Like my daddy before me
I earned my stripes, staying up nights
In late night bars
Standing around, stumbling on
Singin’ my song and loading up cars
My legs is long
I keep walking on
Tijuana guitar and a penny jar
And a bed full of rock’n’roll tears
Rock’n’Roll Tears (L. Carmen)
I always knew. Even in my little-girl bones there was a wistful kind of longing for rock’n’roll. It spoke to me. It was calling me.
There is a two-track tape recording my father made, when I was a four-year-old, of Bon Scott singing one of his songs. It was ruined by my wailing because I wanted to be the one singing it. My father bought me a Suzi Quatro album about the same time. I was transfixed first by the image on the cover, that skin-tight, shiny leather catsuit, the sneering expressions of the guys next to her. Then I went down to Devil Gate Drive and there was no turning back.
I was expelled from primary school, in a middle-class Adelaide suburb, after performing my father’s song ‘I Wish I Was Stoned’ on the little stage at the top of the stairs leading to our classroom. I don’t think the other kids took any notice. I refused to go to school without my high high heels, lashings of Imprévu perfume and lipstick. The teacher wrote a letter to my parents stating that I didn’t ‘fit in’ and it would be appreciated if I went somewhere else for my schooling.
For Show and Tell in my next primary school, I performed a Randy Newman song where the main lyric was ‘I'm gonna take off my pants’. I thought it was hysterically funny. The other kids thought I was one weird witch. I didn’t have too many friends.
Rock’n’roll was our daily bread. Most nights my father, Peter, would be gigging somewhere, solo or with a band, or recording in the studio he had next door to the house. I would beg to go with him as often as I could, generally ending the evening asleep beneath the piano. At some ungodly hour he would scoop me up for the post-gig Greek meal in a Hindley Street restaurant.
Lyrics always fascinated me. I loved to pore over my father’s folder of lyrics, trying to work out which ones he’d written, trying to work out what they meant. Peter was always informative, telling me about the songwriters, the singers, the musicians, who was great and why. The amount of pot being smoked made him very patient and thoughtful.
He had played piano professionally from the age of thirteen, having taught himself to play by pounding out the notes Jerry Lee Lewis–style, with bricks balanced on his hands to achieve the requisite strength. When I was young, he was practising piano every day with his eyes shut, in case he ever went blind, and because Ray Charles didn’t need eyes to play the way he did, so why should he?
Every now and then he would indulge me with what I called ‘My Singing Practice’. I would select songs I wanted to sing from his precious folder and he would work out my key and play piano while I sung them. He told me professional singers always knew what key they sang in. I could never remember, which didn’t bode well. He also told me it took ten years to be a decent amateur and another ten to become a professional. I tried to remain undaunted. I knew all the backing vocal parts for his original songs and always harboured a hope that one day a backing singer wouldn’t show up for a gig and I’d be able to step in, and nobody would notice I was only eight.
Around the age of ten, I wrote my first ‘proper’ song. It was called ‘Up’ and I guess it was a reflective little number about heaven and earth. I worked out a slight melody on the piano and Peter turned it into a real song. On New Year’s Eve 1980, there was a huge party at the Adelaide Town Hall. I stepped out from behind Barrie McCaskill’s magnificent star-covered magician’s cape, in leotard and towering witchy black boots and performed my song to wild applause. I think I have been trying to recapture the thrill of that moment ever since.
When Peter wrote the music for a bushranger musical, I would crawl around the dressing-room floor collecting sequins that fell from Black Alice’s costume. I still have them. I also still have the silver-fringed hot pants given to me as a little girl by Vonnie, Peter’s flame-haired conga player. My mother kindly sewed a triangle of stretch elastic in the bottom to fit my more substantial curves. These are my talismans.
When I was a teenager, our family friend Vince was managing the Divinyls, which meant I could go to as many shows as I wanted - and I did. I knew all the songs by heart, and though I never dared to sing them aloud, I had a recurring fantasy in which Chrissie Amphlett was too ill to go on stage and I would step up and do the show perfectly and nobody would ever guess I wasn’t Chrissie.
At some point, Peter became the musical director for A Star Is Torn, the Robyn Archer show about the miserable lives of some of our most loved singers and performers, including Janis Joplin, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and Marilyn Monroe. I was mesmerised by Robyn’s ability to bring them to life with a simple prop: how she could change her accent, her stance, her voice. I sat in the darkened seats thinking: I could do that, I understand that. Often I would give Robyn little performance notes after the show, which I recall her being remarkably gracious about.
When I think about my childhood, it’s music and musicians I remember - iif I’m able to remember much; my parents always say I was born stoned. To entertain my parents and their friends I would perform impressions of the Who, with my Keith Moon imitation producing the most amusement. I remember my older brother practising the Pete Townsend windmill in front of his mirror for hours. He’s now a brilliant funk guitarist. I practised The Madison obsessively, the dance that went with Tina Turner’s ‘Nutbush City Limits’. I remember as a little girl being allowed to sing a song with my father’s huge ramshackle band, the Mount Lofty Rangers, at the Festival Theatre amphitheater - there’s a picture of me with my back to the audience clutching the microphone for dear life.
I remember being told about the birds and the bees on the way to a gig an hour out of town, then spending the rest of night looking at all those musicians in horror as I suddenly realised what all those lyrics meant. I remember Cold Chisel dropping by our street party in their van, on their way to Sydney, and years later Don Walker calling my father to ask for my ‘hand in video’ (I was in Don’s video clip for ‘Hi-Wire Girl’). I remember Chris Finnen, the genius blind guitarist, who was kind and mystical and always took the time to speak with me and my brother, as did my father’s dear friend Bon Scott, who loved our dog Harry and told me he’d seen Harry’s ghost sitting in the driveway.
I remember opening the door once to Bon grinning with no teeth, after some accident. In my memory there was blood dripping everywhere, but my mother assures me I am deluded. Then I remember answering the phone around midnight when I was ten - I was a hyperactive child insomniac. It was our friend Vince, who told Mum that Bon had just died in London. My father was playing piano in Darwin that night - when the town heard the news, everybody just stopped what they were doing and went and lay in the riverbed and got drunk in an impromptu wake. Later I had a seance with my friends next door to reach him, but it didn’t work. I think I had a week off school, I was so devastated.
Bon represented something, especially to the Adelaide music community, many of whom had played with him in one band or another. The redemptive power and glory of rock’n’roll. The escape it offered, the method of transportation from everyday life to somewhere better, somewhere lit by coloured lights. In 1973 Bon wrote the song that speaks to my heart most:
Ya can stick your 9–5 living
And your collar and your tie
You can stick your moral standards
Cos it’s all a dirty lie
You can stick your golden handshake
You can stick your silly rules
I don’t give a shit cos I ain’t no fool
Gonna be a rock’n’roll singer
Rock’nRoll Singer (B. Scott)
So now here I am, an honest-to-god, all grown up rock’n’roll singer. This is what I do - among a million fairly pointless little hard-labour jobs that I do to support my rock’n’roll habit. I am taking my place next to Suzi Quatro, Bon Scott, Chrissie Amphlett, carving my own rock’n’roll destiny. I am just another servant of rock’n’roll. It’s the family business. My father, my brother and now my daughter too - none of us can resist the call. It’s in our blood.
When I watch my father play piano and sing, three long sets a night, I am filled with pride at his ability, his nobility, the stories he can tell (if he remembers): he can turn an ordinary old pub into a smoky den of iniquity with a flourish of his right hand. He sings about places far away: New Orleans, New York, Jamaica, Mexico. Places have become defined for me by songs - like ghosts lurking behind doors. Now, driving through my own city, I see a landscape dotted by the places where I’ve done shows, seen shows, written songs … and it makes them mine, like a secret only I know.
Other people may work their way up through the ranks by job promotions, courses, university degrees, and have something to show for it: job security, an income, superannuation, respect, nice clothes, a home, a retirement plan. An occupation. I have a preoccupation. My skills have grown from listening hard and long to the masters - Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, the Rolling Stones, Loretta Lynn - and attempting to write songs in their wake. My strengths have come from lugging heavy amplifiers and weathering countless rejections and disappointments and indignities. My rewards have come from coloured lights and a feeling of sublime righteousness in my heart, when I hold a pen or a microphone in my hand. After fifteen years of dedication to rock’n’roll, I still wear rags, still battle to buy food, to pay bills, to survive, but I know I have something that can’t be bought, sold or traded, and I feel strangely right, even proud. To most people, I must seem a fool - even people who love me have suggested I get a nice real job in an office so I’m not living the way I do. But it’s simple. I can’t. I’m not built that way.
Rock’n’roll is my church. My bible. My degree. I am Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sanctified Lady’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Foxy Lady’, the girl with faraway eyes, I’m the girl singing to Jolene to leave her man alone, I’m canning the can, I’m waitin’ for my man, I’ve got Friday on my mind, I’ve had breakfast at Sweethearts, I’m Bob Dylan’s Sweetheart, I’ve put another dime in the jukebox, baby, I’m on a honky-tonk merry-go-round, I can’t say no, I’m riding on, I’m holding on …
Other people may fantasise about big houses and rolling in money, I fantasise about big discographies and rolling in songs … and a couple of big houses and a bit of money, I guess. Who wouldn’t want to be Neil Young, with your own peaceful mountain community, rowing your boat in your river with your new album blasting through the air and the trees, while you yell out ‘give me more right speaker, now more left’: oh yeah, that’s the way to live.