Tagged: Charlie Owen

Tex Perkins on surviving the Beasts of Bourbon

On 14 April last year, an unusually poignant gig took place at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda, Melbourne. The Beasts of Bourbon – the self-styled ugliest, most badass rock band on the planet – played what would be their final gig in what was perhaps the only way the band could have ended.

Bass player Brian Henry Hooper, for whom the gig was a benefit, was surrounded by half a dozen nurses and wearing an oxygen mask. No one had been sure whether he would be able to play until the moment arrived; the band’s original bassist Boris Sudjovic was on standby. Guitarist Spencer P Jones was also playing one of his final performances.

Hooper passed away from lung cancer six days later, aged 55. Jones died on 21 August, aged 61. And the Beasts of Bourbon – the band that stubbornly refused to die, and had been through numerous permutations and reconciliations during a 25-year history of inebriation, as demanded by the band’s very name – was officially dead.

By comparison, Tex Perkins, the band’s frontman, is in rude health, a few streaks of grey through his leonine mane of hair being the main giveaway of his 54 years. His latest blood tests have come back clear – the first thing he tells me, in response to a benign greeting.

But with that comes survivor’s guilt. The singer is virtually a symbol of old-school Australian masculinity – in his height, his low growl, and his band’s well-earned reputation as hard livers. Until their livers, collectively, started to scream for mercy.

The last year, he says, has been “a long, long slog”, and it’s left him vulnerable.

“Psychologically, it’s been a tough year, not only for the grieving but for the self-reflection that comes with seeing friends go – and we all have a similar history,” he says. “I had a lot of self-examination, which was unfruitful, really. I didn’t really come up with a good answer.”

That doesn’t mean he’s not trying to find it. His conversation is notable for long pauses and longer stares into space, across the beer garden of a pub on the far north coast of New South Wales. In the end, the best he can come up with is time: “You’ve just got to keep going and you obsess about these things a little less, hopefully.”

Out of that grief, the band has risen again, in new/old form, as the Beasts. Sudjovic returns alongside original, previously estranged guitarist Kim Salmon, who joins his replacement Charlie Owen, and drummer Tony Pola.

On his deathbed, delirious, Hooper had demanded that Perkins book studio time. Perkins rang around and, while the bass player didn’t make it, the surviving members – gathered together in Melbourne for his funeral – bashed out an album, Still Here, in a single session.

It was similar to how the Beasts of Bourbon had recorded their debut The Axeman’s Jazz in 1984, though perhaps not fuelled by as many intoxicants. The “freakish takeaway”, Perkins says, is “this magnificent new version of the band which I’m really excited about”.

The name, though, had to go. Most fans knew them in shorthand as the Beasts anyway, but Perkins says he’s tired of shouldering what he calls the mythology of the Beasts of Bourbon. “I don’t want to have to carry around that history any longer,” he says. “And I really feel that also, just quietly, it’s a bit of a curse.”

If that’s the case, he acknowledges, it was a curse of the group’s own making. The Beasts of Bourbon made a handful of Australia’s hardest, meanest rock & roll records this side of AC/DC, but the legacy of the band was mostly on stage, where they set a benchmark of live performance.

The price, though, has been immense. The Beasts of Bourbon “[broke] the bar record every time we played – that became part of our reputation”, Perkins says. They were “always drunk, always belligerent”, and songs like Chase The Dragon detailed the harder edge and habits of some of the members, Jones and Hooper most certainly included. In the last year, Perkins says, “we saw the results”.

“Spencer didn’t get away with this one,” he says. “Spencer died many times, and miraculously came back. So did Brian. Brian was the ultimate phoenix, rising from the ashes over and over again, and actually I thought his illness was going to be another example of Brian wilfully just kicking adversity in the arse.”

Jones did manage to play on one of his last songs on Still Here. It’s called At The Hospital – where, the guitarist noted wryly, “there’s so many class A drugs”.

Apart from grief, Perkins says, “to see it all catch up with us, for me and possibly other people … There’s a whole lot of regret and guilt.”

At the same time there’s been healing, especially with Salmon, who had left the band in 1993 to pursue his own project the Surrealists – a continuation of his earlier, legendary band the Scientists. “I’ve always loved Kim. I started out as a Scientists fan, I was an every-gig fan, one of those fans.

In a song called Time, which Jones covered, New York songwriter and poet Richard Hell said that you only see things for what they really are when you’re stepping into your hearse. “If you don’t learn anything on the way, that’s true,” Perkins says. “But I don’t know, that’s a …” he trails off. “There’s always regret that you’ll never shake.”

For him, the next test will be singing the songs on stage. “I’ve got no idea how it’s going to go, whether it’s going to be as emotional, whether I’ll have to just sing the fucking song and not think about what [I’m] actually singing about. I’ve got no idea. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

First published in The Guardian, 9 February 2019

Paul Kelly and Charlie Owen: Death’s Dateless Night

Most of us have a song that we’d like played at our funeral. Some of us aim for the transcendent: spiritual songs that, we hope, might say something to those we leave behind about our approach to life. Others who take the exercise (and themselves) less seriously prefer a more mordant strain of philosophy: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, by Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a popular choice.

It was while driving to a friend’s funeral with Charlie Owen, one of Australia’s most expressive guitarists, that Paul Kelly had the idea to record an album of such songs. Death’s Dateless Night features 12 bare-bones, intimately recorded tunes, with a cathedral-like ambience that echoes the sparseness of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

This could have been compelling, if only Kelly had a fresh set of songs to fit. He is now 61 and, while he’s not quite staring mortality in the face, he’s had enough brushes with it over the years and certainly farewelled more than his share of friends before their time. If anyone could take a hard look at a topic no one much likes talking about and have something worthwhile to say, you’d hope Kelly might.

Instead, there are re-recordings of a couple of originals (Nukkanya, from 1994’s Wanted Man, and Meet Me In The Middle Of The Air, from 2005’s Foggy Highway) and a few traditional numbers (Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, which Welch has also recorded; The Parting Glass), with the remainder of the album padded out by covers. Some are standards; others are songs by contemporaries and peers.

This is a low bar for a singer and songwriter of Kelly’s stature to get over. The strengths of Death’s Dateless Night are his warm, empathetic singing and Owen’s always tasteful playing. Its weakness is its lack of ambition: this is an easy listening album about a difficult subject, with neither Kelly nor Owen extending themselves. It’s pleasant, but far from essential.

Should an album of songs about death be merely pleasant? Of course, Death’s Dateless Night could have been depressing and that would have been no more effective, or even interesting. But, instead of offering redemption, Kelly’s versions of Don’t Fence Me In, Bird On A Wire and Let It Be feel redundant, even trite. He’s not adding anything new to these songs. Then again, who could?

The songs that really sting are the less familiar ones, written by artists with whom Kelly shared a more personal connection. One is Good Things, by the late Maurice Frawley, who played in Kelly’s first band, the Dots. Owen’s moaning steel guitar perfectly complements Kelly’s plaintive, haunted vocal and two-chord acoustic shuffle. Singing one of the finest songs of his lost friend, here Kelly is hanging on for dear life.

The other triumph is Pretty Bird Tree, by the Indigenous singer/songwriter LJ (Lawrence) Hill. It’s as powerful as anything by Archie Roach or Kev Carmody and it’s to be hoped Kelly’s version draws more attention to Hill’s exquisite talent. The original finger-picked melody and arrangement is preserved, and Kelly’s voice is at its most yearning as he retells Hill’s heart-stopping narrative.

It might say something about the strength of these two songs that they easily outshine the better-known material that dominates the rest of the album. Alternatively, perhaps the other songs simply suffer for their overfamiliarity. Either way, it’s hard not to wish for more from someone who, at his best, has written so fearlessly about life, death and everything in between.

First published in The Guardian, 6 October 2016