Trying to sum up the truly Wonderful Life of Damien Lovelock, who died on Saturday morning aged 65, is no easy task. Where to begin? Lovelock was a rock & roll singer (for the Celibate Rifles, the Sydney band he fronted since 1980), solo artist, author, spoken-word performer, football broadcaster for the ABC, Sky and SBS (alongside the late Les Murray), yoga instructor, father to Luke and friend (to the Dalai Lama, among countless others).
Above all, he was a fabulous raconteur. Lovelock was a big man with a big voice and a hell of a lot of stories. Silence wasn’t in his vocabulary. Even in his yoga sessions, he peppered his students with anecdotes that had them trying to maintain poses in between contortions of laughter. This combination of physical mastery and people skills saw him hired as an instructor by, among others, the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team.
But most of his stories were poured into the lyrics he wrote for the Celibate Rifles, whose name was a pun on the Sex Pistols. The band released nine excellent studio albums, along with a clutch of EPs (including their first effort, the tearaway garage punk of 1981’s But Jacques, The Fish?), compilations and live releases, and garnered a dedicated cult following around the world.
The Rifles emerged from Sydney’s northern beaches, and were a mainstay of the city’s post-Radio Birdman independent music boom in the 1980s. Lovelock was their point of difference: older than his bandmates, and from a musical family (his mother Joan Wilton, who died when he was 19, was a jazz singer; father Bill wrote and produced songs for a young Nina Simone), Lovelock’s words and presence gave the band’s all-out attack gravitas.
But the band also provided a necessary centre of gravity for Lovelock’s life, or one might say lives, for he’d already used up a few before he joined them. In between more standard punk fare of the time – songs of suburban alienation and disaffection with the modern world – early songs such as Back On The Corner broke the mould, rendering the tougher side of Lovelock’s early years in often startling lines:
He makes his connection and he glows with delight
As his demons he banishes into the night
On a thin beam of white light, he flies through the air
Wrings out his hopes, trying to drown his despair
Live, while his bandmates flailed furiously, Lovelock radiated deadpan cool, his movements minimal, a shake of his broad hips and the occasional pump of a fist usually enough to accentuate a song’s groove or get a point across. While other singers were hurling themselves around the stage like Iggy Pop, Lovelock commanded attention rather than demanded it. He never screamed, and the faster the Rifles played, the more time he seemed to have.
The band peaked as a touring act in 1988 with the album Blind Ear and its classic singles Johnny and O Salvation. They constantly blew bigger names away in clubs (my first experience with the Rifles was an O-Week gig at the University of Queensland, where they wiped the floor with the Buzzcocks) and played to large festival crowds, including the inaugural Big Day Out at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1992, famously headlined by Nirvana.
Lovelock himself told me that was among the best shows his band ever played, but from there the Rifles slowly began to fade, even as they continued to produce excellent work. Their 2000 album A Mid-Stream Of Consciousness (which featured a jar of urine on the cover) briefly revived their fortunes and featured one of the band’s most loved and funniest songs, I Shoulda, in which Lovelock paid homage to his own life of happy accidents:
I shoulda read the instructions
I shoulda had me a plan
I shoulda made preparations
I shoulda act like a man
I shoulda triumphed regardless
I guess I shoulda began
But Lovelock was really only just getting started. His life seemed like an endless series of acts, where he would stumble on stage and star by force of his impossibly authentic personality. The shock of losing him to cancer at a comparatively young age comes from the fact that rather than succumbing to rock’s vices, Lovelock had been a health guru for decades. The only solace is that he packed so much into his 65 years that he shoulda been 200.
First published in The Guardian, 4 August 2019