A few days ago, Mick Lewis and I delivered ourselves into the hands of Richard Lowenstein at his studio in St. Kilda.
For a long time now, Richard has been labouring over the DVD release of his Melbourne cult movie. (You know the one. It stars the sadly missed Michael Hutchence playing a character with distinct similarities to the writer of this blog in his tumultuous youth.) I’m not certain what the delay has been, but it appears that the long awaited release is near.
Mick and I were member of The Ears, the band whose story was used as the basis of the film. We lived, with all the others, in that ratty, shambolic, dangerous, vigorous household of ancient Richmond.
Rather than simply putting a restored copy of the film on a disc, Richard seems to be assembling a comprehensive document of the era itself, collecting a great amount of material in various media to include as extras: photos, posters, all that; some footage from the set of the film, (including my acerbic interview with Michael Hutchence). There are old Ears film clips too, plus the interviews he’s currently doing with a mix of surviving stalwarts from the early Eighties scene. These include other Ears members Tim McLaughlan and Chuck Meo (who played himself in the movie), legendary Birthday Party guitarist Rowland Howard, Ollie Olsen and Dolores San Miguel, promoter of the famous Exford Hotel.
Mick and I must have spoken with Richard for two hours. Sometimes it’s nice to have permission to be nostalgic. I enjoyed dredging back through that time. Despite our courageous dedication to drunken partying and general intoxication, a surprising number of recollections survive. Much of what we recounted sounded, in retrospect, like some scatterbrained, completely arbitrary art project, though it was certainly never intended as such. Magically, bleating lambs appeared overnight in bedrooms. Rattling gumball machines were dragged through the dead of night. Sombre dialogues were held with patient eight-foot roosters on busy Wattletree Rd. After speed-fuelled Space Invader marathons the pixelated aliens would march remorselessly across the inside of our eyelids as we threshed in our beds. Once I spent hours on my hands and knees crawling around someone’s house, entirely disoriented, desperately trying to stand up after injecting a vial of liquid phenergan which someone had appeared with ...
Through the interview, Richard didn’t concentrate strictly on the events which inspired the film, but attempted to steer things towards the broader context of the time.
When you’re young, everything is exciting, that’s a given. If you’re out there doing things, making the scene, it’s easy to feel like you’re the centre of the world, the cynosure. It may feel like it’s the first time in the history of the Earth that such fantastic new sounds have been heard, but really all that’s in play is the arrogance and naïveté of youth.
I have always suspected that the claims made by contributors to the early eighties scene in Melbourne have been overly subjective, and that, however brilliant it all seemed at the time, it was still more or less the same thing which every generation goes through. As for myself, I’ve always been reticent to suggest that I was part of something particularly unique.
But, after the interview. After listening to Rowland, Dolores and all the rest, I began to suspect that there might really have been a special something about the scene back then.
Twenty five years ago, it was a smaller, greyer, far more conservative city. There were no street cafes. Restaurants rarely had bars and you could count on two hands the number of 24 hour establishments. You’d be hassled for wearing hats in pubs and chastised by war veterans for wearing second hand medals on the tram. You could get beaten up as a poofter for wearing anything even remotely peculiar. The only alternative scenes were the sluggish festering hippies in Carlton and Fitzroy, a gaggle of Maori drag-queens in Fitzroy St, and the tribes of skinheads and sharpies in Holmesglen and Bayswater. Musical offerings included pub rock, more pub rock and maybe a bit of flaccid folk rock.
Into this dead zone stepped a new generation inspired by the punk movement in London, New York and Detroit. But it was not just the music. Because the city was smaller, because it was so disobliging of strangeness, there was a tendency for the weirdos to find each other and congregate for safety. The David Bowie queue portrayed in Dogs in Space was one catalyst for this. It was there that Mick and I and the rest of the Ears discovered a host of like minded souls who became our friends, collaborators and fans.
An example I like to use involves the freakish hair colours most of us sported to varying degrees. In the Melbourne of 1980, if you caught sight of someone across the street with dyed purple hair, the odds were you’d know them. The scene was that small. Today, well, you wouldn’t bother looking twice.
So all the alternative types were tossed together by circumstance: the hardcore punks, the industrial experimenters, the new wave pop exponents, even mods - along with visual artists, designers, artists and writers. And it became a melting pot. Today, Melbourne is large enough to support many distinct scenes, but then there was really only one, and the vibe, looking back, was singular.
There was a tragedy during the period described by Dogs in Space which was to fuel the central drama of the film. It was over this issue that Richard and I were to fall out. Readers of this blog, specifically the transcriptions of my early eighties diaries, will know I’m referring to the overdose death of my lover Christine.
Though I’d been involved with Dogs in Space and had encouraged it, I hadn’t taken careful notice of certain plot elements. It wasn’t until I saw a rough cut that I realised that the film appeared to show the ‘Sam’ character introducing the ‘Anna’ character to smack. I was aghast. Though the film is fiction, it conforms largely to the facts of real life, and on this sensitive point, it jarred badly with the truth. I was horrified to think that anyone might think I was responsible, even indirectly, for Christine’s death.
I responded in the media with as much vitriol as I could muster. ‘Sam Mad About Dogs,’ is one headline I recall. In one interview I was quoted as saying ‘The film appears to be suggesting that if you take heroin you can go to heaven with Michael Hutchence’. Contemplating litigation at one point, I even found myself in lawyer’s office [but not for long after he discovered I had no money].
Indeed, it wasn’t until Troy’s memorial a year or so ago that Richard and I buried the hatchet. It was mostly down to me, as the aggrieved party, and I was relieved to end the acrimony. During last week’s interview, the subject of Christine’s death was raised and we discussed it like gentlemen. Richard had always thought that the dichotomy between fact and fiction was clear, but way back, when my emotions were still tender, I just didn’t believe the public would be able to make such distinctions. To some extent I was probably right, but it was all so long ago… Thankfully, we can be friends again at last, and Richard, all in all, is not a bad friend to have.
Addendum July 21 - The 'Dogs in Space' re-release premieres at the Melbourne Film Festival on August 1; the related doco 'We're Living on Dog Food' on August 2. The Ears reformation gig is on August 16 at The Corner hotel: Keep informed on Twitter