Early in Jimmy Barnes’ memoir Working Class Man, he tells an anecdote about Cold Chisel guitarist Ian Moss. In 1974 the band, formed in Adelaide a year earlier, was living on a farm outside of Armidale in northern NSW. One day, in the middle of winter, the group went into town leaving Moss behind to practice while wearing, in Barnes’ recollection, only a towel.
Late that night, as it started to snow, the band returned and were startled to spot Moss ahead of them in the headlights, miles from the homestead by Barnes’ estimation, wandering starkers in the middle of the dirt road. “Mossy was always on another planet,” Barnes concludes, “but we loved him.”
At home in Sydney’s inner west, where he lives with his partner, jazz singer Margeaux Rolleston and their son Julian, 14, Moss seems perfectly earth-bound, albeit shy. A white Gretsch guitar sits on a stand next to sheet music for the torch song You’ve Changed. On the dining table is a booklet from the funeral of the late AC/DC guitarist, Malcolm Young.
On a shelf behind him sits Barnes’ book, which he admits he hasn’t finished. So, what actually happened that night in 1974? At a minimum, you’d think finding Moss in such a state would warrant an immediate trip to hospital for hypothermia. “I don’t want to rain on Jim’s story, but there’s definitely a fair bit of poetic licence there,” he says with a wry chuckle.
The way he tells it is this. “About as naked as I would have gotten in that particular instance was a pair of boxer shorts, and I remember wearing a blue jacket with some real or fake lamb’s wool. I was having some issues with what’s popularly become known now as panic attacks. It was getting the better of me, and I just had to get out and run it off.” He was also only a few hundred metres, not miles, from the house. He was barefoot, though: “Barefoot was natural for me.”
Moss, who is about to release his seventh solo album, remains an elusive, almost spectral presence in Australian music. The writer and lead vocalist of one of Cold Chisel’s most celebrated songs, Bow River, hasn’t written too many more over the years, leaning heavily on others (usually the band’s piano and organ player Don Walker) for material.
He was born in 1955 in Alice Springs, the third of four children to Geoffrey and Lorna, who both worked for the local council. The way he speaks of the town’s wide open spaces might explain his case of cabin fever on a cold night outside of Armidale. “I’m a claustrophobe from way back, so I had no problems out there [alone in the dark],” he says. At 11, Moss picked up the guitar, and has barely put it down since.
As a boy, he visited Adelaide on summer holidays. He recalls seeing the ocean for the first time with a child’s innocence, expanding his arms: “Like, woooow!” He moved to Adelaide to finish high school and started an electronics course in 1973, but according to an interview with the ABC he only lasted a term after “daydreaming the whole time”, before working a series of factory jobs.
Barnes writes of Moss: “He seemed to look down at his feet a lot … When he did look at you, his eyes seemed to look deep inside you, searching [for something] he could reach out and connect with.” Walker describes the guitarist as “quiet, intelligent, very funny, not pushy, not overconfident, and the most gifted musician I’ve ever seen. He has a punctuality problem. I owe him. I trust him.”
Moss doesn’t need to be told he has a punctuality problem. “I’ve always been a bit lazy,” he confesses, though most weekends will find him on stage somewhere, mostly solo and acoustic. He speaks slowly, and long, long pauses punctuate his conversation. He still lives, seemingly, on Alice Springs time. “I have had this habit of getting great ideas, and they’ve laid moribund for a long time, on the wrong side of the finishing line.”
Bow River was a case in point. “The first thing that came to me was what you might call the bridge,” he says. He sings: “Listen now to the wind, babe / Listen now to the rain / Feel that water, licking at my feet again – just that.” He sang it one day at a rehearsal, off the cuff; the band’s drummer, the late Steve Prestwich, encouraged him to keep at it. It took years.
Imagine, for a moment, being Ian Moss. He is blessed with one of the finest white soul voices anywhere, a prodigious songwriting gift, and palpable on-stage charisma. He could easily have fronted any other band in the world. But in Cold Chisel he was surrounded by songwriters, every one of whom contributed hits, the majority by a genuine great in Walker.
He sang lead on a handful of songs, including My Baby, but you only have listen to the final verse in Bow River – when Barnes swoops in and tears the song to shreds – to understand why it was easier for Moss to remain in the background. In a 2014 poll, his musical peers rated him Australia’s greatest guitarist, pipping Malcolm Young (not the popular fancy Angus) as No. 1.
Tim Rogers, whose band You Am I covered Cold Chisel’s Houndog on a tribute album, describes Moss as “a quiet gentleman who explodes with passion and vigour on stage [with] finesse and fire that mesmerises me … Soulful and supple of voice and a deft, romantic songwriter. That he’s handsome too is just ridiculous.”
Yet Moss admits he lacks self-confidence. In a way, it’s easier for him in Cold Chisel. “Jim’s the frontman, he can take all that pressure. I do still enjoy it when I get out there, but it’s always a little bit easier if someone [else] has got that pressure and you can just sit back and play guitar, sing the occasional song and do the backing vocals.”
You’d think the success of his first solo single, Tucker’s Daughter, released in 1989, might have cured him of his anxiety. Co-written with Walker, It went to No. 2, won an ARIA for Song of the Year, and the related album Matchbook went to No. 1, with double platinum sales. But releases since have been sporadic: his new album will be his first since 2009, and the first of all new material since 1996’s Petrolhead.
Did he enjoy the attention after the initial flush of solo success? “I guess so, yeah. Whether I was ready for it or not, I don’t know. And then … I guess there seemed to be that real or imagined pressure – oh well, you’ve had a really successful album, what’s going to happen if the second one’s not, how are you going to cope with that?”
The second album, Worlds Away, wasn’t as successful; it was released in 1991 as a wave of younger bands led by Nirvana swept aside the old guard. Moss faded into the background again. The 1990s had their share of difficult times; he split with his partner of more than a decade, actor Megan Williams, who in 2003, died of breast cancer at just 43.
On this album, he bears the lion’s share of songwriting credits. As usual, it’s been a long time in the making, though his voice is as strong and his guitar playing as tasteful and subtle as ever. The initial studio sessions were held in 2011, when Moss met Sydney songwriter Sam Hawksley, now based in Nashville and playing in the BoDeans.
In 2014, Hawksley called. “He said, ‘How you going with all those ideas lying moribund?’ I said ‘They’re still there, they’re not dead, but they’re still on the wrong side of the finishing line’.” Hawksley told him to gather them together, and in August that year Moss flew to Nashville, then returned to Cold Chisel as they prepared to record The Perfect Crime.
The songs sat around some more. Moss slips into the third person. “Sam was insistent that all I had to do was just relax, get into it, be Ian Moss – sing as well as Ian Moss can sing and play guitar as well as Ian Moss can, and it was all going to come together,” he says. “But the songs had been such a long time coming, and I just wanted to be really sure about them.”
If all this makes Moss sound obsessive, or at least an over-thinker, he’d learned from the best. “Don would play songs and [ask], ‘What do you think?’ He’d play the whole thing, and we’d say, let’s do it, it sounds great. He’d say ‘No, no, I’m not happy with the third syllable in the fourth word in the third line of the second verse!’ That level of detail.”
Since initially reforming in 1998, Cold Chisel have remained together for longer than during their original existence, save the tragic loss of Prestwich, who died of a brain tumour in 2011.
Chisel were arguably the Australian band of their generation before imploding in 1984, but it has taken far longer for their reputation to spread beyond Australia. The band undertook a disastrous tour of the US in 1981, playing mostly on the bottom of mismatched bills, an experience that prompted Barnes to write the seething single You Got Nothing I Want.
Moss, though, had a ball. “My playing went from here to here,” he says, raising his hand to indicate improvement. “But we were really starting to get sick of living in each other’s pockets. [Some of the] guys had met their future wives and some of the guys hadn’t … Jim had met [wife] Jane, and was obviously missing her like crazy.”
He motions to the picture of Malcolm Young on the table, and ponders whether things might have been different had they gone earlier. “I wish we’d done what these guys [AC/DC] did … To me someone should have said get overseas now, while you’re still young and all the energy’s there. I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t have been a massively different story.”
Perhaps, but one wonders how Moss might have fared had Chisel made the jump to world stages. You couldn’t take Alice Springs out of the boy then or, seemingly, the man now. Bow River is a song about escaping, of going home, even if – after that barefoot run through the snow back in Armidale – Moss is lucky to have any toes left for the water to lick at.
“I’d go back to Alice Springs on holiday and at least feel like I could relax, like I was at home, it just seemed a little bit more real,” he says. “That’s what Bow River was about, really. I’d had enough of the speed and the rat race and the insincerity and I was going back home, where people are real, and to the countryside I love.”
First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 9 February 2018