, ‘Hell Raiser’, ‘Fox On The Run’ and ‘Ballroom Blitz’, all of which are played with a fair impersonation of middle aged enthusiasm.

Taken in its entirety, the set’s sad revelation is that The Sweet, throughout all of their incarnations, always seemed to be trying for success in a genre they didn’t really want to be in. Poppy and doused in saccharine when they really wanted to be a heavy rock band; and a hard rocking heavy metal band that had to resort to playing teenybopper hits to keep their audience happy in their later years. Doomed to be eternally caught between two musical worlds.

It is also becomes clearly evident as you progress through these discs that, once Brian Connolly left the band, the magic formula that made them such hard-to-resist guilty pleasures and Top 40 regulars, left with him.

This box set is no cheap, poor quality cash in. The sound throughout is excellent and at 7 ½ hours running time, you certainly cannot deny the generous amount of material you get for the reasonable purchase price of just under $40 (Australian) – but too much sweet stuff is, as the old adage says, probably bad for your health. I wouldn’t recommend that you try and digest it all in one sitting.



The cover of Ada Calhoun’s new book, ‘St. Marks Is Dead’ Image borrowed from the author’s homepage:

If you have visited New York City at any time since the start of 2015 and have made the pilgrimage to the World Trade Centre Memorial and, whilst there, ascended to the viewing platform of the newly-opened One World Observatory, you would have, no doubt, had the breathtaking experience of taking the rapid elevator journey to the 102nd floor.

The elevator journey is akin to a rocket ride which, thanks to the wonder of the immersive floor to ceiling LED screens inside each cab, allows each passenger to see the city grow from, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described it, ‘the old island … that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – [the] fresh, green breast of the new world’, and turn itself into the sprawling megalopolis it is today. It is as if a camera has managed to record a 360-degree time-lapse film of the last 500 years.

From the viewing platform you can look to the north-west side of the Manhattan island and see the Lower East Side and the rest of the East Village, where so much of New York’s rich cultural history has taken place in the half a millennium that has passed since those Dutch sailors first arrived.

This area and, most specifically, its epicenter – St. Mark’s Place – is the focus of a remarkable new book written by native New Yorker, Ada Calhoun, titled ‘St. Marks Is Dead’. It is an expansive account of the tumultuous history of this remarkable and fascinating locale.

Whereas the Skypod Elevator ride in the One World Observatory whisks you through history at a pace where you could easily miss half a century of change in one momentary blink, Calhoun takes us on a similar time-travelling journey through New York’s physical, cultural and emotional evolution but at a slightly less frantic pace, so we can fully absorb and react to its compelling historical narrative.

History comes alive through the focused lens of Calhoun’s precise prose and through the contributions of the dozens of local personalities she has spoken to in compiling this chronicle of the life of the hub of New York ‘cool’.

All of us at some time have lived on streets that have their own trove of local stories and characters littered throughout their histories, but it would be hard to find a street anywhere in the world where such a prominent range of culturally significant people have regularly strutted and prowled and where such diverse and impactful events have occurred so consistently.

The silent film that hurries through to its sky-high conclusion in the elevator cab is undoubtedly impressive, but after finishing Calhoun’s book you can’t help but feel you have just been immersed in an even more fulfilling experience of the changing face of New York, it is like viewing a thrilling, elaborately plotted, mixed genre blockbuster.

Starting with the cultural conflict between local Indian tribes and the European invaders, Calhoun’s written ‘film’ takes us through the colonial struggles for survival and early attempts at pursuing the American Dream; confronts us with tragic scenes of maritime disaster, and tells tales of the myriad rags-to-riches successes and subsequent falls from grace of characters drawn there from all over the globe. We become privy to mob killings and witness violent street riots and sinister murders. We learn how St. Marks was a hotbed for political revolutionaries and religious visionaries, before going on forays into the world of drug culture. Calhoun has us relive the genesis of punk rock, and be present as its ‘big bang’ impact ripples out across the world.

If all of this is not enough to over-stimulate our senses we are also brought to endure the sadness of the AIDS epidemic; have our spirits lifted by the flamboyance of local drag queens, and marvel at the recurring cycles of artistic innovation brought about by the constant turnover of painters, poets, authors and multimedia pioneers who all spent time in the fertile St Marks Place environment.

Calhoun grew up in an apartment right in the middle of this vibrant, chaotic neighbourhood and writes with an impressive balance between an unbridled affection for the haunts of her childhood and the people who inhabited her world, and the clear, impartial observational reportage of a gifted historian and social commentator.

For me, reading this book in the relative quiet of a conservative middle-class Australian suburb, it made me nostalgic for my own youth when despite the world around me being full of its own exciting possibilities, I found it was a time when I was always compelled to seek out the music of New York’s Lower East Side and anything to do with the world of Andy Warhol and his acolytes, or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and his contemporaries, as well as the literature of Burroughs. I would devour any snippets of media reportage in that pre-Internet age that would tantalize my friends and I as they fed our romanticized ideal of how we wanted to live our own lives – free to explore life’s boundaries and express ourselves without restriction.

It took me half a lifetime, but I finally managed to make my first pilgrimage to the U.S., and to New York in August this year, but could only spend a few excessively hot summer days walking and re-walking the streets of the Lower East Side.

And, whilst it was not the St. Marks Place of those myths and legends that I had marvelled at in my youth, many of which are detailed vividly in this book, the sense of place and of history still affected me emotionally.

Being there had a physical impact upon me as well – I found, on a number of occasions, that I literally had to stop and force myself to breathe simply at the sight of a street sign, or at the people from the Bowery Mission handing out food in Tompkins Square Park, or at Kitty Carlisle’s handprint outside the St Marks Cinema, such was the power of the street’s place in the forming of my own cultural DNA.

And whilst the streets were obviously not those that I had convinced myself that I knew so well, I still found my soul singing all the same.

Reading Ada Calhoun’s ‘memoir of place’ seemed to me to bring each soul that ever touched St. Marks Place with its presence to join in with me in this song.

If you read it, I am certain the ‘song’ of St. Marks and the music in Calhoun’s prose, will touch you too.


I am one of those people who cannot play a note of music, but who is a passionate devotee of popular music in all of its forms. Music has been a constant presence in my life, for as long as I can remember.

Much to the annoyance of those who share my life, I am an accumulator of artifacts and cannot bring myself to surrender to mass digitalized music storage. Hence, my hard copy collection overflows from shelves, cupboards and cabinets around the house.

Most of the items in this cornucopia of recorded sound have stories attached to them, tying them most directly to significant times in my life.

One album that has been really important to me, since the late 70’s, is Dirk Hamilton’s ‘Meet Me At The Crux’ album.

Hamilton, a Texan singer-songwriter, had a very brief flirtation with fame here in Australia, back in 1978, when one track from this album, ‘How Do You Fight Fire?’, enjoyed some intermittent radio play and may have even dented the lower reaches of the pop charts.

The parent album of this song was on constant rotation in my flat that year, sound-tracking my first full year of independence after moving out of my parents’ home as soon as I had finished high school the previous November.

Not many of my friends liked the album anywhere near as much as I did, dismissing Hamilton as a ‘poor Van Morrison impersonator’. It was a criticism that I saw as unfair, although I had to concede an occasional Dirk vocal flourish, here and there, did bring Van The Man to mind.

Often, after I had put the album on the turntable, others who may have been just passing through on the way to a pub gig, or dropping in to crash after a hard night on the turps, would harrumph and lift the needle before slipping on a Johnny Thunders record, or perhaps, the first album by The Clash, and declare all was right, once again, in their closed-minded universes.

They did the same if I dared to play Steve Forbert’s ‘Alive On Arrival’, another album that got worn out that year, or something else, like a Randy Newman, or a John Hiatt record, perhaps.

Maybe it was my constant defending of these records to these uncultured dolts that has imprinted them so deeply in my soul. None of these records, however, are as indelibly connected to my heart than is ‘Meet Me At The Crux’.

Dirk Hamilton had made two albums before this. Both were strong song collections that, whilst in many ways reminiscent of a myriad of other American singer-songwriters’ work at that time, showed a streak of individuality and the promise of greater things to come. Both of these albums, ‘Alias I’ and ‘You Can Sing On The Left, Or Bark On The Right’, have since been re-released and still retain their charm.

‘Meet Me At The Crux’ made a greater impact upon me, however, because I heard it before those earlier releases, and because it has significantly more soul imbued within it.

‘How Do You Fight Fire?’, the track that drew me to purchase the disc, is an infectious horn filled anthem, with sparse evocative lyrics, which can still raise the hairs on the back of the neck whenever I hear Dirk sing, ‘I lie low / feel the powder blow’, just before the first chorus kicks in. If there was a universe where justice is absolute, this song would be dominating present-day classic hits radio there, and the question, ‘Dirk who?’ would never be uttered.

‘Every Inch A Moon’, the last track on the original vinyl disc (the CD release, when it finally arrived in 2007, had 8 bonus tracks that played after this), was simply wondrous and transported the listener away to the mystical land of ‘the sweet forever’.

‘Meet Me At The Crux’, ‘Billboard On The Moon’ (still magnificent!), and ‘Mouth Full of Suck (They Got No Life Of Their Own)’ still stack up against anything released before or since, and the rest of the album has other moments of genius scattered throughout.

The following year, the follow-up album, ‘Thug Of Love’, built upon the sound of this breakthrough release, and was rich in warm, poetic songs that should have established Hamilton in the A-League of American popular composers. ‘Moses & Me’, ‘I Will Acquiesce’ and ‘Change In A Child’s Hand’ are masterful compositions, deserving of much greater widespread recognition.

After this release, though, the years passed. Technology developed. Turntables gathered dust, as CDs, dazzling in their gimmicky newness, took over temporarily as the preferred mode for listening to music. Life kept happening whilst I was making other plans – just as a great man once said it inevitably would.

On a whim, late one night when sleep was not possible because life had become a tad stressful, I was aimlessly surfing the ‘net, looking for the websites of people who I had lost contact with musically. I found that, contrary to what an extended radio silence, and the conspicuous lack of space in the myriad of musical monthly magazines I had subscribed to on and off over the years may have suggested, Dirk Hamilton was alive and well, still making albums. There were a good number of these available for purchase directly from the man himself.

A few mouse clicks later, copies of some of these were winging their way down to the southern hemisphere.

Years later, having swelled my personal collection of his albums from that original four album run, to a respectable number of fourteen, but still in pursuit of the elusive two or three that are still out there somewhere waiting for my Paypal account to rescue them from the bondage of anonymity, my appreciation of the man’s work has grown exponentially.

That’s not to say that every album he has released meets the lofty standards of those late 70’s releases, some clearly do not do this, but every single one of them has an attractive authenticity and an appealing sense of commitment to the songwriting craft apparent within their grooves, that clearly cannot be repressed.

Recently, whilst watching the documentary, ‘Folk’, directed by Sara Terry, I was given a bit of a jolt. The film focuses on Dirk, along with other aspiring ‘unknown’ acts loosely categorised in the ‘folk’ genre, working the rooms and pressing the flesh, trying to get that break which would allow them to evolve from their current, marginal ‘cult’ status, and achieve a greater level of mainstream acceptance.

From this distance – and Adelaide is probably the furthest point away from Texas possible – I had previously (and naively) assumed that everything, and everybody, was ‘big’ in the Lone Star State.

All things are relative, of course. A ‘struggling’ act working in the States, I thought, erroneously, would be defined as a performer who only played to a couple of thousand punters per gig, not merely a few dozen, as is often the case here. Yet here was Dirk being depicted in the film playing a gig to a mere handful of aficionados in a hotel room who were sitting on his bed!

Why is it such a surprise when you see those you have long admired, and assumed to be in that rarified position of privilege you always associate with success and greatness, actually living a day to day existence like the rest of us? Does some of their aura disappear when you see that they are living in humble suburban digs, wondering where their next dollar is going to come from?

For some it does, I guess, but for me it galvanizes my support for them as artists. Getting their work out and into the hands of their small band of fans is a sign of great commitment to their craft, a declaration of their willingness to put their work ahead of all other concerns.

Seeing the struggle Dirk endured to get anyone of influence to listen to his songs certainly made me forgive him for any assumed slight he had delivered to his Australian fans by never venturing down to this part of the world. We, just like his own fellow Americans, it seems, had not embraced his music widely enough to make such a journey economically viable. Shame on us! Thank God for the Italians who have taken him to their hearts, so at least he has one place to tour each year where he can bask in the adulation he deserves!

Last year, I determined to take a break from the daily grind, and, at some point in the near future, go in search of those performers who, like Dirk, had never made it down to Australia, and who I really wanted to catch in the live performance environment before time, inevitably, permanently garages their tour vans.

I made a quick mental list of those who I’d most like to see perform and who I have never had the chance to, and began to search for contact email addresses for each of them.

I sent emails to the half dozen or so performers at the top of my list, enquiring about possible tour dates for mid-to-late 2015. It was probably unlikely that any of them had bookings in place that far ahead, but I didn’t want to book international flights and accommodation as I went off in search of these stars of my formative years if they were not even going to be in the country at the time I was arriving in their neck of the woods.

I only received one reply.

Dirk Hamilton responded, telling me that he had only one private function booked for the calendar year at that stage, but told me it was ‘such a vindication’ to be deemed important enough to someone for them to travel so far just to get to one of his shows. He told me to keep in touch, and check in with him later in the year, but he was sure some arrangement could be made for us to cross paths somewhere when I made it to the States. It was a disarmingly sincere reply, and totally unexpected.

Such personalised contact only served to confirm the mental image of the man that had already been built up through listening to his records over the years, and which had been reinforced from the tone of those occasional updates he posted on his web page.

Subsequent, intermittent contact with Dirk has strengthened this opinion, and his quick personal responses have complimented the status he has, in my mind at least, as a significant artist worthy of respect and admiration.

I have now plotted and booked a road trip through the southern states of the U.S. that will take place next year. Flights are confirmed, as are the hotel rooms, and the rental car, I will use as I head down from New York, through Nashville, Memphis and on to Dallas, where I hope that Dirk will be playing in a bar, or a club, somewhere along the route. Hell, he could be busking in the street, and that’ll do!

If he is playing live somewhere, I want to be there. If he does not have a scheduled gig, and he’s just hanging around the place somewhere, maybe he’ll agree to have a beer at his local watering hole with me, so I can raise a toast to a true music maverick and thank him for the music he’s made as well as his refusal to stop making it – and also for delivering such a valuable ongoing lesson in resilience, integrity and maintaining one’s passions through thick and thin.



Tracy's devastation Source:

Tracy’s devastation

Christmas 1974 was a different sort of Christmas for my family, as indeed it was for many other Australian families. Those who had family members or friends living in Darwin when the slow moving tropical Cyclone Tracy hit late on Christmas Eve, destroying, over the course of the early hours of Christmas morning, most of the city, would never forget it.

In the days that followed, chaos ensued. I remember my father and I driving to Adelaide Airport, and camping there for days in the hope that my sister, who at the time had been working as a barmaid in Darwin, would appear amongst the multitudes who disembarked from the aircraft arriving from the Far North during the biggest evacuation that had ever been carried out on the Australian mainland.

I can only imagine, now that I am a parent myself, what was going through my father’s mind as he waited, uncertain as to whether his daughter had survived or not. I know I was feeling scared for her, but I was still quite young, and all I really remember of the time, looking back now, was sitting around reading a steady supply of cheap sci-fi novels purchased one by one as I finished them from the airport bookshop – taking advantage of the fact that my father’s distraction had loosened his usual tight grip on his wallet.

There was no doubt, looking back, that I was pretty much oblivious to the fact that this storm and the impact it was to have on the Australian character was so significant and would become such an iconic watershed in modern Australian history.

Melbourne writer, Sophie Cunningham, was also a young pre-adolescent at the time Tracy smashed into Darwin. She first heard of the disaster, on Boxing Day 1974, as she was celebrating her birthday, a coincidence which, for her, made the news even more impactful. She was indelibly affected by the news of the disaster. She had, at that point of her young life, no idea that cities could just simply vanish overnight. Such an occurrence seemed like a total impossibility. The horror of the revelation that this did, in fact, actually occur has stayed with her for 40 years, and impelled her to write and now publish a book which investigates the disaster and analyses its repercussions.

Last Saturday, Cunningham spoke about the book at the Melbourne Writers Festival. In the audience were some Tracy survivors, and as one spoke out during question time after her talk, it was plainly obvious that the event has left deep scars upon those who endured the full wrath of the storm. Beside me, as the author spoke, my sister fought back sobs as she was reminded of some of the details of her own ordeal as she fought to survive the destructive force of the cyclone.

After the talk had finished, she told me of some of the details of the event that she had not disclosed to me before. She spoke of the gung-ho approach of so many in the face of the warnings they received, the partying, the half-hearted preparations for the storm, the looting, the hippies and their plans to raid unguarded chemist stores to save the drugs, and of events the day after such as when one of her co-survivors retrieved a fuel powered generator, and in the eerie post-storm silence, fired up a record player to crank out the Rolling Stones ‘Let It Bleed’ album at full volume and in doing so, declaring to the stunned and traumatised locals that the indomitable Darwinian spirit had not been broken.

Later, we queued up to buy copies of the book – Warning: The Story Of Cyclone Tracy (Text Publishing, 2014) – and to have our copies signed by Cunningham.

Prior to flying home the following day, I chose the book from the pile I had purchased at the Festival and began reading it in the departure lounge. It was an engrossing reading experience and I had read a significant slab of it by the time we touched down in Adelaide.

What I found I liked best was the breadth of the coverage Cunningham achieves, forcing the reader to consider the impact of the cyclone from a variety of previously ignored perspectives and the way she reminds us that we must not be complacent when it comes to being prepared for future catastrophic natural disasters which, she logically asserts, will inevitably strike at some point.

She makes use of recorded testimonies of survivors, as well as her own field research and interviews with politicians, indigenous leaders, emergency service personnel and local celebrities to paint a vivid picture of the impact of Tracy.

What emerges is an incredibly vivid description of nature’s savagery that night: the sound, the sensation and the sight of peoples’ lives being irrevocably changed.

Her investigation equally as impressively recounts some of the inherent discriminatory attitudes contained in the decision making of the time, and she makes it clear that the cost was great for all involved, not just those who were killed or injured on the day.

She details how the local indigenous population were badly dealt with in the aftermath – some evacuated and not permitted to return to their own lands due to the imposition of inappropriate new residential qualification provisions that unrealistically had to be met by those wishing to return. She talks of the cost to women, in particular, who were forced to leave their homes as it was believed they would be of little use in the rebuilding phase, and of the cost in broken marriages and indeed in the physical and sexual assaults that were downplayed by authorities. She recounts the stories of rough handed justice dealt out by the police who came to ‘assist’ from other states, and she reports on the edict imposed in the days after the storm that demanded the execution of all family pets, a heavy-handed decision where even the police had to carry out the killings of their own animals to set an example for the public. Cunningham also details the squabbling between local officials and the outsiders who flew in from outside to take control of the rescue and clean-up strategy, and the compromises that were made as a result of this.

The details uncovered are sometimes shocking, but collectively they communicate a clear picture of the resilience that characterises the people of the Territory, and the traditional ability to cope with adversity that Australians have demonstrated so often throughout the years in the face of flood, bushfire and of those other testing times when the brutal nature of this continent has exerted itself.

Mistakes were certainly made at the time, and many lives were rent asunder by the cyclone and what happened in its aftermath, but equally many people were galvanized into changing for the better and Darwin itself rose again, stronger than before. Cunningham has captured the duality of the event, and made the case for all of us who live in this land of wild extremes to be more mindful of the need to be prepared for these eventualities and to listen, and act, on warnings when they are given if we wish to survive and prosper after disaster calls.

Yes, Australians tend to live in a ‘she’ll be right’ world, where we pay little heed to doomsayers and catastrophists, but as Cunningham reminds us as she concludes her impressive investigative work,

‘A week can draw out into infinity, a minute can last a century, a century can pass in the blink of an eye, but we need to understand what memory leaves us with: the lessons it has for us.’

Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy spells out those lessons for us, and we should all listen – and learn.


Mikimoto's Five-Storied Pagoda Source:

Mikimoto’s Five-Storied Pagoda

Having spent last week feeling sorry for myself after being hit with the ‘flu bug that is sweeping through town at the moment, I was in a pretty negative frame of mind and not expecting good news when a colleague contacted me and asked for a favour.

Turned out the ‘favour’ was an offer of a two week trip to Japan, at no financial cost to me, supervising a small number of senior secondary students who were undertaking this travel to further their language studies. Another staff member had to withdraw from the trip at late notice and a replacement was required urgently for the trip to still go ahead.

I had been to Japan on two previous occasions, and had, disappointingly, cancelled another scheduled visit in the wake of the tragic tsunami of 2011, and I suppose my previous experience and my well documented love of the country were significant deciding factors in approaching me to be a pinch-hitter this time around.

So, self-pity has quickly turned to excitement, and memories of those past visits flood through the brain at regular intervals – such as now – and keep me from completing those demanding, less engaging tasks that a normal working day batters us with.

A replica of Himeji Castle, built from precious metals and pearls. Source:

A replica of Himeji Castle, built from precious metals and pearls.

Time enough for one recounted memory though – a trip to Ojima Island, off Toba on the Shima Penisula, so that my dear partner could visit the home of the Mikimoto cultured pearl.

We took a rickety old passenger train trip from Nagoya to the Peninsula, a notably old school journey after having spent so much time rocketing around the rest of the country on the Shinkansen, and arrived in a fishing village that had none of the neon and glitz of other Japanese towns and cities.

We learned that this part of the country had actually been rocked by an earthquake since we had left Nagoya, which may have accounted for some of the rattling and shaking we had endured whilst on the train.

I had not bothered to book accommodation in advance believing that we would easily find somewhere to stay for the night before moving on to Kyoto the next day. That, it turned out, was not the smartest move! Toba was small, and had no obvious signage indicating a hotel, or an equivalent.

We found the Mikimoto Pearl Island easily enough, and it was quite amazing. The displays in the museum were breath-taking in their opulence, particularly the scale models of famous buildings and objects from around the world made entirely of precious gems and metals. We also took in the display of pearl diving performed by women donned out in what looked like full hazard suits.

After being talked into spending much more than our original budget would allow on a pearl necklace (and other assorted shiny knick-knacks), we started out, fully laden with our gear, to find somewhere to bed down for the evening.

Some time later, after walking up and down every street, we found what we assumed to be the post office and were greeted kindly by the lady at the main counter. She was wonderfully tolerant of our lack of Japanese, but she was also equally apologetic about her lack of English. We could not make ourselves understood.

Whilst this discussion was taking place, a suspicious looking gentleman had entered the establishment and had begun filling out a form at a bench on the opposite side of the room. He was unusual because, unlike nearly every Japanese man we had seen to this point, he was unshaven, wearing ragged clothing and had a bandana around his head, making him look something akin to a pirate.

The Liberty Bell

Suddenly, he was standing next to us, and he spoke in fractured English.

‘When I have finished my business, I will help you’, he whispered conspiratorially. The woman at the counter nodded, smiled, and retreated back to other work.

Some minutes later he sidled up to us again, and without meeting our eyes signalled for us to follow him.

We walked at a brisk pace down some streets we had previously traversed and some side alleys that we had initially avoided. We had no choice but to follow this mysterious man, even though we had no idea where we were going. We both felt more than a little apprehension.

As we walked, our guide spoke to us about his admiration for Australians.

‘Australians have very big heads’, was his opening gambit, ‘but Japanese have very small heads.’ He went on to explain himself, and it turned out that what he actually meant was that Australians, in his opinion, had a broad perspective on things and were much more worldly than Japanese people.

The conversation was an enlightening and wide-ranging one, and it turned out that our new friend was a very sensitive and kind man.

Eventually we stopped and he indicated that we should wait for him to return as he ran off around a corner. We waited for ten minutes or so, not sure if we had been deserted, but then he returned.

‘I have found you a hotel, and they are sending a courtesy limousine to collect you. It will be here in a short time.’ It seemed our pirate had some helpful connections.

In no time our transport did indeed arrive. We thanked our friend profusely and I gave him a gift of a porcelain mug with a picture of the Harbour Bridge on it. He broke down into tears. He said it was a beautiful object that he would always treasure.

We climbed into the vehicle, and soon arrived at a very comfortable hotel where we were treated like special guests and offered a reduced tariff. That night we fell asleep to the oddly pleasant serenade of the pachinko machine symphony that played continuously from across the street.

The next morning as we were chauffeured to the train station, we both agreed that visiting Toba had been a fine experience, as it had confirmed for us, once again, that Japanese people are some of the most thoughtful people in the world.

I cannot wait to return and experience their heartfelt hospitality once again.



Thomas Keneally, author of well over fifty books – including established classics of the Australian literary canon such as The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith & Schindler’s Ark – delivered the final keynote address to the delegates at the ‘Oxford Is English’ conference in Melbourne last Friday.

In an engaging, informal reflection on both the evolution of Australian literature over the last fifty years and where his own career fits as part of that process, he also emphasised the important place English teachers have in legitimising the value and importance of our ever growing national literary canon.

Keneally, clearly grateful to the English teachers who had opened his eyes to the power of modern literature during the long years of the educational dark ages that he endured whilst he was at school, applauded the English teacher’s essential ‘subversive’ streak and the fact that such a significant percentage of these teachers refused to repress a tendency to resist intellectual wowser-ism in the prohibitive environment of 1950’s Catholic education, and who still maintain this tradition today.

Indeed, it was through the recommendations of one particular English teacher, one of the Brothers who was ‘not a thug, not a child-molester’, that Keneally was exposed to Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf & a myriad of modern poets, and shown that ‘Literature’ did not die along with Tennyson a century earlier, as the syllabus at the time had everyone believe.

Keneally affectionately related the fact that this ‘radical’ teacher continued to write to him repeatedly over the ensuing years, every time one of his books was published, to deliver a graded assessment on each!

One novel in particular, which featured a plot that revolved around the lives of Irish convicts – a group with which the teacher himself had a close emotional kinship and who had been the subject of a number of his oratories during Keneally’s English classes – hit the bookstands and a graded assessment was delivered to the then 65 year old author stating:

“I’m glad to see, young Keneally, that you’ve finally finished your homework.”

‘English teachers’, the author explained, ‘just as writers create material with uncertainty and with delight, mirror this same uncertainty and delight in opening up literary works for their charges’, and, in doing so, model the excitement and enrichment that writing and reading can deliver to new converts.

He went to great pains to say that not all teachers do this: most often those from other disciplines. He told a cautionary tale of Sister Enigmus, a fiery old nun who loomed large over his years in infant school, as a case in point.

Hearing that many of the six year old boys in Keneally’s class were involved in an ongoing peeing contest, attempting to find out who could pee up to the highest point on the wall behind the urinal in the boys’ toilets, Sister Enigmus marched in and drew a horizontal line at a modest height across the wall with chalk and loudly declared that any boy peeing above this line would be subjected to the eternal wrath of the Virgin Mary. The young Thomas was too scared to go to the lavatory at school for weeks.

‘That nun nearly frightened the prostate out of me’, he recalled.

But she was not an English teacher…

‘Let’s face it. Maths teachers are quite likely some of the nicest people you will ever meet – but you never meet a grown adult who claims their life was changed by a Maths teacher.’

No, he asserted, it is only those who teach in the ‘despised humanities’ who seem to be able to do that. These are the faculties in which the life changers reside.

Keneally started his own writing career in 1964, and unbelievably had his first attempt at writing a novel meet with an acceptance letter from the first publisher he approached.

Even with this great early success, it took him some time to accept himself as a writer of any real substance and to accept that he was an integral part of the group who were to be so influential as they cultivated an Australian ‘craft of letters’. A group who showed the world that Antipodean literature would not be summarily dismissed, as was the case so often at the time, as an unsavoury by-product of the unrefined minds of the ‘trailer trash of the South Pacific’.

Keneally’s mother, however, had no doubt about his merits as a writer from the outset of his career. But then, as he said: ‘Mothers are always habitual over-estimaters of events’.

Critical success would follow as his published works grew in number, yet maintaining this success was never the motivating force for putting pen to paper. Although money was occasionally a motivating factor in revving up the creative process from time to time – ‘after all’, he offered as an explanation of this mercenary streak, ‘even Dostoyevsky had been initially compelled to write The Brothers Karamazov to pay off his gambling debts’ !

Keneally admitted it would be ‘nice to be a genius’, and to expect constant perfection, ‘but to be a good craftsman is a good start.’

Unlike some who bemoan the cheapening of the writing process in the technology age, he reflected positively on the ever-increasing variety of outlets available for the publication of writing, particularly in the online environment, and he championed these developments.

He praised John Menadue – ‘A crusty old bugger’, once Gough Whitlam’s private secretary, and now in his twilight years – for just recently starting a ‘blog’ to which Keneally has become addicted. ‘It’s dynamite! – And who knew he could write!’

Keneally implored us all to write, and have our students write, and in coining an old adage, urged us to ‘only begin’.

We should write even if we find it a struggle and trust that our brain will takeover, as it invariably will when, what he called, our ‘hyper-consciousness’ kicks in. ‘Your brain knows what you don’t think you know’, he explained.

Apparently, it’s where the answers to crossword clues lie too – providing a credible explanation of a phenomena many of us often are at pains to explain.

‘Our conscious gives our writing shape, direction, elegance; but our hyperconscious gives us grace and authenticity’. He cited an example of using some of his own family history to create characters in his novels. Their gender, age, profession and many of their life’s circumstances were available to him, yet, despite having never known them personally, it was their invented personalities that he drew so vividly in his book that rang most true for his readers.

‘How did I know that these characters were like that? How did I achieve this authenticity?’ He answered his own questions by insisting that each of us, in our ‘engaging brain’ has a ‘full library of Jungian archetypes’ at our disposal waiting to be employed.

We use ‘the known’ to frame our writing, but ‘we don’t know nuance’ which grows from our sub-conscious. In a way, writers must endure a ‘sense of powerlessness’ because as we write we must, ourselves, wait for the great ‘reveal’. ‘All good stuff will be delivered by the hyper-conscious’, and we can only unlock access to this by engaging in the process of writing.

This last point reminded him of one of James Thurber’s fables for writers; most particularly, ‘The Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing’ where, ultimately, the lesson conveyed was: ‘Don’t get it right – get it written’.**

‘Writing a book is the last recourse of the mug’, he confessed, using a half-serious self-deprecatory tone. It is an activity undertaken by ‘ordinary people’, yet so many ordinary people hang back from undertaking the task of writing their own because of their feelings of inferiority, and through holding a belief that they do not measure up to those ordinary people who have made the effort before them and who somehow, in doing so, assumed some mythical ‘extraordinary’ status.

‘It is by writing that you write a passable book.’ Only begin, and when your hyper-conscious finally reveals the ‘unifying key’ of your story to you, ‘it will be finished’, he asserted reassuringly.

Keneally shifted his focus at this point to English teachers and the importance of teaching the subject in schools.

He recited lines from Hopkins, and remembered confronting poetry in English classes and recalling the moment of his first realisation that, despite it being an imperfect tool, poetry is the only one we have that can ‘capture epiphany’ so clearly and economically in order to ‘express the universe’ to others.

He is mindful that teachers struggle under the bureaucratic demands of needing to quantify and assess student understanding of literature to assuage politicians who, like Joe Hockey, come from the ‘Chicago school of English’, and those other interest groups who need to commodify everything to confirm its value and ongoing relevance.

‘The purpose of literature cannot be defined – it is transcendent’, and, as he declared with certainty, English teachers know this.

Despite the insistence by those in power who ‘control’ the education system that everything has a price, English teachers know that things like ‘love, fraternity and literature’ cannot be priced and are, therefore, ‘shunted to the side’ in any discussion of educational priorities, and subsequently curricula is hijacked by the economic rationalists and political opportunists.

Keneally uses the History course in the national curriculum to underline his point.

‘Why the heavy focus on wars?’ Why is it that all new Australians who enter our education system must be taught about Gallipoli as if these war dead are the only ones who count? Why are children being taught that ‘Australia was born at Gallipoli’? Gallipoli is in Turkey – on the other side of the world! If that is where our nation was born then it must have been the biggest ectopic pregnancy in history!’

Who decided that new Australians must all receive and accept a set number of select historical and cultural trademarks in order to be granted access to some marketers ideas of Australia Inc.?

Teachers must remain subversive, and fight to keep the pathways to literature of all types open to our charges. They must resist the political expediency of narrowing perspectives.

‘Literature involves epiphanies, without which life is barbarous’, he claims.

His own literary awakening in the English classes of his adolescence was ‘mind blowing’ and the effects were lifelong and nothing but positive and rewarding.

It was his English teacher who opened his consciousness to receive the constant revelations of literature; a power that continues to confound and overpower him to this day.

At a festival in Hay-On-Wye in North Wales – the famous village which consists almost entirely of bookstores – Keneally was scheduled to give a talk in one venue and was also looking forward to attending a session immediately after his own in a venue further up the main street which was to be delivered by the American novelist, Barbara Kingsolver.

‘I had only just discovered her writing after recently having encountered her novel, Flight Behaviour, which is a magnificent book.’

He had never met Kingsolver before, and was keen to introduce himself in order to let her know of his admiration for her work.

He finished his own talk, which had been well-received, only to discover that a lengthy queue of people had formed outside the venue who all had purchased copies of his latest book to be signed by him. He spent and hour and a half signing books and, as a result, had to miss the Kingsolver session.

He was philosophical about this, confessing that: ‘You don’t pass up a chance to sign hard covers!’

At the conclusion of the signing, he had been talking to some festival officials when he expressed his disappointment at missing the American author’s talk. This resulted in a private meeting between the two writers being organised. Keneally expressing his appreciation of Flight Behaviour to its author, but then could not continue the discussion as he suddenly broke down and wept – such was the transcendent power of the work.


‘All the cement poured on the male soul in the fifties erodes as you get older’, he offered by way of an explanation of this emotional reaction at their meeting, ‘and certainly no economist has ever had that effect on me!’

When we are young ‘some certainty of soul is expected’, he ruminated – we assume we will be able to have answers to all that perplexes us, and it is only as we get older that we realise that ‘pilgrimage is the lot of all humans’, and that ‘all is travel, the road is all’.

Teachers must, he insisted, prepare students to enjoy the road and, like us, have them ‘sing on their travels’.

He admits that it is likely that many will not listen, but we must go about the task anyway because for those who do listen, their English teacher ‘will become an irreplaceable light in their lives.’

For the audience, this affirming final thought was an empowering and inspiring gift for us all.

**Note: His memory of Thurber’s fable is not quite right though. The original, published in the New Yorker in 1939, makes the moral seem a little ‘ironic’, rather than an earnest directive issued to writers!


In a previous post, I bemoaned having to explain the significance of  The Beatles & Benny Hill to under-informed teens who had never heard of these giants of pop-culture before. So now I find myself, as a result of a question I received from a reader of the last post on this blog, having to explain the concept of ‘glam rock’ to those younger readers who have never, as yet, painted a fingernail in anger…

GLAM ROCK: A hastily concocted overview for the uninitiated.

“Glam’s hallmarks were lyrical ludicrousness, musical unsophistication and visual excess”, or so says the dismissive definition included in the ‘Guinness Rockopedia’, taking as it does the easy path of lazy critique. Sure, if you were addicted to AM radio in the halcyon days of the glam movement you would have heard a lot of be-satinned, mascara-ed shouters screaming out some fairly dodgy attempts at grabbing chart stardom, but so you would expect in the wake of any new musical form that achieves widespread acceptance and success.

Glam was a revolution.

A lofty claim? Maybe, but rock had become fairly stale by the first few years of the seventies, bogged down in its own pretensions to be an art form. Too self conscious and serious for its root audience to access – the young fans in need of something to call their own did not want to listen to virtuoso performances. They yearned for the spirit of the music that had made rock such a phenomenon when it was first created. Three minutes of unrestrained fun, championing the priorities of life at fifteen, and preferably drawing a negative reaction from the adults whose rules and constraints kept them from the anarchistic freedom they thought they wanted.

Glam started, arguably with fifties rock icon, Little Richard. ‘Awop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom’ he sang, and the ‘lyrical ludicrousness’ criteria was covered in that one phrase of primal screaming. He bashed out some repetitive, jungle rhythms on the piano, and hey presto – irresistible ‘musical unsophistication’ worked its magic on the impressionable youth of the world. It was just perfect that he was black, he wore outrageous, lacy, foppish stage gear, and, by heavens, he wore make-up!

Little Richard 1972 version - at the birth of Glam Source:

Little Richard 1972 version – at the birth of Glam

Conservative fifties parents were outraged and the kids just loved it. Across the Atlantic, British kids, denied the raw power of the new music, paid outlandish prices for import recordings of these strange songs and through attempts to imitate and pay homage to their new heroes came up with weird derivations and musical deformities that, in turn, inspired fear and rage in the establishment of the Old Dart and devotion in the wide eyed teenage army just waiting for such a call to arms.

One of the most devoted to the sounds of Little Richard would turn out to be one of the leaders of the glam rock revolution – David Bowie. Although it took him at least ten years to achieve the sound and the look that would take him to superstardom, his debt to the bejewelled Richard Penniman would finally be paid.

Bowie, regarded as the one who put the intellect into glam, was not really the first to find out that shiny threads and glittery make up could be the best the way to the hearts of the sexually confused adolescents experimenting with their identities around England. His good friend, Marc Bolan, made the initial breakthrough. Both had gone through a lengthy period of musical apprenticeship, and their paths had crossed often. Bowie had dabbled as an r ‘n’ b singer in a number of workmanlike bands, and then as a folkie for a few years. Before the seventies began, he had been best known for two novelty songs. ‘The Laughing Gnome’ in 1967, a dazzling silly ditty full of chipmunk voices and dire puns and gags; and ‘Space Oddity’, his only real hit, due mainly to a masterful piece of timing. Written in response to Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and released, fortuitously, to coincide with the 1969 Apollo moon landing.

Bolan, had spent a number of years playing acoustic folk songs full of half formed narratives about elves and other Tolkein-esque creatures, whilst sitting cross-legged on stage supported only by a bongo player. He played guitar on some Bowie tracks, and had also released a one off single with Bowie and a mutual acquaintance, record producer, Tony Visconti, as Dib Cochran & The Earwigs – a thinly veiled homage to another of the great 50’s iconoclasts, Eddie Cochran. They also did some house painting together and fought each other for clothes rejects stolen from the bins outside the shops of Carnaby Street tailors. Such was the friendly competitiveness between the two that it drove them to lead the vanguard for musical change.

So, with a master stroke that put electric guitar and drums behind Bolan’s ‘Ride A White Swan’, glam rock arrived, and set in motion a flurry of inspired copycats whose efforts soon reverberated around the globe.

Wannabe rockstars and failed cabaret acts were reinvented as lurid sequinned cartoon caricatures with ridiculous monikers such as Gary Glitter, Alvin Stardust and Kid Dynamite. Ordinary people were suddenly given the chance to become extraordinary. Some became superheroes in costume with powers to move and to groove you. That was glam. Others became the Bay City Rollers. That was sham.

Bowie once said, “In suburbia you’re given the impression that nothing culturally belongs to you, that you are in this wasteland…Most people who have an iota of curiosity about them develop a passion to escape, to get away from [their] desperation and exhaustion with the blandness of where [they] grew up and try and find who [they are] and find some kind of roots.” Thus he set out to rejig the Bolan blueprint and to give these dislocated masses a culture to own: he created a community of like minded misfits, unformed and undecided, who could now bond together under the banner of glam to experiment without fear of rejection or failure.

And it worked.

Even yobs like the lads in Ambrose Slade, could suddenly find an audience amongst the working classes by wearing bright red bovver boots and make up – and, after dropping half their moniker, have the hard-nuts on the terraces adore them.

Pretentious art school boys could bring their affectations and quasi-literary lyricism to the top 40 by delivering their experimental dance music in feather boas and leopard skin leotards on Top Of The Pops.

Bowie could stop a nation by playing the space alien and suggestively draping his arm around his lead guitarist’s shoulders on national television, and in one gesture single-handedly start the musical career aspirations of a whole legion of identity-experimental bands who would themselves storm the charts in a few short years with the arrival of punk, a genre that said ‘no’ to all labels and yes to embracing change and difference in all its forms.

Yes, glam brought forward it’s share of talentless fortune hunters who brazenly redressed old fifties crooner ballads and sold them off as something transiently chic, it dazzled established rock gods, who feared that they may be left out of the lucrative spoils glam brought along with it in its wake, so bought into the glitz and the hype for fleeting moments. The Stones, dabbled on ‘Goat’s Head Soup’; The Kinks, The Hollies, Elton John, Paul McCartney with Wings, all donned over the top satin and tat for a period in the seventies.

In the States, Lou Reed, the King of New York sleaze hooked up with Bowie and applied the mascara. Iggy Pop with his Detroit power plant, The Stooges, in tow, did likewise. Unfortunately, brawny bar bands, like Brownsville Station, slipped into platforms and tight spandex to cash in on the movement too.

Strange metal androgyny emerged from the US glam hybrid most clearly in the strangeness of Alice Cooper and in the paradox that was the New York Dolls.

And amongst the dross, came the poets like Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Kid Strange of the Doctors of Madness, and Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel. All who would, along with Bowie, Bolan and Reed, albeit to a less championed degree, leave an indelible legacy for those who came after.

Out of this period, too, rose the world dominating rock and pop monsters of Queen, Kiss, Electric Light Orchestra and Roxy Music, all who would become institutions in their own right.

In the years that followed, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister and their ilk openly acknowledged their debt to glam, as did Bono when he took on his Macphisto persona during U2’s ‘Zooropa’ tour.

We would have no Placebo, no Muse, no Daft Punk, no Lady Gaga, without those first glam warriors fighting to clear a path for these acts to follow.

Lou Reed, in words about his own band The Velvet Underground, tried to describe what makes a rock song ‘worthy’, and his words seem to apply to just about any song from the glam era – whether it be one of the accepted anthems of the time, like The Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz’, or Mott’s ‘All The Young Dudes’, or one of those now lost to the op shops of history, such as Iron Virgin’s ‘Rebels Rule’, or Paul St. John’s ‘The Flying Saucers Have Landed’.

Rebels Rule! Iron Virgin stomp it out. Source:'i'.htm#Iron_Virgin

Rebels Rule! Iron Virgin stomp it out.

He said, ‘Rock should rock in every conceivable way. It should have heart, it should have a beat and move you, and it should be done well enough so you can listen to it twenty years down the road and it will still have its force and power, like a good short story that you go back to.’

Well, forty years on, the songs still rock, the stories still hold up, the heart is still beating and the glam beat is still as irrepressible as ever.

Wham bam, thank you glam!  Indeed.


If you can remember Matt Taylor, that bloke who fronted Aussie blues outfit Chain in the very early seventies, you will recall him as a beery, beardy growler; as far removed from the stardust world of glam rock as is humanly possible.

In the summer months of 1973/1974 one of the local AM radio stations began promoting a Memorial Drive gig, that they labeled ‘The Survivors Concert’, and Taylor was announced as one of the headliners, along with Daddy Cool, Ariel, Brian Cadd. These heavyweight acts were to be supported by a local group, Perelandra, named after a C.S. Lewis science fiction novel, which was cool, but who, annoyingly, as a band were not, as they had a flute as one of their lead instruments.

It was a first-rate line-up, and I wanted to go, so I asked my mother.

She said I could – as long as I had some friends to accompany me, so I gathered a small group of intrepid thirteen year-old warriors together, all whose parents reluctantly said yes without too much trouble, and we bought our tickets.

I had the beginnings of a pretty eclectic record collection at that time; a smattering of sixties 45’s that were hand me downs from my sister, The Archies, Joe Cocker, Doug Ashdown, Jesus Christ Superstar, and, most recently and most excitingly, David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album, the acquisition of which had become a recent life-changer.

I also had Matt Taylor’s single, ‘I Remember When I Was Young’, which had been a top ten hit only a few months earlier. There were others too, and the collection was growing in a haphazard way that bemused my friends.

I was not an elitist, someone who mined one genre and spurned all others, so saw no issue with mixing my tastes in this way – but others did and regularly paid me out for it.

In the days leading up to the concert, I became unusually concerned about what I would wear. I decided that I wanted to wear a Matt Taylor shirt, and promptly wrote his name in big block letters on the front of a white Bonds tee, using a thick black texta. The letters were uneven and the name ended up skewed a little too far to the right.

To my eyes, though, looking in the mirror, it looked about right. It would do.

My sister did not agree with this appraisal, however, and, after quelling her laughter, suggested she sew some sequins on the lettering to at least try and cover up some of my poorly drawn curves and flourishes.

Hence, Matt Taylor, check-shirted, Levi wearing macho icon, a man whose latest album was entitled ‘Straight As A Die’, was to be represented as some sort of glitzy glam sparkly entity by the dazzling gleam of his name across my chest, and, as I strode in through the gates of Memorial Drive on my way to giving praise to The Survivors of Oz rock, heads turned. Job done nicely, I thought, misreading their incredulous stares for jealous awe. The shirt, I fervently believed, nicely complimented the denim jeans tucked into the knee length maroon vinyl boots that I had stolen from my sister’s room. To my eyes, these boots were reminiscent of those worn by Ziggy Stardust, the supreme being, on the album cover I had been spending so much time staring at recently in my room.

Ziggy putting his best boot forward. Photo: Brian Ward Source:

Ziggy putting his best boot forward.
Photo: Brian Ward

I think the concert was good, although I remember little of the music. What I do remember was meeting Gabi, a freckly high-spirited girl, two years my senior who was there with a couple of her equally excited friends.

 I lied to Gabi about my age, saying I was seventeen. She believed me. I also told her I rode a motorbike, and quite a few other tall tales designed to impress her.

 At one point during Daddy Cool’s set, I let her climb up on to my shoulders and bounce up and down to the beat for a few songs. Below her oblivious joy, I was breaking into a sweat, my legs screaming to be allowed to collapse, and my heart straining to maintain the effort to keep her aloft, but I was determined not to embarrass myself by showing any physical weakness, so I focused on how pleasant her warmth felt on my bare neck, and how smooth her skin was under my hands where I held her calves.

After the concert we kissed in the car park, and thankfully then she had to go because her friends’ parents were in their car just down the road, and she couldn’t keep them waiting. This spared me from having to say the same thing about my ride home, also parked somewhere down the road, but in the opposite direction.

During the evening I had told her that I was in my final year of school and had not lied about where. This rare moment of honesty, in the long run, would prove to be a terrible mistake on my part.

Some weeks later, whilst I was engrossed in botching up yet another spoon in first year Woodwork class, one of the older boys came in to the workshop and said there were a group of girls at the school gate asking for me. I put my hand up and told the teacher I needed to go to the toilet and headed out to the gate wondering who it could be who wanted to see me.

From a distance I recognized the girls. It was Gabi and her friends from the concert. They had skipped school and caught a bus out to see me. When they saw how I looked their expressions became puzzled. I was wearing my uniform – shorts and shirt and scuffed Bata Scouts – and looked even younger than I was, I am sure.

‘How come you’re wearing a uniform?’ Gabi enquired, not unreasonably. She was dressed enticingly in a boob-tube and hot-pants.

‘It’s optional here’, I said, ‘and my jeans are in the wash.’

‘Where’s yer motorbike?’ one of her unimpressed friends asked.

‘Oh, I’m banned from riding it to school, I rode it through the school yard last week and terrorized some of the little kids. So I put it into the shop to have some detailing done on it.’ I had no idea what I was saying.

‘So, you wanna ditch school and take us back to your place?’ Gabi asked.

‘Err…OK, sure’, I mumbled, ‘but you’ll have to wait awhile, I have to finish off something first.’

‘Yeah, OK, we’ll wait.’ Gabi climbed up on the school fence and sat in a provocative pose smiling at me, ‘Don’t be long…’

I had never wagged school before, but every kid knew of a foolproof way to get sent home.

The school’s bursar, an ancient woman devoid of any sense of humour, and who had what looked like a large boil growing out of her head through her hair, doubled as the school’s nurse. One condition she would not countenance was diarrhoea, and we all knew that if you successfully created the illusion you were suffering from it she would sent you home immediately, without any further investigation of your state of health.

I went back to Woodwork class and waited a few minutes before putting up my hand and asking to return to the toilet.

‘Didn’t you just go a few minutes ago?’ the teacher asked.

‘Yes, but I think I may have diarrhoea, sir.’

‘Really? Well then you better go and see the nurse after you‘ve done your business.’

Ten minutes later I was walking across the playing fields adjacent to the school, with my arm around Gabi’s waist, heading towards my place where I knew no-one else would be home.

Gabi was impressed with my father’s gold velour recliner – especially its two-speed electric vibrating function – and was keen for us to cuddle up on it. Her friends diplomatically retired to the kitchen and listened to the radio, turned up loud, until we were ready to rejoin them.

Soon, the girls had to leave in order to have enough time to get them back to school before their parents’ afternoon pick-up. I walked them to the bus stop, gave Gabi a long passionate kiss, and said I would go with her to the football on the weekend. We agreed to meet at Unley Oval where we would watch Norwood play Sturt.

That Saturday, I took the city bus and then walked through the South Parklands, up Unley Road to the oval, where Gabi was waiting for me at the gate, as arranged. We walked arm in arm into the ground.

The game was close and the crowd was often loud and boisterous. From time to time I felt myself being hit by objects hurled from the crowd behind me – a bottle cap, a screwed up Balfours’ bag, a bit of pie crust. I looked back a couple of times and saw some leather-jacketed lads scowling and roaring at the umpire, but one of them was looking straight at me and he snarled.

At half-time, I broke free from our embrace and my intoxication with the smell of her hair, and declared with great generosity and chivalry that I was going off to buy my lady a drink. I pushed through the crowd and made my way slowly towards the kiosk.

Looking ahead, through the jostling punters on the path, I saw the intimidating form of the leather-jacketed hoon who had growled at me earlier. He was coming towards me from the opposite direction. As we passed, he deliberately bumped into me with some considerable force, and tried to knock me into the spectators seated with their just opened vacuum flasks and unpacked sandwiches. I kept my feet and kept going, shaken, and not understanding what the guy’s problem with me could possibly be.

When I returned with my liquid offerings, I suggested that we find a better vantage point to watch the second half of the match. Gabi said she would do whatever I wanted.

Moving to a new spot was fortuitous in one respect because we both bumped into people we knew, and I relaxed a little knowing that there was strength in numbers.

After the game, a group of about six of us made our way on foot back to the city. We were soon walking along King William Street happily heading towards Victoria Square, when an EH Holden screamed to a halt on the opposite side of the road to us.

A man got out, brandishing a beer bottle, and shouted: ‘When I catch you, I’m gonna bash your head in!’

Everyone stopped, apart from me as I had recognized the leather jacket, and it was soon obvious, as he changed direction to track my continued movement, that his threat was specifically directed at me.

I broke into a sprint and he accelerated too. I raced towards Victoria Square because I knew the main Police Station was there. By the time I reached the entrance he was only a few metres behind me. I threw open the doors and yelled, ‘Someone’s trying to kill me!’

No-one in the police station seemed too concerned. In fact, initially, they ignored me. I slumped into a seat and drew my breath in, sucking in air in wheezy gasps. After some time, I went to the window. I could see my assailant, now across the road in the square, standing stock still, fixedly staring back at the police building. I sat down again, and waited.

After some time, a police officer came up and asked me what the problem was. I recounted my story. He nodded a few times, said I could sit there and wait for as long as I wanted, and that the guy would eventually get bored with waiting and leave – sooner or later.

I waited for about an hour. Then I gingerly opened the door to the street. I could not see him, but I could see that Gabi and our friends were waiting for me on the grass across the road.

‘He hung around for about half an hour and then left’, Gabi told me, ‘I think I know the guy. He used to go to my school. He likes me.’

We walked to her bus stop and performed our now prolonged, well-practised, physically exhausting goodbyes.

Once I was safely home I decided that this relationship was too dangerous to continue, and that I would not contact Gabi again.

She rang me some days later, wondering why I had not been in touch. I told her that I did not want to see her again. She cried for awhile before she hung up the phone.

A week after this call, I received a letter from her. It was written in lurid pink and green fluorescent texta colour. She called me every nasty name you could imagine, then she gave over pages to her friends to write so that they could call me every nasty name that they could imagine too, and then she listed the gangs who had been given my details with an edict to bash me on sight: the Norwood Mafia, The Payneham Boys, and three or four other associations devoted to aggro.

I was worried. For days I could not sleep or think about anything else. I finally showed the letter to my mother and told her the whole sordid tale. She gave me the expected lecture and promptly composed a letter to Gabi’s parents threatening legal action if any further correspondence was ever received from the girl, or worse, if any harm should befall upon me.

It was a lie, of course, we could not afford any legal assistance, nor could she call upon anyone to act as muscle, but it seemed to do the trick, and I heard nothing of her again for many years.

For quite a long time, I was very reluctant to go into the city for fear of my face being recognized by any of the gangs who supposedly had me at the top of their hit-lists, but, over time, this apprehension passed and life got back to normal.

Gabi and I did meet again, however, one day, when I was eighteen.

I had just been to get my travel inoculation injections, and I was coming down in the lift of the ANZ Building with half a dozen other people, when two women in their mini-skirted work uniforms got into the lift at one of the lower floors. Their arrival made everyone squeeze up tighter, and through the forest of necks and shoulders, I could see, with a sudden jolt of recognition, that one of the new arrivals was Gabi.

She was looking straight at me. I tried hard not to let on that I had recognized her. Gabi brought her hand up to her mouth in order to shield her words as she whispered to her workmate. The other woman turned and subsequently looked at me too.

At ground level, I hastened to the main exit, but both of them followed me out and up the street, then along the Rundle Street shopping strip. They kept close behind and tauntingly called my name repeatedly, laughing at me. The faster I walked, still pretending that I had not seen nor heard them, the faster they followed.

I was having an internal conversation with myself, wondering why I was feeling such panic, rationalizing my fears, trying to convince myself that the threats from five years earlier were toothless, and that they had been blown out of proportion by my fertile thirteen year-old imagination. The taunts from behind me kept coming though, and I began to see passers-by raising their eyebrows as they recognized that something odd was going on.

Quickly and unexpectedly, I turned into the Harris Scarfe store and hid myself amongst the racks of women’s clothing. I heard their voices in the store for a few moments, Gabi expressing her liking for a pretty sequined blouse – ‘Look at it sparkle in the sun!’ – before her friend said they better hurry and leave or else they wouldn’t have time to eat lunch. Through the chiffon and lace I saw them walk out into the street.

No escape route available now. Source: unknown

No escape route available now.
Source: unknown

Once again, I found myself taking some time to pluck up the courage to leave. A saleslady came up and asked if she could help me.

How could I answer that?

I summoned up some dignity, stood up straight, and walked out of the store.

In the sun, the spot on my arm, where the injections had been given, throbbed, reminding me that, by now, I should have been immune to most things.


Freda Kelly reflecting on a life well-lived. Source:

Freda Kelly reflecting on a life well-lived.

Spent the best part of last evening watching the documentary, ‘Good Ol’ Freda’ (dir: Ryan White, 2013, Antidote Films).

If you have not heard of it, this is a film about an unassuming woman, Freda Kelly, who lived what would have been every sixties teenage girl’s dream, working as The Beatles secretary and running their fan club over a period of 11 years, a span of time which included the entire 10 years the band were together.

I really enjoyed this film, but at the conclusion of the film, opinion was divided in this house.

I was, it transpired, the film’s sole defender.

One negative view was that it lacked ‘dirt’ – no juicy revelations were proffered to the viewer to satiate our constant need for titillation. After all, this argument asserted, that if you work closely with four of the world’s most famous men over such a long period of time at the height of their fame, then surely you must have been privy to details of numerous scandalous dalliances, witnessed countless examples of outrageous behavior – even been involved in many such moments yourself?

Freda, when given the chance to share these, refuses to dish them up to us, albeit doing so gracefully.

I countered with an observation: I thought one of the main points in the film’s favor, as it drew you to warm to the now grandmotherly Freda, was its portrayal of her still unwavering loyalty to the band and, I added, that I saw her steadfast refusal to break confidences as refreshing and affirming, not to say surprisingly shocking, in its moral correctness. After all, it was a film about her wasn’t it – it was not supposed to be about The Beatles, per se.

I knew I temporarily lost ground with that last point though.

Well, if it was purely about her – came the response – then why the lack of detail about some of the things the film alluded to such as her marriage break-up and the death of her son, Timothy?

It was a film about a woman whose life was defined by an adolescence, and young womanhood, in The Beatles inner sanctum, but who had achieved nothing remarkable in her life outside of that relatively short period of time. Take that decade out and you do not have a story.

Harsh, I thought. Warhol claimed everyone has their fifteen minutes in the spotlight: Freda had eleven years. That fact alone makes her interesting and worth hearing about. I insisted.

OK, so the film does use her time with the band as the ‘hook’ to draw in the audience and keep us watching, but its charm lies in its plethora of smaller details adding, as they do, some colour-fill to the backgrounds of the boldly drawn cartoon existence that the canon of Beatle history texts have constructed as the Fab Four’s lives.

I loved the small details revealed in the film. I loved the way they ‘re-humanised’ John, Paul, George & Ringo and reminded us of the naïve, wide-eyed excitement that must have provided such an adrenaline rush in the early days for all of them.

We hear Freda relate the story of Ringo’s mum offering her egg and chips and a cup of tea when she first met her – Freda visiting Ringo’s family home, on his request, to give Mrs. Starkey some pointers on responding to fan mail. She had become a little overcome at having to deal with the sheer amount of letters addressed to her son that she had received to that point – all 9 of them!

Then the tales of Freda commandeering members of other Merseybeat bands to help her deal with the fan mail – 3000 a day! She had them sticking photos in envelopes , licking stamps and carrying sacks of reply mail over their shoulders to the post office – simply because this strong-willed teenage secretary had told them they had to.

Another reminiscence recalls her striking a deal with the local barber to gather up the hair of the lads after their regular haircuts so that she could fulfil fan requests for locks of their idol’s hair – and then, when the office team had expanded to include three female adolescent assistants, Freda gets angry, subsequently sacking all three over a breach of trust, when one of them was discovered putting locks of their own sister’s hair inside a reply letter to a fan, claiming, dishonestly, that it had been Paul’s.

I loved the fact that we discover she is still working nine to five, now in a secretarial job in a law firm, and had never cashed in on her priceless treasure chest of memorabilia, which, in these days of exorbitant eBay auction prices would certainly land her enough money to live like a queen and never have to work again.

She states now, without regret, that in fact she gave most of her Beatles gear away back in the seventies to fans who had simply asked her for these relics.

Her total remaining stash of Beatle booty is now kept, without fanfare, in four smallish cardboard boxes, crammed into her attic out of sight.

Another drawback, so states the film’s detractors in my living room whilst yawning at my drawn out list of the film’s highpoints, is that the film did not contain enough ‘star power’, containing few famous faces reminiscing about Freda and her time in the spotlight and therefore serving to justify her status as a person worthy of our consideration.

Whoa there, I thought! There are some members of The Merseybeats and The Fourmost interviewed, as well as Tony Barrow, the Beatles publicist, and a small array of other talking heads who enjoyed peripheral involvement and, yes, I conceded, it did not utilise much in the way of file tape, either. Yet I thought this was another of the film’s strengths. It forced us to view the whole Beatlemania through different eyes – not just hear about it from the same roll call of participants and commentators that so many other films representing this era fall back upon time and again.

But how can you have a film about The Beatles and not have any Beatles in it?

But that’s not true! One of the main players does make a cameo appearance. Ringo does finally show up, on behalf of Freda’s former employers, just as the credits start to roll, sending his cheerios to Freda and dutifully singing her praises.

I assume Paul was probably busy doing other things.

I make my final point. Throughout the film, Freda Kelly comes across as a lovely person, happy with her life and where it has taken her. I am glad I have gotten to know her.

The cynics are not swayed. It was a cash-in, seeking fame by riding on the coat-tails of others, they say. Simple as that.

I can’t let that go. She makes it clear, I remind them, that she has never cashed in on her association with the band before, and her change of heart now is not due to any cash incentive either – her opening up her past on film is simply her way of letting her future adult grandson know, to paraphrase her words, that ‘the little grey haired lady in a shawl in the corner at the Home lived an interesting and exciting life’.

All power to her.

For me, it is that sort of doco – homey and heartwarming. And illuminating in its way, adding small, but significant, detail to a story most people already know well enough.

I stated my case the best I could.

It was listened to.

We agreed to disagree.