Fred Negro has just knocked off his shift cleaning toilets. One of the best cartoonists in the world – according to some – doesn’t mind his day job. He’s done it for a long time. “It’s just a gig,” he says. “I always wake up early anyway, and I’m finished by 10 or 11.”
Negro, artist and musician, is a Melbourne icon. He is the creator of Pub, the comic strip that ran for decades in street press which chronicled in lurid, scatological and frequently pornographic detail the ratbags and raconteurs of the bayside suburb of St Kilda.
For a long time in the 1990, Negro lived in the suburb’s Esplanade Hotel. “I had the key to the pub. I was like the king of St Kilda! I just had to clean the joint,” he tells me. At the Espy, you could reliably find him drinking and drawing everything going on around him.
The late Rowland S Howard once said you hadn’t made it in Melbourne until you’d appeared in one of Negro’s Pub strips. That was quite something coming from the Birthday Party guitarist, who had his own laneway in St Kilda named after him after his death.
Now Negro is the subject of a documentary – or, if you will, a “Fredumentary” – by the filmmaker Andrew Leavold. Also called Pub, it’s finally getting a national release after a sold-out run at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year.
Pub is Leavold’s third film. His first was 2013 cult hit The Search For Weng Weng, the story of cinema’s shortest leading man (the obscure Filipino actor stood just 82cm tall). Negro’s story furthers the underdog theme: “It’s a celebration of the marginalised and misunderstood,” Leavold says.
Even Negro’s name is a source of contention. His ancestors are Spanish. Once, faced with accusations of racism, he produced a family tree spanning four generations. “Fred Negro Sr was one of the dodgiest tax accountants in Richmond, but he was definitely a ‘Negro’,” Leavold says.
Negro’s exploits go beyond the page to the stage. He is also the drummer and frontman of I Spit on Your Gravy – easily the most punk band Richard Branson signed to Virgin since the Sex Pistols – as well as the Band Who Shot Liberty Valance, Squirming Gerbil Death and, later, the Fuck Fucks.
There was also the country band Shonkytonk, who once supported Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Billie Joe Shaver at Rod Laver Arena. It is safe to say the outlaw country legends met their match in Fred Negro that night.
Negro’s bands purveyed a very Australian variant of shock-rock that had its roots in performers like Screaming Lord Sutch and Alice Cooper. Cooper once threw a live chicken into the audience. Negro took it a step further: he simulated intercourse with a (roast) chicken on stage, giving new meaning to the term “bachelor’s purse”.
In the film, Graham Hood (bass player for another country punk band, the Johnnys), can only shake his head in wonder at the memory. “I mean, you’ve got to respect someone with those talents,” he says.
Sam Crassweller, one half of the Spitettes (the two backing singers in the Gravys) admits people came to their gigs more for the spectacle than the music. But Negro’s reputation and infamy as Australia’s answer to Robert Crumb really rests on his artwork.
“There are Dada-esque and surrealist elements to his work, and there’s also mad pop art, collage and satirical elements that are worthy of Swift,” Leavold says. “But if you choose not to see that, it’s just a bunch of puerile scribbles.”
That’s what many people saw. But Pub (the film) mounts a strident defence of Negro’s life and work, with prominent, passionate witnesses. “True art makes you feel uncomfortable,” Crassweller declares.
Then there’s You Am I’s Tim Rogers, who spent a period “managing” another of Negro’s bands, the Twits: “If you can’t look past the cocks and balls and tits and not see the humanity behind it, well, maybe you’re the pervert,” he says in the film.
In his autobiography, Frank Zappa wrote that the most important thing in art was the frame: “Without this humble appliance, you can’t tell where the art stops and the real world begins. Otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?”
Negro took this advice to heart. At an exhibition of his work in 2014, we see a mounted painting of a turd on canvas, bearing the inscription “Shit sells”. It did – for $500.
But in that moment, Leavold says, Negro had crossed over in public perception from serial pest to serious artist. The Port Phillip council funded the exhibition. “They were putting a frame around Fred, saying this is a local artist worthy of our support,” Leavold says.
The irony was not lost on anyone, particularly Negro, whose work has become collectible and who now finds himself teetering on the edge of social respectability. But then, he says: “I never wanted to be a renegade artist. I was just making a record of what was going on.”
Leavold’s film works as a piece of social history. Like the strip, Pub is, on one level, totally geo-specific. During the film, we see Negro giving informal tours of St Kilda to gawping, giggling fans, telling tall tales about what (and sometimes who) went down where.
But Pub is not just the story of Negro and St Kilda, nor is it only about kicking against the pricks and raising hell. Negro points out that pub stands for “public house”: a place of love, friendship and community. In that way, Leavold says, Pub is as universal as Dickens’ London.
Heroin, on top of alcoholism, ripped St Kilda and its fabled music scene apart. There was a price to be paid for what Leavold calls “the wages of fun”. Dozens of people who should have appeared in Pub didn’t make it to see themselves immortalised on screen. Crassweller breaks down as she remembers her 61 dead friends. She’s still counting.
Living in a pub nearly did for Fred, too. “People say that it’s a miracle he was actually there for the premiere,” Leavold says. “Fred has faced his maker many times.” The first was in 1991 when Negro, then barely in his 30s, was admitted to hospital with a burst ulcer.
That slowed him down for a little while, but pretty soon he was back in Fred mode (Leavold’s words) and head-butted a tram (Negro’s words). He walked away with a metal plate in his head: “You should have seen the fuckin’ tram,” he says.
Though he kept himself out of the story, Leavold says he sees himself in Negro’s. It’s about growing old disgracefully, fighting off feelings of invisibility, and he happily admits that he has his own complicated relationship with alcohol to address.
At the after-party following Pub’s premiere, he says, he and Negro gave it a good nudge. “We were sitting in his lounge room the next night with the biggest hangovers, going: ‘Do you want a beer?’ ‘No, I’d rather not’ … I think that was the first time I’d seen Fred refuse a drink.”
Leavold’s film doesn’t judge anyone’s lifestyle choices, but nor is it blind to the danger that comes with them. “Flirting with the Grim Reaper is something that seems romantic in your 20s and 30s, and it lingers from your teenage years,” Leavold says.
“It’s when you get to your 40s and your own bits start dropping off, and you seem to be going to more funerals than birthday parties, that it really strikes home that we’re not going to be around forever. So, let’s try to keep the party going as long as we can.”
The party looks different for St Kilda too, which has long since been gentrified beyond recognition. But Negro has stayed. He says he doesn’t miss the old days. “I don’t really think about it much,” he says. “It’s just my suburb.”
There’s no place like home. “You haven’t been able to take Fred out of St Kilda since the late 70s,” Leavold says. “I think if you even tried, he’d curl up like a leaf and blow away.”
First published in the Guardian, 16 February 2023