In 1975 I relocated to New York City. After a couple of years, I formed a New Wave band in the late 70s. I mixed with The Talking Heads, Johnny Thunders, the Heartbreakers and Lydia Lunch. NYC faced bankruptcy. Mayor Koch tried to hold together a city where drugs were sold openly on street corners and hookers were as common as yellow cabs.. But before I reached New York I moved to Sydney.
'When I woke up this morning, my head was filled with despair. Ain't nobody loving, ain't nobody cares, Evie, Evie, Evie let your hair hang down...'
I reached for the radio dial; turned it up! Stevie Wright's powerful voice cried out from my car radio and filled my mid-sixties Ford Falcon wagon as I drove up a busy South Road. Stevie had gone solo after the demise of the incredible Easybeats. This was his triumphant new beginning in 1974. He was my musical role model from the first time I'd heard their first smash, 'She's So Fine' in 1965. I'd seen The Easybeats twice when they toured Adelaide in 1966, at their peak and later, in 1969, on their way out.
It was September 1974, I was in a band called ‘Slim Pickens’, driving my old station wagon to a regular Friday night gig we had at The Flagstaff Hotel on South Road, Darlington. The music from the radio penetrated my corpuscles, mixing nicely with the four or five beers I'd already consumed at The Kentish Arms on Stanley Street in North Adelaide. Elevated awareness through the power of music and beer; wonderful, then, CRASH!!
'What an idiot! What sort of a bastard would just stop so bloody suddenly at the lights?' I puzzled.
'He's wrecked my car!'
My four-hundred-dollar Falcon rammed into the rear of a Toyota. Shocked and dumbfounded, I leapt out of my now, permanently immobile wreck and yelled at the Toyota driver, before spying a police car directly across the road. Seeking justice, I bee-lined for the police vehicle.
'Did you see that!? Did you see how that car just slammed on his brakes in front of me?' I was swaying a little, half from the shock and half from the beers.
Incredulous, the policeman sat, relaxed in his car, then magnanimously said, 'I didn't see anything mate.' Then turned away as if to give me a miraculous opportunity to disappear as fast as I could.
Suddenly, I became aware that it was me who was wrong. I became clear-headed enough to see a window back to reality. I exchanged details with the Toyota driver, got his wreck off to the side of the road, then mine, hailed a cab and made it to The Flagstaff Hotel where my band was setting up for the Friday night residency.
Slim Pickens was a four-piece band. We had been together for just a few months, formed by an invitation from local DJ, Mark Smith. Mark was six foot 5 inches tall and full of ideas. He worked for the Adelaide radio station, 5KA. Looking to stretch beyond merely being a DJ, he wanted to get involved in the live music scene, as a manager. On-air one night, after a Gary Glitter song, he announced that he wanted to put together a local rock band that he would manage and shepherd to fame. I was a regular 5KA listener. At the time it was the best rock station in Adelaide. I quickly responded to the call-out and an initial meeting was arranged at the radio station in Franklin Street, one evening soon after. Three English migrants from the satellite city of Elizabeth also responded. Their last singer was a guy named Jimmy Barnes. He'd left to join another outfit which would soon be called Cold Chisel.
I became the singer after that first night at 5KA. We ran through a few songs we all knew, Free’s ‘Alright Now’ and Steeley Dan’s ‘Ricky Don’t Lose That Number’ and it worked right away. I was the odd man out, not being English, or from Elizabeth. The guys were really good players and were all friends. This was to be my third band in Adelaide in just over two years.
In 1972 I joined my first band called ‘Squaw’. (I never came up with that name.) This came about in an unconventional way. I was in the front yard of my family’s suburban home in Royston Park, on a warm, Summer's afternoon, when I heard guitar chords and drums, emanating from a garage, a block or two away. I followed the sounds to find the source. It wasn't long before I was in the driveway of a modest suburban house, standing in front of the garage where the music pulsed. I cautiously approached the garage, then took a peek inside. There were four young guys, probably sixteen or seventeen years old, fully engaged with each other, pounding out an instrumental. I was just eighteen at the time.
The group I found, consisted of a guitarist (Peter), a bass player (Brandon), drummer (Daryl) and an organist (Vince). I smiled, waved a hello, then asked if I could come in and listen. They didn't mind. I sat through a song or two then we talked for a while. I explained how I followed the music from my place to theirs, and that I was a big music fan. They asked if I sang? They didn't have a lead singer. I said I'd like to try. The guys played a standard 12-bar format and I sang an Elvis song. They liked it. I was invited to their next rehearsal the following Saturday afternoon in a local scout hall. They had a little gig there on the Saturday night and invited me to sing a couple of songs which we would run through that same afternoon. Wow! That was fast and incredibly exciting. A real band, a live gig and acceptance as their, or anybody's, singer all within a week! That first little gig went well. The vocal mike was plugged into Peter's guitar amp. There was no PA, but it worked for us. The first real gig with myself as the singer, was two weeks away. Squaw was to play in a hall, on a stage with a paying audience (50 cents a ticket). I had several songs to memorize, which was no problem, I couldn't remember being as excited by anything in all my young years. I barely slept for the two weeks leading up that first gig. I was the singer in a rock band! That gig in the little hall went well. We had a good response from the young audience. Our gigs became more frequent, more polished and our aspirations grew. We played venues in North Adelaide and the city and were paid. Young female fans would hand notes to us with phone numbers but we never acted on them. We were an innocent bunch. There was barely a beer drunk between us and definitely, no drugs.
Peter was an enthusiast. He was also a vocal Christian. He loved the idea of the Rock Masses that were popular at the time. He made his own costumes and sometimes, those of the rest of the band. He made his speaker cabinets for his guitar amp. We received some attention in the Adelaide music scene and music press. A popular band called Fragile paid attention to us. They modelled themselves on ‘Yes’ and were extremely competent musicians. The lead singer, Rodney Gunner mentored us for a while.
Squaw continued playing for two years We recorded two songs, one of Peter's originals, ‘Got to See You Again’, and one of mine, ‘All the Pretty Women’. I encountered my first groupie after a year or so, when we played a country gig in Maitland, about three hours-drive from Adelaide. The gig was in the country hall. It was a disappointing turn out of less than twenty people, still, we played our normal set. We did our best and people enjoyed it. After the show an overweight young girl approached me and invited me to her nearby caravan. I spent the night there, rocking briefly on the narrow caravan bed. I said goodbye the next morning, never to see her again. It was a strange experience, that left me cold and a little empty.
Squaw was such a fun experience. I was still in art school. Painting was my number one focus, but music was almost neck and neck. My confidence grew as I performed more. I never believed I had a great voice, I was simply driven by the fantasy of making music, so I strode onwards.
After a couple of years with Sqaw, it was time to move to the next level with them, or to move on without them. The teenybopper scene that was Squaw’s domain, became limited. I'd met better musicians playing around the Adelaide scene, a heavier bunch of more competent players. Susan Rankin, an art school colleague of mine, had a brother, Rick who was a naturally gifted guitarist. Rick knew some other great players and we formed a band called Narcissus. The name was apt. As opposed to the friendly, fun bunch of guys in Squaw, these guys were moody and egotistical. The band only lasted a couple of months and played only one gig. Rick moved to Sydney interstate to join bands but his career never flourished as it should have.
I was getting restless as art school was winding up, I had plans to move to Sydney once it had finished, as a stepping stone to moving to the US. I did things swiftly in an effort to not waste precious time. Sometimes this worked, sometimes I went backwards.
Slim Pickens had been together a few months. Members were Mark Lacey, guitar, Paul Kelly, drums, Michael Smith, bass and myself, vocals. Our Flagstaff Hotel venue was well established with regular bands booked every Friday and Saturday nights. The hotel sat on the hill at the beginning of the gateway to Adelaide's Southern beaches. Slim Pickens had been the Friday night band for six weeks. Our set consisted of original songs written by myself and Mark, the guitarist, as well as Bowie, The Doobie Brothers and other 70s rock standards. The tension onstage was sometimes noticeable, particularly when Paul, the drummer would make smart-ass wisecracks directed at me, which were enjoyed by his fellow Pommies. My response at times, was to kick his drum set during a number.
The music manager at The Flagstaff had a beautiful wife. She had long dark hair, olive skin, magazine features, full lips, delicate nose and perfect figure. Her name was Nikki, she was about twenty-four, four years older than me. She loved the music and was very out-going to the point of being forward. Mark Smith, our manager, had mentioned that she had kissed him the week before without him hitting on her at all! Tonight, I was in her sights. During a break she joined me in a quiet spot, to chat. We sat alone towards the back of the pub and in no time her hand was stroking mine, then my hair. Her long fingernails then ran down my back. She gave me a look that basically said I was about to be consumed and there was no chance of resistance.
'Follow me, come on, quick.' She said as she guided me towards the ladies' restroom, practically pushing me through the door. It was empty. Nature took over as buttons were undone and lips licked sweaty skin. Fingernails clawed. We were down on the floor. Devouring, feet against the door. Pants down, panties off. Natural order was followed, except for the fact that Nikki was married. Her husband was outside. Then, someone tried to open the door. This was the Ladies’ bathroom! Someone needed to use it but the door was jammed just as I was jammed into Nikki before exploding inside her. It was a quickie but it wouldn't be the last I saw of her. She gave me her number. We dressed and zipped up quickly, then I joined my grumpy band on-stage for our final night.
The excruciatingly, uncomfortable, cheap, bus-ride from Adelaide to Sydney was finally over, 15 hours. I made a promise to myself not to do long-haul, interstate bus rides again. On the last day of December, 1974, I arrived in Sydney. It had a fresh, breezy and open feeling to it, with a touch of moldy decay caused by the humidity. My task was now to find a place to live, then find some work in this big city, five times the size of Adelaide. Adelaide barely had a multi-story building to its name. It had one main street, Rundle Street, that was divided into good and evil. Hindley Street was the evil side. Sydney had multiple good and evil streets with a whole section devoted to sleaze called Kings Cross.
My first night in Sydney was spent at a big New Year’s Eve party in Manly. I had the address of a guy who had stayed a few weeks before, at the share-house I lived in in Norwood, Adelaide. He was from Sydney. He had friends in the share-house. Initially appearing friendly, he invited me to call him if I visited Sydney. Having no contacts, that’s what I did. My first night I was in Sydney was at an uncomfortable, druggy party. People were tripping. It felt very sleazy and I was totally out of place. Somehow, I slept a little, then headed out the next morning to find a place to stay.
On Flinders Street, Darlinghurst, there was a sign in the front window of a Rooming-House that read, ‘Room for Rent’. I knocked on the door. The landlady opened the door. She seemed a little sauced and looked over-tanned, but a bit sexy in a strange way for a fifty-year-old. She showed me the available room. It was about fifteen by 12 feet, with a bed, a sink and a little area to prepare a meal. It had a large window that let in lots of light. The bathroom and toilet were down the hall.
I found a roof over my head. That first day a flamboyant guy named Len, who had the room upstairs, facing the street, noticed I’d moved in. Len was a nurse, about thirty. He made a point of saying ‘hello’ each time he saw me and invited me to have tea and scones with him. Soon, he invited me to share a joint. I was naïve, not realizing that I might be an attractive target. Len was gay and clearly wanted to befriend me. The early Seventies social revolution had promoted a big rise in dialogue about the gay world, gay rights etc. The South Australian Premier at that time, Don Dunstan, had been a champion of gay rights. He signaled, through his over-the-top dress code, that he was open to the gay scene and later turned from ‘family man’ to a man in a gay relationship. He was very much admired by my friend Len.
It wasn’t long until the druggie guy, who’s party I attended on New Year’s Eve, found my address and brought me a small deal of pot. He was basically a drug dealer. After that, he visited me without warning every week or two offering me deals of grass, even LSD for the going rate. I relented a few times, so the dealer kept coming back to sell his stuff. It was too easy. I was and easy target, isolated without many contacts in a big new city. Marijuana became a part of my daily routine, unlike any time before. Often, I had a joint after breakfast.
I found work detailing cars in the used car-yard on the corner, as well as collecting empty glasses and at The Hyde Park Hotel in the city.
In early 1975 I discovered a hangout in Darlinghurst named French's Wine Bar. Walking into the crowded, but small dark space, I recognized the familiar peculiarities of the junkie world. Heroin was widespread in Australia, from Perth to Adelaide; Burnie to Sydney in the 70s. Its sleazy spread flowed into suburbia and had stolen the future of thousands of Australia's youth. It was cheap and widespread enough to get hooked on. It was strong enough to take over a once-clean life, then quickly turn it to shit. I had observed it from a distance often. I detested it and was never tempted to give myself over to this dark world. Why anyone would fall for of this vile leech-of-a-drug, once they had seen the pitiful effect it had on those who had fallen for its false promise?
The bar that night featured a short, almost chubby guy, with very long dark hair named Richard Clapton. He looked like a proud Mexican serenader. His lyrics delivered a unique Australian story, his accent was beautifully, unashamedly Australian. His songs and performance were brilliant. The tidy innocence of the 60s seemed long gone.
I found a better job working in Double Bay at Café 21, pulling cappuccinos for a couple of months. The work was OK but I wasn’t much of a front-counter man. There is a certain personality-type that suits dealing with the public each day and I didn’t have it. I enjoyed the matzo ball soup and some of the friendly customers but, I wasn’t able to sustain a long-term job there. I was better behind the scenes as a dish-washer of food-prep guy. I did that too in Sydney. The job I was worst at was as a door-to-door salesman. I worked for Debonair Carpet Cleaning, knocking on doors to cold-call customers. The work was on-commission. Dropped off by my manager on suburban streets, I must have lacked the necessary conviction needed to convince housewives they needed the service I was selling. I barely made any sales, or money, at all. I lasted three weeks.
Mark Smith, the DJ and manager of Slim Pickens, from Adelaide, had also moved to Sydney around the same time as me. We still had plans to would work together and kept in-touch. I had found a band myself after several weeks in Sydney. I’d answered an ad in The Sydney Morning Herald classifieds. Some guys in the western suburbs needed a singer, so I caught a train, auditioned and got the gig. Rehearsals required the one-hour ride into the amorphous suburbs, once, or twice a week. Once again, I was joining a band of three guys who were already bonded as a group. The band were very competent and tight. They’d named themselves ‘Burlesque Review’. They consisted of a powerful Greek drummer who was on the heavy side, John, a stylish, talented, guitarist/songwriter, and a working-class, aggro bass player. These guys were all around twenty, my age.
Rehearsals went well and we were soon sounding good. Pot smoking was a given. There always seemed to be a stash, which came out after rehearsals. Sometimes I couldn't make it back to the city, after too many joints. One night when I stayed with the guitarist, John, who lived with his mum in his family home and it was time for bed, I stuck my head into the living room and asked John where my room was? He gestured to a room 'down the hall'. I followed the cue, wandered down the hall, then opened what I thought was the door. In the room was a double-bed and in the bed, a mustached man was sitting up.
'Oh, sorry!’ I said awkwardly, 'Wrong room. Goodnight.'
The man nodded and feeling embarrassed, I returned to the lounge-room.
'I got the wrong room! I went into your parents’ room and your dad was in bed!' I said to John.
'My dad's dead.' John answered. 'He died two years ago.'
'What? That's crazy. I saw someone in that bed and I spoke to him. Did your dad have a mustache?'
'Yeah, he did! Weird. Must be the grass. Your room is the next one down on the other side. See you in the morning.' He said.
A new television show that was to be the forerunner to Countdown had just been launched from Sydney's ABC Gore Hill studio. Bands had to submit a recording and the winner would receive a recording contract. Burlesque Review were ambitious and booked a session at Atlantic Studios to record two songs.
Atlantic Studios was run by members of the mostly surf/instrumental 60s band, The Atlantics. Burlesque Review felt right at home in the 24 Track studio. The session went very well. The sounds were full and clear. The songs were written by John, the guitarist, with some extra lyrics provided by me. The style was Roxy Music, Bowie, tight pop. The two songs were, ‘Life's for Eternity’ and ‘Towering Inferno’ (title inspired by the movie that had been recently released).
Once the session was finished, with cassette in-hand, we delivered it to the TV station with expectancy. The band felt confident and entitled. The confidence was rewarded within a week, with a phone call from TV show’s producer. We came third. Well-known Sydney band, Panther (a Santana sound-a-like) took out first place.
A live (actually lip-synched) Saturday morning appearance on TV and a prize of just a couple of hundred bucks, wasn't too bad after just one recording attempt. In our flared satin costumes, knocked up by a dress-maker friend of the guitarist, the band excitedly lapped up what they thought was to be their first step on the way to national and even, international fame and fortune! Sitting in the make-up chair I hoped I could make enough of an impact with this band to soon circumvent the need to continue detailing used cars.
'Burlesque Review, next please.' came an announcement.
It was time. The band assembled then took their positions in front of lights and cameras.
'This was where we were meant to be.' I thought as we performed our new song, ‘Towering Inferno’.
The track played; the band mimed. It felt great, but it was over so quickly. Soon it was time to return to reality. A couple of people I knew saw the show; my landlady and Len, the guy upstairs. I also got a phone call from an established Sydney cover-band, ‘Sparkle’, who had seen the show and reached out to me to fill-in for their lead singer who was unable to perform for their next big gig. I agreed and performed with the band to a large crowd in a huge suburban beer barn.
I saw a couple of memorable gigs in Sydney at The Horden Pavilion. Ike and Tina Turner was the best. Tina at her energized peak, backed up by the sexy Ikettes, pulsing to Ike’s churning guitar. The Glitter Band were good too but Gary unfortunately didn’t perform with them at that time.
Burlesque Review played a couple more gigs around Sydney after their TV appearance. As a direct result of the show they were asked to play at a large gay function. Sydney's gay community had lots of influence on whether bands broke through, or disappeared. The band was pleased with the booking but worried about the idea of wearing their flamboyant satin costumes. It was too much for John and the other western suburbs guys. They agreed we should only wear denim street clothes so we wouldn't look too ‘camp’, or draw too much attention to ourselves. I was perplexed by this and it became a problem that grew into an argument. We did the gig in jeans, but the evening resulted in me quitting the band. It was time to wind things up in Sydney and move on.
Sydney was only a step on the way to New York City. I never intended to stay unless big things happened quickly. Sydney had been mostly an effort, without a great deal of fun. I hadn't managed to insert myself into Sydney life beyond a superficial level. I’d found a place to live, found work and a band, but had not managed to make any real friends, nor meet a girlfriend. Life was mundane. I was lonely and getting impatient to leave this city that was cold to me.
I’d been in Sydney only six months. To leap from Sydney to New York would take a large pile of dollars that I didn't have. I did have enthusiasm, restlessness and the naïveté of youth though.
I was prepared to get to New York City in any number of ways. Like many musicians, (John Lennon, Brian Ferry....) I was also an art student. Four years of art school had kept me busy after leaving high school early. Art school would be my bridge to America. I had been writing to art schools in the US, with this in mind, for several months and had started to construct the bridge. The art schools responded and soon I had a letter of acceptance from the San Francisco Art Institute, The Art Institute of Chicago and The School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan. New York City had always been my focus. I would study there. I could begin in three months and I could get a student visa. All I needed was the money; airfare, school fees and support. With nothing to lose, I looked to the new source of funding in Australia for the arts. It was a model based on the British arts-funding and it was called the Australia Council for The Arts. It had just started and was finding its legs. The head office was in Sydney. I made an appointment and brought along my letter of acceptance from the School of Visual Arts. In a one-on-one meeting with the head of the Australia Council, Noela Yuill, I presented a case that won her approval. I would be funded; $4,000! This would convert to even more with the favorable exchange rate at the time. Within six weeks I had enough money to cover everything and booked my ticket. I was headed to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
I had been in Sydney for almost eight months. It was mostly an isolated period. I felt so lonely I sometimes simply cried. On Sunday afternoons I took myself to the movies on Oxford Street to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classics. There was something comforting and familiar about them. In the six months, I had only one liaison with a girl. I met her at a local hang-out. I barely talked to her but was magnetically drawn to her fingernails which were long and painted red. I practically begged her to come back to my place for the night. To my amazement, half-heartedly, she agreed. The next morning, we got up, she left and that was it, my only liaison in Sydney.
Len, from upstairs, continued to attempt to draw me into his strange world. He smoked a lot of pot. He loved The Queen and attended the Anglican Cathedral where he would lust over choirboys. He often spoke of wanting marriage legalized between men. He would invite me to have coffee, scones and pot whenever he saw me. One evening I visited and he poured us both whiskeys before making a move on me, trying to kiss me. It was very awkward and uncomfortable. I soon excused myself and left before things moved beyond repair. He had provided some companionship over the months I’d been in Sydney.
The drug dealer continued to return regularly to sell his stuff to me. He was annoyingly persistent and came like a bad smell. I’d foolishly bought a tab of acid several weeks before and kept it in my room, looking at it occasionally, but never really feeling right about taking it. Previously, I’d had three hallucinogenic experiences in Adelaide, mostly bad. I didn't want another, especially in my current state of aloneness. I flushed the acid tab down the sink, never again to mess with LSD. In early August 1975, a week or so before I was to fly to New York, the drug dealer knocked on my door for the last time. Taking great pleasure in telling him I didn't want any more pot, or visits, I told him I was going to New York City. He left looking stunned and I was free.