Bones Hillman 1958-2020

The first time I saw Wayne Stevens – better known by his stage name Bones Hillman – was at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on 26 September 1987, making his debut as Midnight Oil’s new bass player. Tall and upright, he was standing to the left of the band’s even taller singer, Peter Garrett, who introduced him as “the next best thing in the stratosphere” to the man Hillman replaced, Peter Gifford.

It was true that Hillman didn’t drive the Oils quite as hard as Gifford, an ex-carpenter who wore overalls on stage and played bass like a competition woodchopper. Hillman took over as the Oils were hitting their commercial peak, for the Diesel And Dust tour, and with his pitch-perfect singing and nimble fingers, he was the man for the more melodic and mature phase of the band that followed.

Yesterday, via a tweet, the band announced Hillman’s passing from cancer at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, aged 62: “He was the bassist with the beautiful voice, the band member with the wicked sense of humour, and our brilliant musical comrade.” Hillman had played on every Midnight Oil recording from Blue Sky Mining (1990) to their just-released The Makarrata Project, which debuted at No. 1 in the Australian chart the day before his death.

Born in New Zealand in 1958, Hillman was active in the country’s nascent punk scene in the late 1970s, playing in a band called the Suburban Reptiles. He first came to wider notice as a member of new wave three-piece the Swingers, formed by former Split Enz co-founder Phil Judd. Their song Counting The Beat, anchored by Hillman’s heavy-rolling bass sound, was a No. 1 hit in Australia and New Zealand in early 1981.

By 1987, he was living in Melbourne with Neil Finn, who recommended him to Midnight Oil’s drummer Rob Hirst. When Hirst first called, Hillman, who was working in a covers band in between painting houses to get by, thought it was a prank and didn’t call back. But Hirst followed up, sending him a tape of the then unreleased Diesel And Dust and inviting him to Sydney to rehearse.

Hirst later described Hillman as “one of the most remarkable vocalists in the country. When Bones goes up to a microphone he hits the note right-on every time, 365 days of the year, a beautifully formed, rounded note”. Garrett was a character singer, with his own inimitable style, but the combination of Hirst’s and Hillman’s backing vocals added high harmonies, depth and even a sweetness to the band’s sound.

That sweetness was first heard on Blue Sky Mine: that’s Hirst and Hillman together singing “There’ll be food on the table tonight / There’ll be pay in your pocket tonight”, the vocal hook leading off the song. And it’s Hillman singing the high backing vocals in One Country, too. From that album on, Hillman’s voice became an intrinsic part of the band’s sound that will be hard to replace.

But Hillman’s personality is irreplaceable. When he first joined the band, Hirst told band biographer Michael Lawrence, “the brief was one-third bass player, one-third singer and one-third all-round easy-going guy who you’d want on the bus telling jokes and making what is essentially a serious band laugh … Bones has the ability to meet strangers and within seconds they just love him to death. I have never seen him make an enemy with anyone.”

Likewise, in his own memoir, Garrett said Hillman “lightened the mood in the camp. Unlike the rest of us, Bones – single and without kids – was happiest on tour”. Occasionally, Hirst said, Bones’ lighter side could manifest as another character known as Terry: “Terry is the guy with his trousers around his ankles in a Finnish nightclub, gyrating and singing.” Without his warmth and humour, Midnight Oil may not have stayed together as long as they did.

After the band’s long hiatus following Garrett’s departure to pursue a career in federal politics, Hillman returned to New Zealand for five years. He later relocated to Nashville, becoming a highly regarded session player, contributing to albums by Sheryl Crow and many others before rejoining Midnight Oil upon their resumption in 2017. He is survived by his partner Denise.

First published in the Guardian, 9 November 2020

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