Jimmy Barnes: bio for My Criminal Record

After two best-selling, incredibly personal memoirs, Working Class Boy (2016) and Working Class Man (2017), you might think you know all there is to be known about James Dixon (Jimmy) Barnes.

You’d be wrong.

Barnes, by his own estimation, is still revealing himself. “There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about me yet,” he says.

On 31 May, Jimmy Barnes will release his seventeenth solo studio album, My Criminal Record – his first rock album since 2010’s Rage and Ruin. It was recorded with his live band: Daniel Wayne Spencer and Davey Lane on guitars, son-in-law Benjamin Rodgers on bass, Clayton Doley on keyboards, with son Jackie Barnes and Warren Trout on drums and percussion.

It was written by Jimmy, with significant assistance from his oldest sparring partner, Cold Chisel’s Don Walker, whose name appears on six of the thirteen tracks. Outstanding contributions also come from close friends Troy Cassar-Daley, Mark Lizotte (aka Diesel) and the Living End’s Chris Cheney, as well as Rodgers, Harley Webster and Jade MacRae.

The earliest of these songs were written at the same time as Jimmy was in the process of writing his two memoirs – both of which won the prestigious Australian Book Industry Award – and the rest in the aftermath, as he sorted through the wreckage and triumphs of an uncontained life that sometimes spun out of control.

But Jimmy is back, older, smarter, healthier, and for My Criminal Record he has distilled and expanded upon those memoirs in 13 pieces of burning, heartland rock & roll. It will resonate with anyone who has ever found themselves standing on the outside, looking in.

The first lines of the album – the title track – set the tone.

Well I came from a broken home

My mama had a broken heart

And even though she tried to fight it

It was broken from the start

“I’ve got books of the darkest lyrics you’ve ever heard in your life – books that will never be published,” Jimmy says. In the context of his two books and the contents of this album, the most forensically honest and searching record of his storied career, it is a scary thought.

The earliest lyrics for My Criminal Record were written on planes, usually tapped out on a phone in between shows. Contemporaneous with his memoirs, the themes for the album quickly began to reveal themselves: of childhood poverty, huge success, self-destruction and self-discovery. Running away. Running out of time. And, ultimately, redemption.

But it’s a very different exercise trying to tell your story in a song than two books the size of a house brick. “You’re writing a chorus and trying to summarise a lifetime in a few lines,” Jimmy says. “It’s a lot more poignant and pointy than writing and telling the whole story.”

So, let’s get to the chorus of My Criminal Record:

My family has a record

That’s as long as your arm

And I don’t want you to read it

Because it’s going to do us harm

I keep it locked away somewhere I know

In a cellar that I call my youth

It’s my criminal record

It’s the truth

The sound of My Criminal Record, both the song and the album, is immediate: live, loud and in your face. Recorded with long-time producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, this is easily one of the rawest, hardest-hitting records Jimmy Barnes has ever made sonically, as well as lyrically.

“I couldn’t have done this record without my live band, because these were the guys who saw me fighting my demons every fucking night,” Jimmy says. “These guys get on stage with me and know that when I’m playing the songs, I’ll go, yeah, this is nice – but can you play it 10 times harder, like it’s the last time you’re ever going to play it?”

No song illustrates that approach better than Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire), two versions of which appear on the record. Part I sounds like the car has already crashed, the wheels spinning mid-air after a rollover. Part II – which was actually the first version to be recorded – is a high-speed chase down thunder road:

I’m licking up the white lines

Going way too fast

They’re coming at me out of the future

Going into the past

“Licking up the white lines” is a Don Walker special, of course. Only he could have written that. From the beginning, Jimmy was sending his friend drafts of the lyrics he was feverishly writing between shows. A back-and-forth process would begin – Jimmy spilling his guts; Walker, ever the patient perfectionist, crafting and sharpening each idea.

“It’s funny writing with Don because I always feel like Don’s writing for me anyway, even though he’s not necessarily,” Jimmy says. “I used to think he was reading my mail, because he had an uncanny ability to write things that I thought were so personal to me, and when I’d read them I’d go Jesus, how did he know I felt like this?

“That’s why I never had a problem singing Don’s songs, and I think I was the perfect singer for most of his songs. But I think one of the appeals Don’s songwriting has [is] I think there’s so many Australian males out there who read Don’s lyrics and go, oh – this is about me.”

The most naked song on the album, however, was written not by Barnes and Walker, but Barnes, Benjamin Rodgers and Troy Cassar-Daley: My Demon (God Help Me). Anyone who has read Working Class Boy and Working Class Man will recognise where Jimmy is coming from, right from the song’s opening lines.

But the great gift of My Criminal Record, as with Jimmy’s books, is that this extraordinary man, who has lived a life of even more extraordinary extremes, has made his experiences so relatable. For most of us know, deep down, that whenever we’re running away – or running out of time – we can never outrun ourselves:

I’ve been running from something

That I could not see

I was running from something inside of me

I’ve been running from something that was hiding

Waiting to be free

Jimmy Barnes has done a lot of work on himself to get to this point – not just to stare down his demons, but to understand them. “It’s very easy to fall back,” he says. “Luckily one of the things that my childhood trauma made me was hypervigilant. I used to be hypervigilant and defensive and guarded; now I’m hypervigilant about those demons.

“It’s all relative, whatever your pain is. My pain, I couldn’t take away and I can’t let go of it, it’s always going to be there, but I’m not going to let it rule me or define me. I can see the patterns starting to emerge, and I know what to do to try and stop them, most of the time.”

Doing that work has had another, perhaps more unexpected benefit: Jimmy is singing maybe better than he ever has. He explains that he is better in touch with the emotions in the songs, and better able to express them as a result. The raw power and volume is still there, but it’s modulated by a new self-knowledge and sensitivity.

Once, he said, “I’d get up and scream and yell, drawing on that pain every night I sang from the time I was 15, maybe younger … My body would go automatically into that mode, just because that was all I could do; it was the only way I knew how to get it out, spitting venom at whoever walked past.

“Now, I know why I’m singing it. I know why I’m feeling it. I know why I have to get it out now, and writing the books helped me identify it. I still sing about the same things, but now I know exactly what I’m singing about.”

You won’t find a better example of the newfound subtlety and strength in Jimmy’s voice on My Criminal Record than Shutting Down Our Town, written by Troy Cassar-Daley especially for Barnes, after Troy finished reading Working Class Boy. Jimmy inhabits the song as fully as he inhabited the place he grew up in.

Everything I knew was back there on those streets

Every lesson learned kept me on my feet

But I can’t help thinking of the ones I left behind

“It’s about Elizabeth,” Jimmy says, referring to his childhood suburb, very much on the wrong side of the tracks in north Adelaide. “I changed a couple of words just because of local knowledge, but it was 99.99% a Troy song, and he played it to me and I immediately felt the connection.

“I drove through Elizabeth not long after I heard the song, and I felt a pain in my heart for the people there who are battling, trying to make a living when everything is stacked up against them. And only by a fucking complete miracle did I escape from that, and the truth is, I never escaped from it – it’s still there, it’s still in my heart.

“It’s sort of a heartland Working Class Man anthem, but Working Class Man was written by an American [Jonathan Cain]. This was written by somebody who feels the pain, and who’s writing about the darker side of Australia which I never wanted to face before. So it’s like the bookend to Working Class Man, but for me, it’s the real story.”

 My Criminal Record is rounded out by two cover versions. The first – right in the heart of the record – is John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, a song Jimmy incorporated into his solo sets last year. It might seem an obvious choice for the singer of Working Class Man, but no song by a Beatle can be tackled lightly.

“John Lennon was such a wounded, dark person, and I always felt I was either going to sing that, or Mother,” Jimmy says. “Or Instant Karma. But once I put it in the show, every single line in the song, I could spit out and think oh fuck – this is me.”

The song bears a close relationship to another song on the album, Money And Class, that reflects Jimmy’s insights into the long-term impact of poverty gained through writing his memoirs. “That [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough,” he says. No matter how successful Jimmy became, self-belief and self-doubt were forever locked in a death-match.

The other cover version is of Bruce Springsteen’s Tougher Than The Rest, from The Boss’s “divorce” album Tunnel Of Love. In Jimmy’s hands, however, Tougher Than The Rest is a hymn of undying devotion to the love of his life, Jane, his wife of 38 years.

“When we were in the thick of my worst moments, Tunnel Of Love came out, and I remember I’d be thinking, I’ve lost Jane, and I felt so bad about myself – how I was behaving and how out of it and how fucked up I was,” he says.

“And that song would come on, we’d be having parties, or people would be around, and every time, I’d turn it up and sing along with it. I’d sing it to Jane – “If you’re rough enough for love, baby, I’m tougher than the rest” – don’t give up on me now. I’m flawed, but I’m here.”

Years later, when Jimmy was supporting Springsteen on tour, he was called to The Boss’s dressing room. “He said, what song do you want to do? I said, Tougher Than The Rest. And he said, do you know it? I said, absolutely! I think he might have thought I was a stalker. I knew every nuance of every line.”

Tougher Than The Rest is the final song on the record – really, it couldn’t be any other way. But it’s preceded by another song of hope, written by Mark Lizotte, which complements the desperation of the Springsteen song perfectly.

“Mark’s seen the best and the worst of me, he’s lived through it with me, and he saw me fighting not only for my own sanity and my own life, but fighting to save my relationship,” Jimmy says.

“I wanted a rock song that was up; that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side. That’s saying, I’m hoping time is on my side – hang in there with me. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I was scratching and clawing and trying to save my life and my relationship with my friends and my family and the people around me.”

At the age of 63, close to 50 years into his career as one of Australia’s greatest ever singers and live performers, time has proved to be very much on Jimmy Barnes’s side. His is a story of astonishing tenacity and force of will. He has outlasted almost everyone, overcoming every hurdle thrown in his way – many of them, he will now admit, by himself.

While Working Class Boy and Working Class Man told the story of his life in many hundreds of pages of raw, riveting prose, My Criminal Record does it in around 50 minutes of brawling rock & roll. It is one of his finest ever albums, cut by a red-hot band committed only to the moment – and to the truth.

Jimmy’s finally ready to let you hear it.

 

MY CRIMINAL RECORD – TRACK BY TRACK

My Criminal Record

The opening cut of the album was written early, while Jimmy was working on his first memoir. It set the tone for everything to come. Jimmy: “My Criminal Record sort of sounds like the first book summed up into a song, to me. I feel really blessed that I actually got to the point where I could get to writing these books and deal with some of this stuff, because a lot of my mates didn’t.”

Shutting Down Our Town

A song that exemplifies the term heartland rock at a time when the blue-collar heartland that Jimmy grew up in is under more pressure than ever. Jimmy: “Troy rang me up and said, look, I read Working Class Boy, and as soon as I put it down I picked up my guitar and I wrote this song for you. It’s about Elizabeth. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be OK, but how can you work hard when they keep pulling the fucking rug out from under you?”

I’m In A Bad Mood

A song about rage, something Jimmy has never been short of. It’s about how you deal with it. Jimmy: “Writing these books, sitting passively inside my own head was one thing, because I had to process the information, but a lot of it did make me angry. This record I think allows me to get some of the anger out.”

Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part I

The first version of this song to appear on the record came later in the recording sessions. Jimmy: “This was one of the later ones. I wrote the lyrics on a plane one night when I thought my life was out of control. We started working on that song, and I thought you know what, there isn’t enough of a chorus, it didn’t pay off enough for me. So, we went in and we dug deeper and it developed into this very moody piece.”

My Demon (God Help Me)

Along with Working Class Hero, My Demon (God Help Me) forms the emotional centrepiece of the album, a classic devil-down-the-crossroads blues. Jimmy: “We all have those demons to deal with, and you’d be surprised how similar they all are. They’re always there and if you drop your guard they’re going to fucking pounce on you. I know a lot of men who fight that same battle. But I’m sure it’s just the human condition.”

Working Class Hero

Jimmy sings this John Lennon masterpiece like he was born to. “I started doing the song on the Working Class Man shows in the light of Working Class Man, and how that song defined my whole life, really. It was one of the first ones we recorded, and I just thought we’d put it down and maybe use it somewhere, for a film or a B-side or something, but it just seemed to fit on the record so well.”

Belvedere And Cigarettes

This song was written by Jade MacRae, best friend of Jimmy’s daughter Mahalia, and her former partner Harley Webster. “It’s almost a blue-eyed soul melody with a scathing, self-hating lyric [about how] people who are going through traumatic times tend to make things worse by drinking themselves to death … I really related to that at the time, while I was in the process of sorting my life out and coming out the other end.”

I Won’t Let You Down

Written by the Living End’s Chris Cheney, this song provides an important counterpoint. “I wanted to have a couple of songs that had light at the end of the tunnel. Chris, when he sent it to me, said ‘I wrote this about my girl, but I couldn’t help thinking it was about you and Jane at the same time.’ It’s a great lyric – the fact that ‘I won’t let you down again’ means I’ve let you down in the past. That song’s about breaking that cycle.”

Stargazer

A Walker–Barnes composition, this was one of the first songs from the album to be written, once again combining a winning melody with a dark lyric. “It’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It’s about the emotions in the melody – from the repetitive chorus to when it bursts open in the verse, which gives you this chance of hope, and then the lyric cuts you down, which I really like.”

Money And Class

Jimmy: “It’s about that [feeling] where I’m never going to be good enough, I’m never going to be as good as those guys on the hill, no matter how much success I have. I’m in the process of letting that go. Money And Class and Working Class Hero, those two songs are really closely connected.”

Stolen Car (The Road’s On Fire) – Part II

The initial raw cut of this song forsakes moodiness for speed, volume and impact. Jimmy: “I just thought it had a lot of the urgency and anger and intensity that I felt when I was writing those lyrics. I was to-ing and fro-ing which version of Stolen Car to put on, and Kevin suggested that we put both on. I think both songs are different sides of the same coin.”

If Time Is On My Side

Along with Tougher Than The Rest, this one is for Jane, written by Mark Lizotte to a very specific brief from Jimmy. “I’ve known Mark since 1987, and we’ve been best friends and family since, he’s seen the best and the worst of me … I wanted a rock song, that was up, that had hope. The title is If Time Is On My Side but the full title is actually If Time Is On My Side, I’ll Never Let You Go. That’s saying, hang in there with me, you know.”

Tougher Than The Rest

Recorded in Brisbane on a day off with Jason Bonham, the son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, when the pair crossed paths on tour. They had been hoping to record together for years. Jimmy: “There’s just something about where his snare sits in relation to the kick and the hi-hat that gave weight to that cover. I didn’t want to put covers on this record, but they were just so poignant to the whole story.”

Album bio, May 2019

Australian musicians band together to invest in solar

In the spring of 2017, immediately after the release of the Australian band Cloud Control’s third album, Zone, the band’s keyboard player, Heidi Lenffer, was contemplating what the their upcoming tour would cost. But this time she wasn’t just thinking about the money; she was thinking about emissions. Independent bands are used to running on a shoestring budget – a carbon-conscious Lenffer wanted Cloud Control to run a more environmentally efficient operation, too.

She began asking climate scientists in the field, and connected with Dr Chris Dey from Areté Sustainability. Dey crunched the numbers for Cloud Control’s two-week tour, playing 15 clubs and theatres from Byron Bay to Perth.

He found that it would produce about 28 tonnes of emissions – roughly equivalent to what an average household produces in a year. And that was just the national leg of an album tour that would take the band to the US three times.

“I had suspected that all of this flying, and all of the energy that goes into tours, can’t be very good for the environment – but there was no solution that existed beyond carbon offsetting,” Lenffer says.

Offsetting is essentially an attempt at equalisation: when you offset your flights, you try to compensate for your carbon footprint by donating to a program to suck it out of the atmosphere, via tree planting or sequestration somewhere else. Lenffer wanted to aim higher.

Partnering with the superannuation fund Future Super, and the developer Impact Investment Group, Lenffer has established FEAT. (Future Energy Artists): a platform that officially launches on Wednesday and will allow musicians to build and invest in their own solar farms.

Early signs are promising. As well as Cloud Control, other Australian bands already signed up include Midnight Oil, Vance Joy, Regurgitator, Big Scary, Peking Duk and Jack River. The first solar farm being built with their help is Brigalow: an 80-hectare project near Pittsworth on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

“At last, a project that takes the great passion many artists have for a healthy world powered by renewable energy, and makes it doable,” says Midnight Oil’s frontman, Peter Garrett. Paul Curtis, Regurgitator’s manager, talks about an “actively engaged citizenry embracing a more optimistic and progressive approach to the future”.

Lenffer wanted to tap into the creative drive of her industry to find a solution to a complex problem. “The environmental movement often lacks a positive premise for action,” she says. “It is exciting to own a piece of a solar farm. To do that collectively, we can leave a lasting, tangible infrastructure legacy and say, ‘We built that together.’”

Here’s how it works: money that artists invest in FEAT. is put into a portfolio which is managed by Future Super, and can be used to buy ownership stakes in solar farms or loaned to build their infrastructure. The land that Brigalow solar farm is being built on was previously used as a sorghum grain farm. It is now being leased from the land’s owner to build the solar project, whose progress is closely monitored by Impact Investment Group, which manages the underlying fund investing in Brigalow.

And artists can put forward as much as they can afford. Perhaps they want to throw in a one-off lump sum, or offer a percentage of their touring income; the idea is that everyone should be able to invest in their financial and environmental future – which is why FEAT. set a floor price of just $5 to set up an account.

FEAT. says the 34.55-megawatt Brigalow solar farm could power the equivalent of 11,300 homes for 30 years. (Looked at another way, it could generate more than 2,000 Cloud Control tours in renewable energy.) That energy is then sold into the energy market, with a target return on investment for artists of 5 percent a year.

The total emissions output of the global music sector is not well studied. A 2010 investigation into the UK industry found it was responsible for more than 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, much of it from live music. Most of that was transport, not just of band members and equipment, but fans: audience travel alone accounted for 43 percent of emissions.

A further 26 percent came from the lifecycle of CDs, which speaks to the age of the study. But, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow, the streaming age hasn’t made for a cleaner product: the energy required to store and process music in the cloud makes for an even worse carbon footprint than manufacturing and distributing CDs and records.

For artists, the pitiful royalty rates generated from streaming, and the crash in sales of physical product, means that live music makes up the bulk of revenue. For Lenffer, going on tour meant contributing to the global climate emergency – but she was willing to gamble that “a progressive community like the music industry would have the guts and imagination to embrace change”.

Lenffer says she was inspired by community movements overseas, particularly in Europe, where groups were banding together to buy investments in renewables. “Sporting clubhouses would install solar panels on their rooftops purchased by the residents in the area, [who] would then be paid back through the energy generated over a period of time,” she explains. “I found about 70 groups in Australia doing it, as opposed to around 500 in Scotland and 1000 in Germany.”

But as well as being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters per capita, Australians also have the highest take-up of rooftop solar. Lenffer says this statistic “shows that people are driving the change where our government is not”. And, compared with Europe, there are far more abundant solar resources available in our sunburnt country.

Lenffer sees the potential for her idea to catch on. “There’s no reason why this couldn’t go global,” she says. “If we can demonstrate it works here – which I feel like we can, because we’ve already got a number of big-name and emerging artists signed up – if we can take ownership over building the solar assets that are going to power our future, which we need to do as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be rolled out for every artist touring the world.”

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2019

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

Tom Boyd lived the dream. Now let him live his life

There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.

Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”

“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.

I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.

I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.

Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.

Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.

I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)

In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.

Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.

At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).

I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.

He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.

First published in The Age, 18 May 2019

The pop art legend hiding in the hinterlands

In the lush subtropical hinterlands behind Noosa Heads, 90 minutes north of Brisbane, a short dirt road takes you to the home of one of the pre-eminent artists of the last century.

In a large, bright studio, down a short incline from the home he shares with daughter Zoe and her partner, Peter Phillips – who made his name in the early 60s in the vanguard of British pop artists along with Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and David Hockney – continues to paint.

Along with large, more abstract recent works and some of his earliest sketches, a few of his most famous pieces are here, including the giant Art-O-Matic Riding High (another painting from the same series, Art-O-Matic Loop-Di-Loop, was used as the cover of a 1984 album by the Cars called Heartbeat City).

But Phillips left behind the style which made him famous, and which he helped pioneer, a long time ago. “I definitely don’t favour the early work,” he says. “I am excited about some of the newest pieces, possibly because it is what interests me most at the moment.”

Recently,  Phillips, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, opened his studio to the public as part of the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. And in spite of whatever misgivings he may have, the event was called POP!, even though the work on display spanned his entire career.

Phillips will always be associated with his early work, even if he refuses to be defined by it. But that’s not his concern. “I’ve continuously evolved and done what I wanted to do, not what other people wanted of me,” he says.

Phillips grew up in Birmingham during the Blitz. “I still get chills when I hear the resemblance of an air raid siren,” he says. “I don’t recall much detail from those early years, but I do recollect burning houses.”

Militaristic themes appear in his latest work. On an easel in the studio, a new painting depicts a fighter jet being loaded with ammunition on one side. On the other, a grinning Ronald McDonald holds a microphone; in between, a young woman poses for a selfie. Two men in overalls carry a crucifix; a piglet suckles from its mother; small explosions erupt in the background.

In work like this, Phillips appears to be exorcising old fears. In 1980, he says, “I composed a painting called Mediator 3 which features a rather large python, the taxidermy model of which was in my studio at the time. I had a profound fear of snakes, and thought if I painted one in detail, it would help. It didn’t help. In that same piece, I also painted a burning house. That didn’t help either.”

His early work wasn’t so grim. In the late 1950s, he attended the Birmingham School of Art, where he learned to paint, before moving to London and the Royal College of Art. There, he says, he was told how not to paint.

He rebelled. So did many of his peers. Allen Jones was thrown out, and Phillips came close. “If you were a talented artist at the time, you were expected to paint landscapes, still life, portraits, and so on,” he says.

Instead, Phillips and his friends began creating work that was vibrant, eye-catching and obsessed with popular culture and commercial iconography – a reaction to the stuffiness of the times.

His teachers were aghast. “They couldn’t believe people would be concerned with this stuff. Some were irrationally angry,” he says. Art critic Lawrence Alloway dubbed it pop art “because it was popping off the walls”.

Phillips says “I was very stubborn – still am. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew I needed to be a good boy and play the game. If you win, you get to make up your own rules.”

By that definition, Phillips has won. In Australia courtesy of a Distinguished Talent visa from the federal government, he ironically now works on large landscapes with abstract features, as though rebelling against his past, even if some of the old obsessions still feature.

Don’t ask him what any of it means, though. “What you see is what you get. Don’t even try,” he advises. Much of its power, though, lies in its ambiguity and juxtapositions of contradictory imagery and information.

Everything on display in Phillips’ gallery is from his own personal collection. Some of it, he says, is sentimental, while other pieces are unfinished. The rest is in galleries and private collections in Europe and America. “This is the first time so much of my art is in Australia.”

Previously, he’s lived in Majorca, Costa Rica and Switzerland. Why Noosa? “The weather. The people. The nature. The food. The clarity of light,” he says. “The older I get the more I like the quiet and prefer nature over cities. And I don’t like neighbours.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2019

David McCormack on being Bandit, Bluey’s dad

As the frontman for Brisbane band Custard, David McCormack was an anomaly in the ultra-serious early-90s world of indie-rock. In an ocean of angst, he was a goofball: whimsical, absurd, childlike and funny.

He can still be all of those things. But McCormack, who turned 50 last year, has two young daughters now, and around a successful soundtrack career as well as occasional reformations of his old band – now more of a hobby – he lives the dad life.

He’s also living it out in cartoon form: McCormack is the voice of Bandit, the dad dog in the ABC Kids animated short series Bluey, which chronicles the adventures of an irrepressible six-year-old blue heeler, her younger sister, Bingo, and her mum, Chilli.

Since premiering last October, Bluey has been a runaway success – with over 75 million plays, according to the ABC, it’s the most-watched show on ABC iView. A series of three Bluey books will be out in time for Christmas, and on Thursday it was announced that Bluey has been renewed for a second season. And it’s brought McCormack a very different kind of new-found fame.

Bluey is aimed at five- to seven-year-olds: that age when kids, like dogs, just want to play all day. Bandit and Chilli (voiced by Melanie Zanetti) are the perennially exhausted but loving parents doing their best to keep up with them.

The episodes are sweet six-minute adventures as relatable for parents as they are recognisable for kids: looking for a lost soft toy (Chickenrat); discovering the natural world (The Creek); making grandma dance (Grannies); a trip with dad to the dump (The Dump).

“How good is going to the dump!” says McCormack. “I relate to that totally, because I do love going to the Refuse Transfer Station, as it’s called now, with the kiddies. They gave me the script and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I don’t have to try too hard to get in the vibe of it.”

Another favourite is The Pool. “The dad takes the kids to somebody’s pool, but in that sort of laissez-faire dad way, forgets to bring all the important things, like sunscreen and flotation devices and thongs to wear on the hot concrete and towels and all that sort of stuff.

“And then the mum turns up and saves the day, she brings all the boring stuff that’s essential. And that’s pretty accurate for my life. My wife is like, do you tell them what’s going on? It’s pretty much like they’ve peered into my life and written it. But it’s universal, right?”

McCormack’s involvement with the show came about by chance, via contacts made with his soundtrack company Sonar. “I thought it was just going to be reading a couple of lines, but I ended up reading all of them for the pilot.”

Initially, he had very little idea what he was reading for. He’s based in Sydney, and voices the part of Bandit remotely, in isolation. The rest of the show is produced in Brisbane, his home town.

“They send me the script, they highlight my lines, and I just read my lines,” he says. “I don’t have to act, I don’t have to change my voice or anything. I don’t hear anybody else talking; all I do is literally read what they tell me to and that’s it. And they do all the animation and all the other voices and the music.

“So I had no idea what it would look like. And then they sent me the pilot and it was like hey, this is pretty good! And it’s a very Brisbane-looking show, it’s all classic Brisbane skylines and architecture and animals, which takes me back to my formative years.”

Another Brisbane band from the same era and with a similar sense of play, Regurgitator, have recently released a children’s album. “When you hear about it you go, of course, Regurgitator would do a kid’s record,” McCormack says.

He marvels at the turn of events himself – “Who would have thought in 1992 that we’d be talking in 2019 about me being the voice of a parent dog?” – but says his parents got the rudest shock. “They’re like, what’s this dog show kids are saying you’re doing the voice to?”

Voicing Bandit, and having daughters of a similar age profile to Bluey and Bingo, has opened McCormack’s eyes to the enormous children’s entertainment market: a world away from the slim pickings available to Custard, now practically a heritage-rock band.

“Kids get involved and suddenly you go, ‘wow – there’s eight different kids’ channels on Foxtel!’ There’s this whole world of bizarre kids’ stuff out there,” he says.

“I’m yet to find out whether it’s the path to riches, but it is the path to being popular at school drop-off time. Lots of other parents are like, ‘Hey! Did I hear your voice on…’ It’s sort of like 1994 all over again, but in the primary-school world.”

First published in The Guardian, 16 May 2019