talking st kilda blues
tex, don & charlie – memo, st kilda.
a review hijacked a bit by a life in tatters
(but it’s cool – not really totally tattered)
by colin talbot
So last week at Memo Hall in St Kilda, we decided to taste popular music again and so it was Tex, Don & Charlie on Sunday evening. Three rock&roll artists at the top of their game. Or perhaps they’ve been at the top of their game for a while and remain there. And it was while watching the show, I found one of the songs Tex sang got me thinking about my life in rock&roll. And that song he sang was titled (something like) ‘One Step Ahead of The Blues’, so on the walk home, trying to unite my scattered soul with my dissolute body, I reviewed my life outside of rock&roll.
The year was 1970. Late 1970. I had a job in Sydney, reviewing records and writing rock&roll stuff for a Sydney-based magazine called Soundblast. I’d left Melbourne and gone to Sydney after a woman – well, I was 20, so I guess it was a girl I was chasing – leaving an okay job at TV Week in West Melbourne, not far from Festival Hall. Initially I was from country South Australia, up by the Flinders Ranges and I was sent to the city, to Adelaide because the old folks, my grandparents were crook and needed big treatment. Then I did a bit of Adelaide University and began a journalist career at Rupert Murdoch’s daily afternoon rag, The News. And after a bit of trouble, I lost my job and had to take a train to Melbourne to find work as a reporter. (once one has tasted the sweet fruit of journalism, going back to the Real World was out of the question.) I ended up at TV Week and it was hard to leave TV Week because it was an easy job, writing lengthy articles about sort of famous people – just interviewing pop stars and TV stars, and as the pop stars were the kind you could put on the cover of TV Week, it was a limited number, including Normie Rowe whose star had dimmed a few after the return from service in Vietnam.
Normie had been conscripted for Vietnam, numbers in a barrel, like a Lotto draw, to see if your birthday came out. People who ‘know’ these things claim that Normie’s number was deliberately drawn out to show that conscription lottery draws offered no favourites, to show that Government was uber alles and so Normie’s very very worthy singing career was severely damaged by the Liberal Government of the time.
When he returned from the ‘dirty little war’ as alt-country genius John Prine sang of the Vietnam conflict, Normie Rowe was on my roster of pop stars to interview, along with Russel Morris, Ross D Wyllie, Johnny Farnham and Ronnie Burns. I got on pretty well with Ronnie Burns, I liked his songs (‘Smiley’, a song written by Johnny Young about a guy shipped to Vietnam, the word was it was about Normie…and also a couple of other singles Ronnie charted with, like ‘Coal Man’ and ‘Exit Stage Right’) and he dressed very well, so very mod and expensive in sharp contrast to my neo-slob, with shirt-tails hanging out, stained brown suit I got from some shabby boytique down Elizabeth Street in the city, scuffed shoes I’d probably had since high school and a tie so soup-stained it looked like a true psychedelic design.
When I told Ronnie, by the bye, that in June (1970) I was marching in the Moratorium, against the ‘Nam War, he said he’d dig to come along and march with me. Huh? Okay. Cool. I wondered how my Maoist friends would handle that – oh, hang on, I didn’t have any Marxist-Leninist pinko mates yet – and so Ronnie brought along Themi, a mate of his from The Flies, the group he’d been in a few years back and we marched. People were singing all the usual stuff –‘Give Peace a Chance’, the anthemic protest song written in 1969, during John Lennon’s ‘Bed-In‘ with Yoko Ono in Montreal. The idea for the song came when JL said to a reporter ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Paul gets a writing credit, he had zero to do with it. (Lennon and Ono released the single.) Other people in the march were singing or chanting ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’ and ‘One side right one side wrong, victory to the Viet Cong.’ My personal view was the USA (and therefore Australia) should go home. Which they did, five years later, many many thousands of lives and napalmed forests and villages later.
Before I met her, my girlfriend of the time had planned to go live in Sydney and she would not change her plans for me. So she left as she said she would, and then I received a postcard at the TV magazine with her Balmain address and I took that as an invitation to go up and live with her. This proved, in hindsight, to be a mistake. Butg the mistake led to other mysteries, to success, sort of. Such is the way.
I began to plan my exit. The obvious way was to ask for impossible gifts. I told the editor I wanted a higher Reporter’s Grade. Very unlikely, he’d decline, then I could resign. (back then we were graded alphabetic-like. I was a ‘D’ and that was fraudulent as the usual route was four years of being a cub reporter, then onto the grades, I’d been a D-Grade a merely a year from beginning the cadetship.) The editor gave me the upgrade, which was a pleasant wage increase. So, the next plan was to demand my own column, reviewing records. They gave me that too, and I began receiving piles of vinyl to review. I found Volunteers a great album by Jefferson Airplane on my desk. And a dozen other discs. Very decent indeed. Now what? I demanded two weeks holiday starting yesterday. They surely couldn’t give me that. They did give me that.
I took the holiday and when I returned I resigned. The editor (I was a little remorseful at my bad manners but such is the narrow way) hit the roof, told me I was from beasts borne and that my mother was…I forgave him for he was very upset – yes, he was very unhappy. He said I should never enter a News Limited building again (and Murdoch owned half the newspapers in the country) for I was banned and I would be thrown out the door. Now that was depressing. I went to Sydney to be with a girl.
I won’t get into the grubby detail right now but let’s just say in Sydney for far too long I had no money, no girlfriend and no future but somehow I made it one day after another, like a 12-Step program, eventually found a ‘situations vacant’ in the Sydney Morning Herald for a journalist to work on a rock magazine! No! It couldn’t be possible. Nobody would advertise for a rock journalist. Surely? But it was so. And I began working at Soundblast, first a day a week and by a month or so, I was working heaps. Yet fate wouldn’t let me stay in Sydney so I was Melbourne-bound within a few months.
When I returned from my sojourn in Sydney in late 1971, I was offered a room opposite the cemetery in a Victorian terrace house where a young intellectual couple from Melbourne University were living, in Lygon Street Carlton. I didn’t quite put it together at the time, but it had been (Ronnie Burns’ friend) Themi’s room until a week or three back. Now Themi popped up a couple of years later, by which time I was the ‘Pop’ columnist for The Australian newspaper and I held that position for many years in the 1970’s – one of the albums I was sent to review was Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens. I was still living in Carlton and I found Themi was around the corner, and as he was a musician and I’d marched with him and Ronnie Burns, I’d lived in his former room, I thought he might enjoy listening to the Cat Stevens’ record. I lent it to him. I took it to the house he lived in and his living room papered with silver that reflected the lights that were scattered about the room, like a kaleidescope, Light twitching and bending and in harmony and it probably would have looked even groovier if I’d been on a nice large does of LSD, as some of the people in the room were, but I wasn’t. I came back two weeks later to retrieve the album. It was laying on the floor out of its cover. But then the cover was no longer that useful as the record was scratched and had been used to butt out cigarettes and joints. At least the butts were mainly on the label in the centre with just a few miscreants melting the vinyl here and there, basically on nearly all the tracks, I could see that folks had tried to do the right thing, but had been inaccurate, but being stoned will do that to you. Still, I was not happy.
‘Why’d you butt out cigarettes on the record? It’s fucked.’
‘I’m not into property, man.’ I couldn’t believe it. Not into property? So sign the fucking house over to me then. I didn’t know what to do.
‘So pay for it, eh?’
‘Got no bread, man. It’s cool, don’t be heavy,’
I was thinking that I wasn’t into violence, otherwise, smack! Right in the kisser. Or whatever you do when you hit someone. I hadn’t been a fighter, not since Harvey Nicholls had given me a blood nose when I was six. We were fighting and he picked up his schoolbag and slugged me. There was a coke bottle in the bag and I got a bad blood nose, all over my school jumper. I was very dark about Cat Stevens, tell me, where do the children play? And not get a blood nose.
I looked about the room and there were many many books lining the walls. I knew what to do.
‘So if you are not into property, I’ll have some of these books to square up. Thankyou.’
‘Cool, man. Don’t freak.’
So I took an armful of books, and that calmed me. But it was Cat’s music I really wanted. Anyway with my new position, my ‘Pop column for The Oz, I eventually saw heaps of concerts, local and overseas.
The first time I tried to exercise my alleged authority as a rock writer, and asked for as review ticket from the Paul Dainty Corporation it was to review the very same Cat Stevens at the lugubrious precinct of Festival Hall, I was refused. Refused!
I asked again and was refused again. I didn’t need to ask a third time, too many connotations of Baby Jesus and his disciple Peter and the cook crowing thrice. That’s stuff in the gospels and relates to how my local doctor was a little disturbed by my view of myself and referred me to a psychiatrist. So I reported to a bloke in a room who sent a letter to my doctor, and my doctor showed me the letter and then left the room. I was in the room with the letter about my mental state. I decided I was meant to read this letter and so I did. It was a report by a shrink who wrote that I thought I was Jesus! Whoa! I don’t think so! That report upset me. I’d heard those stories about patients in a mental institution being introduced to each other – ‘Jesus Christ, I’d like you to meet Jesus Christ.’ I had distinctly told the headshrinker that in a past life I was a very good friend of Baby Jesus, not the guy himself. That would have been mad!
Years later, when I was reviewing this and that, I recalled the letter. And it was then I understood that the psychiatrist had deduced what I could not then see: I was speaking in code. For I could not tell myself I was Jesus, I wouldn’t have accepted that. I had lied to myself but left a message that I could decode and understand later; later, when I was better.
Anyway and nevertheless, the night of the Steve the Cat concert, I found myself at Festival Hall, down in West Melbourne, wind blowing cold in the bitter backstreets, wondering what I was gonna do. Festival Hall was the place where Melbourne fans saw international music in the 1970s. Set in a lonesome, bleak and industrial zone with the road out front being a busy way to the Western suburbs, the venue had been built by the notorious John Wren in 1915 (a man immersed in illegal gambling, with a very grubby and scary biography) , and was known as The House of Stoush, hosting bouts by Lionel Rose, Lester Ellis, Johnny Famechon and Barry Michaels, in the time when boxing was a fashionable event to see. The Stadium was later known as the House of Rock and Roll, where kids 60 years ago saw the Lee Gordon Big Shows, as well as Sinatra, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and more recent times, Justin Timberlake, The Foo Fighters, Ed Sheeran, etc.
I went around to the back of the joint where the road crew bump the equipment in, where the bands shuffle in while the crowds are out front getting tickets or just hanging around. And thought my experience with roadies hadn’t been necessarily great, one of the guys asked me what I was doing and I told him. It was my job to review the concert but someone was holding out on the tickets. I was just gonna see if I could at least hear the concert from the back door. And he said, stuff that, come on in with me. Well, a friend in need indeed. My new friend said, just hang around in the wings ands don’t get seen on stage and you’ll be okay. Of course I said thanks a couple of times, he took me in and I found a place to stand at the side around about when Cat Stevens came on.
In my review in The Oz for one of my first columns, I described my experience as reviewing the shadows of the concert from backstage. Denied a reviewer’s ticket. I spent the whole concert there in the wings, not a bad place to watch, there with a couple of the ‘ladies’ as girls on tour were called then (maybe now) who were with the band.
After that experience I didn’t have any trouble getting tickets from any promoter for any concert. My most loathed experience was at the same venue with the Bay City Rollers. I didn’t hate them, I didn’t know them enough to like them. I simply knew they were important to a lot of very young girls. So I was stuck in the Albion Hotel in Carlton, there sometime in the 1970s, wondering what to do, as it was my job to be there. So finally I ordered a cab somehow and by myself, headed to West Melbourne, to see that very popular teenybopper group. I showed my review tickets, I entered and saw the band on stage and most of the audience out of their seats, crowded around the stage. So I went straight up stairs. As far as I could see, young girls, screaming and pulling at their hair. The band would start a song, the screaming would start, the band would stop, the screaming would die down, the band would start another song, probably the same song again, I wasn’t switched in enough to know. I watched this rather tedious exhibition of a scene that had been replayed over and over since Johnny Ray and Elvis and then The Beatles had experienced — perhaps culminating with the famous Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium in New York where the band couldn’t hear themselves above the screaming of the crowd (and the foldback system, so the band could hear themselves, I presume hadn’t yet been perfected.) This hindrance to a famous group performing live might have been one of the major reasons that stopped the Beatles live, coupled with the necessary move to Stadium Rock when a supergroup attracted 5,000, 20,000 50,000, 100,000 fans or more. The Beatles ended as a studio band except for their last performance on the roof of the Apple Building.
I watched two or so songs, went back downstairs and out the front door to where the taxi was waiting, and we went back to the hotel, where I continued drinking. I had to check to make sure Festival Hall hadn’t burnt down. Lazy reviewers have been caught out for less.
But all that history and then in 1977 I think it was while at the Horden Pavilion at Sydney Showgrounds listening to Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, I decided I’d reviewed enough rock&roll bands, so I gave up the column to a friend. Crazy maybe, but it had to be. One must move on.
So last week at Memo Hall in St Kilda, decided to taste popular music again and so Tex, Don & Charlie on Sunday evening. It was crowded with people, some of whom would have been of a reading age when I last wrote my ‘Pop’ column. It was great. Memo is a very pleasant venue, downstairs is tables and chairs and standing room and upstairs in whatever you can get. The room is not too large and kinda comfortable. I remember Normie Rowe performing there a year or two back (at the launch of a 60s rock&roll book, ‘The Greatest Australian Singles of the 60s’, that was written by David Pepperell and…oh yeah, and me!!) and Normie said he’d performed at this same venue in the late 60s. as had several other acts who played that night. I wanted to speak to Normie because we’d become quite close when I’d interviewed him for TV Week back in 1970 those three or so times. I’d been to the house he’d had built for his folks, out in some distant suburb. He’d cooked me lunch and we drank vodka. He wasn’t the greatest cook. So as I caught him on the way back from soundcheck and reminded him of our history. He couldn’t remember a moment of it. But it’s cool. This is the way of all things.
But back to the future, or what we may call the present minute: Tex, Don and Charlie played three sold-out nights in St Kilda…a full house and a put-together band of folks who are stars in their own sky. I think the greatest compliment someone like me could pay T,D&C is to say I could see them again…possibly and again. Tex Perkins is well-known in rock&roll music here as singer for Beasts of Bourbon and Cruel Sea as well as solo. But lately for this super-trio. Don Walker spent years being great with Cold Chisel as well as solo work and Charlie Owen, elegant rock guitarist from here and there and pretty much all over.
It is rare indeed for a rube like I to remember songs played at a live concert that he’s never heard before. I can cite ’Take it to the Limit’ by The Eagles which I first heard in concert, but I think part of that remembering was the repeat of the title, ‘Take it to the Limit’ over and over as the song faded. Dozens of times, it seemed. I believe they well exceeded the limit, in fact. There has never been another song that I first heard in concert, that I remember. Oh, okay. I just remembered one. When Mike Rudd & Bill Putt’s band, Spectrum, played the T.F. Much Ballroom in Brunswick Street 55 years ago (no, not a misprint) they also made a sub-group called Indelible Murtceps. Those among us who are special in the language department, will have seen that the name of the sub-group is an inversion of the name Spectrum. I might say here that having a sub-group was groovy for a while in this period. Jefferson Airplane had a sub-group called Hot Tuna, which was a sort of acoustic-ish blues group and Grateful Dead sort of had a sub group called New Riders of the Purple Sage which was new country and Frank Zappa had a sub-group (don’t remember much about it, might have been doo-wop) and also Daddy Cool was a sub-group of Ross Wilson’s mental-macrobiotic band, Sons of the Vegetal Mother. It was the best of times, it was the kinda bad-arse barge-arse of times and Spectrum played a lot at the Brunswick Street Ballroom, and I very much recall the theme song of Indelible Murtceps which was ‘We are Indelible.’ Okay, that’s the history of the remembrance of songs past, and now coming up to the current minute, with this band Tex, Don & Charlie, there were two songs out of the set which stuck with me. Both songs by Tex and presumable his songs (I don’t know) ‘A Man in Conflict with Nature’ is one and…well…that’s funny, a mental block has descended and, oh hang on, I got it — ‘One step behind the Blues’ was the other song —and if that wasn’t the exact title, if not, something very close to that. Both tunes were melancholy jewels and both performed beautifully by Tex Perkins. Very Bluesy in a quiet way and very atmospheric I guess is a way to describe them. My friend E— was very taken with the band, she declared they were world class. I couldn’t dispute that. I couldn’t remember hearing anything quite like this band. So that means unique. The guitar breaks were delicate and tasteful (Charlie) the vocals by Don and Tex were just right and Don threw in keyboards, also not too little, not too much. Like Buddha said about Liberation — the perfect life is like a tuned guitar string…too loose and you don’t get music, too tight and the string will break, but right in tune, in the middle way, it sings, it is pure vibration. Well, so much for 2500 years of Buddhist thought. So back to the band in question and I have to agree with my friend. I’ve seen a few local acts which you know immediately are bound for the world. I don’t know if this band is bound for the world, but if they wanted to, I imagine they could be.
I said to E—, ‘It’s a very individual sound,’ then tried to make comparisons, adding, ‘A bit like late Leonard Cohen closed with Charles Bukowski.’
‘What? Bukowski the writer?’
‘The very same, drunk, in the gutter and honest.’
‘Okay, but throw in Tom Waits,’ E— said. I agreed with her.
‘That makes sense,’ I said. ‘That’s good. This band makes us think of Tom, Len and Charles.’
I think when you get to have to throw in three performers to define what you are listening to, then the band is something different. The band is world class, maybe not a stadium-filling band, but it is so boring going to a tennis stadium to watch a band. The only fun is watching the sort of people who have come. But the world will make these decisions, I’m just thinking aloud, in print. And the thing is, would the world know what it was listening to? We in Australia are very modern and perhaps the rest of the world needs to catch up. Maybe not. I have no idea except to say Tex, Don & Charlie and the rest of the band have something really special. Go see them. Might see you there.
Oh, when I was a kid back up near the Flinders Ranges, I was nicknamed Taddy. First the kids in the Primary School in my smallish town, then later at Port Pirie High where the whole school of maybe 2000 kids. I was in a practice band as a singer back then, a singer because I could play no instrument. Now I’ve learned a little bit. Here is Taddy –
You can catch at taddy.bandcamp.com – feel free to listen.