For Queenslanders of a certain age, there is so much about the rise of Donald Trump that seems eerily familiar. For 19 years, his prehistoric ancestor ruled the swamps of Australia’s deep north – a hillbilly dictator who beat up protesters and confounded the media with complete gibberish while a dark web of corruption flourished behind him. Thankfully, Joh Bjelke-Petersen didn’t have the codes, or a Twitter account.
At the time, the sheer lunacy of Bjelke-Petersen seemed beyond the reach of satirists, despite there being numerous comedic imitators of Joh’s folksy, stammering idiosyncrasies. These days, it’s getting harder to convince people who weren’t there that certain things actually happened, such as police being sent to university campuses on pre-dawn raids to rip condom-vending machines from toilet walls in 1987.
When he was eventually rolled by his own party, Joh locked himself in his parliamentary annex for days, phoning Buckingham Palace seeking Her Majesty’s intervention. If that’s not enough, imagine the corpulent figure of Russ Hinze – the minister for everything – bent at the waist, peering through the keyhole with tears streaming down his cheeks, beseeching his master: “Joh! Maaaate! It’s over!”
For many of those who lived through it, though, Bjelke-Petersen’s iron-fisted rule was no laughing matter. Apologists for his regime occasionally wave away the vast and vicious corruption uncovered by the Fitzgerald Inquiry that ignominiously ended his career as a victimless crime. Those people need to read Matt Condon’s extraordinary Three Crooked Kings trilogy and count the bodies.
The truly nasty, brutish side of Joh’s regime is mostly sidestepped in Joh For PM (yes, that really happened too), a musical comedy by playwright Stephen Carleton and composer Paul Hodge. What’s striking about it, 30 years after his downfall, is how prescient it is, as though this utterly reactionary figure was some kind of seer. References and parallels to the present day are deliberate, frequent and often uncanny.
Southern journalists, for example, are described thus: “They come up here and write fake news. We need someone to build a wall between us and them!” There’s also his press secretary Allen Callaghan (a show-stealing turn by Kurt Phelan), who describes himself to his boss as “Henry Higgins to your Eliza Doolittle”. Callaghan teaches him to “feed the chooks”, telling him “It’s good TV to try to keep them confused.”
It’s as if the satire has somehow had time to catch up. Some of these songs seem to have written themselves – The White Shoe Shuffle, for example, which skewers the so-called white shoe brigade of Gold Coast developers, and which cleverly riffs on the jitterbug of Wham!’s contemporary hit Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Don’t You Worry About That, similarly, nods to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
It’s campy, glorious fun, and if it has a weakness, it makes Joh, who’s well played by Colin Lane, look dumber than he was. As one song points out, much of his rise, from local member to minister to deputy to premier – thanks to his predecessor Jack Pizzey dropping dead of a heart attack – seemed accidental, if not divine intervention. But you don’t stay premier for 19 years without ruthlessness and rat cunning.
Joh had both in spades. Like Trump, it’s easy to make him look like a bumptious fool, but it’s perfectly possible to be a bumptious fool and a dangerous megalomaniac at the same time. To suggest that Joh was largely directed by those around him – his wife Flo (Barb Lowing, whose song Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy is a highlight); Callaghan; his pilot Beryl – is a mistake.
But Joh For PM also gets one thing right: his progeny are all around us. Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter (who described the aforementioned condom-vending machines as “despicable things that would do nothing to help prevent the spread of AIDS, but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon”), Jacqui Lambie, Clive Palmer, and even Kevin Rudd have all taken a lead from Joh’s dinosaur footprints.
The show was greeted with a standing ovation at The Powerhouse. Among them was Mike Ahern, who briefly replaced Bjelke-Petersen as National Party premier and whom Queenslanders can thank, along with the late police minister Bill Gunn, for having the political and moral courage to institute the Fitzgerald Inquiry that resulted in their party being cast into the wilderness for decades.
Famously, Ahern promised to implement Fitzgerald’s recommendations “lock, stock and barrel”. He didn’t survive long enough as premier to fulfil his pledge, and is an almost forgotten figure today. Described as a “sneaky Roman Catholic” by his devout Lutheran adversary – a line that had him visibly shaking with laughter – he had every right to feel vindicated, both by history and by this highly enjoyable play.
There aren’t many retail stores that can lay claim to a small but distinguished place in a state’s political history. Such is the stature of Rocking Horse Records, which won instant infamy on 14 February, 1989: the morning when a phalanx of police descended on the store, in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD, and raided it for stocking allegedly obscene material.
It’s hard to explain, more than a quarter of a century later, in what universe such a thing could happen. Back then, though, Queensland was a universe unto itself: a state where the police force was officially unable to find any of Brisbane’s many illegal brothels and casinos, yet threw the book at a record shop for displaying a popular Guns n’ Roses album.
This was, remember, during the dying days of the National Party’s 32-year rule of Queensland. Incredibly, lyrics in rock records became an electoral issue: later that year Russell Cooper – in his brief tenure as premier, after Tony Fitzgerald handed down his epochal report into political and police corruption – flagged that “pornographic” music would be subject to the state’s censorship laws.
But the raid, and Cooper’s pledge, was a misreading of a fundamental shift in the state’s mainstream middle class, with the National Party suffering a humiliating defeat at the state election the following December. As for Guns n’ Roses, their parent label, Warner, was so delighted to see the band’s album bumped back into the charts by the controversy that it helped fund Rocking Horse’s legal expenses.
The store’s proprietor, Warwick Vere, can laugh about it all now. Rocking Horse is celebrating its 40th anniversary: a success story that’s spanned enormous social, physical and political changes in Brisbane and Queensland. In that time, the store has managed to see off the rise of downloading, the January 2011 floods and near-bankruptcy, not to mention the court case ensuing from the 1989 raid – which it won.
“We had to prove that community standards had changed,” he says. “The police thought they had a lay-down misère – they’d successfully prosecuted Rodney Rude for obscenity not long before that – but basically we had to prove that the word f*** was no longer a shocker.” (The defence submitted that the word had been used 17 times in the Academy Award-winning picture of that year, Rain Man.)
Rocking Horse first opened its doors in November 1975. The shop, then in Rowes Arcade on Adelaide Street, was so cramped that the cash register had to fit under a stairwell. Yet it quickly became a hub for the city’s music fans, surfing the crest of the punk wave to become an oasis of alternative culture in the heart of Australia’s most conservative capital city bulwark.
This was back when Brisbane effectively closed on the weekends. “The caretaker there would try to pull the shutters down at 11.30 on Saturday morning, when our tiny shop was full of people – so much so that people had to wait outside, in the arcade, for someone to leave so they could come in,” Vere remembers. “I had to come to an arrangement that we’d lock the doors, no later than 12 noon.
“After that, you could put a shotgun down Queen Street and the only person you might hit would be Rock & Roll George. You could see him tootling down [in his vintage 1952 FX Holden] and it would be one of the very few cars that would be doing the block on a Saturday afternoon. Brisbane basically emptied out, and [people] went to the north coast or the south coast – and why wouldn’t they.”
From there, as Brisbane stayed open later and expanded, so too did the shop: to slightly roomier premises on 158 Adelaide Street (the location of the 1989 raid), and eventually to its current location on 258 Albert Street, where it’s been since 2004. At its peak, the store boasted 24 staff, 18 of them full-time, many of them long-serving: grizzled veteran Tom Beaumont has been there 20 years.
It’s also been a reliable source of employment for several generations of Brisbane’s musical talent. In the early days, Jim Dickson and Bruce Anthon – who both played in late-70s power trio the Survivors – ran the shop’s day to day business; today, you can wander in and find Sean Caskey behind the counter (Caskey plays with rising indie-rock band the Last Dinosaurs).
For a certain kind of person, it’s the ultimate dead-end job. “It’s alternately frustrating and great,” says Beaumont, whose default state seems set to a kind of seen-it-all deadpan. “I think the best thing about it is the idea that it’s not just a dead-end job in the corner; it’s a dead-end job with a lot of other dead-beats, and interacting with them is…” – he pauses for effect – “…rewarding.”
“It’s very hard to say to somebody who’s starting work in a record shop that this is a career,” Vere says. “It’s not. It’s for the people who you couldn’t keep out of the store with a stick anyway. Luckily, most of them love the job. They’re all gluttons for punishment. But as far as careers go, there’s not a great ladder to climb – unless they knock the old bloke off.”
Vere’s loyalty to his staff was tested in 2011, when the shop nearly closed after being hit by a succession of blows: long-term construction works for a busway; the January flood; the inexorable decline of CD sales. Even the sacking of public servants by former premier Campbell Newman had an impact: “Our shop was full of grey-haired people with lanyards at lunchtime, and they just vanished overnight.”
Inevitably, many of the store’s staff had to follow. “We were conscious of the fact that people had been there for an awfully long time, [and] that made it very hard to downsize,” Vere says. “We were bloated with staff, we didn’t take stock of the situation quickly enough, and we probably put it in the too-hard basket for a little bit too long.”
The store’s salvation lay in the format for which it first came into being: vinyl, which has seen a resurgence, thanks to new music fans who want something more to have and hold than a digital stream. “If we could have waved a magic wand and turned the CDs into vinyl we would have recovered a lot quicker,” Vere says. “It was definitely where the interest was, but it was like turning the bloody Queen Mary around.”
Beaumont says that initiatives like Record Store Day, which began in 2008, is only part of the reason behind vinyl’s resurgence. “It’s only one day [of the year]. My take on it is, there was a generation that didn’t buy anything; the new generation is buying something. They don’t buy CDs, because they’re dead – and you can’t impress someone with the amount of files you have.”
Since the dark days of 2011, several staff have been re-employed, though mostly on a part-time basis. On the day of my visit (truthfully, there aren’t many days that I don’t) the music is intermittently drowned out by the whine of saws and drills: the shop is preparing to consolidate its operations to the basement downstairs, which previously catered to dance and hip-hop fans – “Boogie Wonderland”, as it was once dubbed.
Vere will also be joining forces with former employee, Ric Trevaskes, who runs second-hand retailer Egg Records in West End. A lifelong music tragic, Trevaskes started at Rocking Horse as a 14-year-old, after being spotted dressed in a Devo outfit complete with the famous red “energy dome” on his head. “Once it’s in your blood, and you know it’s the best job you’re ever going to get, it’s hard to resist,” he says.
Now Trevaskes, who confesses he was “very nostalgic” for Rocking Horse, is bringing his vast collection of second-hand stock back under its roof. Vere says his former pupil “brings a whole new dimension to things. He runs record fairs; he has a little black book that you could kill for, and he has unending enthusiasm.” With Trevaskes back in the fold and the stolid Beaumont, the store is in good hands.
Not that Vere, who is well into his 60s, has any thoughts of handing over. “I wouldn’t mind an extra day of golf,” he admits. “But I still enjoy coming in here, and I’ve discovered that most of my friends who are retired are bored shitless, and looking for something to do. Besides, [federal MP for Longman] Wyatt Roy wants us all to work until we’re 70. So I’m a little way off that milestone yet.”
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 31 October 2015
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
It was Tex Perkins who put it best – and most bluntly. “Brisbane you have to leave,” the singer known to his mum as Greg told the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. “You come out of your mother, you go to school, and then you think, oh shit – what am I doing here?” That was 20 years ago.
Young people have been leaving Brisbane for as long as they’ve been coming out of their mothers, to use Tex’s ever so delicate vernacular. It was almost compulsory during the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years – a musician friend of mine remembers the police telling him, point blank, that people like him weren’t welcome in Queensland.
That sort of harassment goes back a long way. Matt Condon’s book Three Crooked Kings, which describes how corruption was allowed to take root in pre-Fitzgerald Queensland, remembers how police commissioner Frank Bischof used to hand out starched and collared shirts and ties to the local bodgies and widgies in the 1950s.
Now, apparently, the writers, musicians and (gasp) hospitality workers are all leaving again, according to the recently decamped Bridie Jabour. I can’t blame her: after all, I too left Brisbane for Sydney when I was 25. I used to walk to work from Paddington to William Street thinking I’d made it. That was my first mistake.
It wasn’t until I accepted a $30,000 salary to be a staff writer on a well-regarded national publication, commuting a couple of hours a day from Bondi to the North Shore for the privilege, that my tempestuous love affair with the Emerald City turned toxic. I’d had her, she’d had me, and I returned to Brisbane, my tail between my legs.
It was a city in the middle of a metamorphosis. And at this point I should point out that I wasn’t originally a Brisbane native: I’d moved up from Melbourne with my parents as a teenager in 1987, the year of Joh for PM; The Moonlight State (as exposed by Four Corners) and the Fitzgerald Inquiry that tore the whole rotten system down.
It’s fair to say that moving from Melbourne to Pig City back then was more like being beamed down onto another planet. At the time, the local wallopers were busy ripping condom vending machines from the walls of university campuses on Bjelke-Petersen’s orders.
The premier had an ally in Bob Katter, then the state minister for Aboriginal Affairs. Condoms, Katter thundered, were despicable things that would do nothing to prevent the spread of AIDS but would encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon. Yes. He really said that.
I had been humbled by my Sydney experience and needed a reason to be back in Brisbane, so I decided to write a book about my adopted home town and its music scene – the same one depleted years earlier by harassment at the hands of Joh’s shock troopers; the same one that had, incredibly, given us the Saints and the Go-Betweens.
By the time of my return in 2000, Powderfinger was the biggest band in the country; Regurgitator (whose singer I’d been to school with) were local legends and Savage Garden – remember them? – had just sold 20 million records in America. From the Saints to Savage Garden: it sort of had a ring to it. How on earth did that happen?
It sure wasn’t by leaving for Sydney: if Bridie wants to find a local scene there, she’s going to have to dig way underground, into the city’s warehouses and house parties, especially now the Annandale Hotel has closed its doors. Once, Sydney was one of the world’s great music cities – in the decade between 1977 to 1987. Not any more.
Sure, others including writers, hospitality workers and maybe even a few tradies, as well as professionals, have moved – to Melbourne. But more have returned, or simply decided to stay, seeing not a responsibility to “take out the trash”, but the opportunities afforded by a growing city.
As a journalist who’s been there, I sympathise with Jabour’s need to leave a medium-sized town in search of new career challenges. But she seems stuck in the “slatternly, ugly” view of Brisbane so poetically described by David Malouf in Johnno. That was in 1975, and he was talking about Brisbane in the decades-past tense even then.
It’s simply not true to say that all the young artists are leaving anyway, as Jabour claims, citing as evidence an ABC story that, in fact, reports the exact opposite. Even if it was, the assumption that only people in their 20s can contribute to a city’s creative life is especially grating.
The truth is that lots of people have used Brisbane as a “professional stepping stone” before Bridie, and plenty more will in the future. The ones who choose to stay, or return, have taken the time to explore the river, and its mangrove-lined creeks and tributaries. They’re teeming with life – if only you have an idea where to look.
It’s one of those things that gives us poor Banana Benders our backwoods reputation. In 1987, just as AIDS crashed into the national consciousness via the Grim Reaper advertisements, a brawl broke out in the Queensland National Party – its moral façade soon to be torn to shreds by Tony Fitzgerald QC – over contraception.
Mike Ahern, the progressive health minister and future premier, took a proposal to Cabinet to allow the sale of condoms through vending machines. The premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, rebuffed him. When students defied the ban and installed machines around university campuses, police were despatched to rip them from the walls in the dead of night.
Without so much as a shred of irony, Bob Katter Junior – then the minister for Aboriginal affairs in Joh’s infamously corrupt government – defended the ban with these immortal words: “Condoms are despicable things that won’t prevent the spread of AIDS but will encourage the community to have sex with gay abandon.”
A few years later, Katter promised to “walk backwards to Bourke if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 percent”, adding for good measure, “Mind you, if the percentage is what they say it is in the rest of Australia, I’ll take to walking everywhere backwards.”
Bob is, shall we say, not for turning. Less than two years ago, at a rally against same-sex marriage, he lamented what the word gay had come to mean. “No one has the right to take that word off us,” he spluttered, as if it ever belonged to anyone.
But Bob doesn’t want to talk about it anymore. Hasn’t talked about it since his Katter Australia Party broadcast advertisements ahead of the Queensland state election, which suggested that a centre-right government led by Campbell Newman would legalise same-sex marriage. He couldn’t have been more wrong, of course.
Later, Bob described the ads as a mistake “of major proportions”. Naturally, he meant a political mistake. It was politics, rather than principle, that forced the resignation of a Victorian KAP candidate, Tess Corbett, after she stated that paedophiles would be next in line to “get rights”.
And it was politics that forced the Katter Australia Party to suspend another Queensland senate candidate – the improbably named Bernard Gaynor – after he said he didn’t want gays or lesbians teaching his kids. Gaynor is fighting his suspension, claiming (with some justification) that Katter privately agreed with his comments.
Will Katter disendorse himself for his own long history of homophobic statements? He’s not saying. He wouldn’t answer when The Project’s Charlie Pickering asked him to repudiate the equation of homosexuality and paedophilia. “You are taking me outside the area of my concern,” he said. He was certainly out of his comfort zone.
Nor would he answer on Steve Vizard’s The Circle when asked what motivated his antipathy towards gays and lesbians. “The truth is I don’t think about it at all,” he said last June. “Never have, never likely to in the future.” Pressed, he buried himself in his own book on camera, presumably to remind himself what an incredible race of people Australians are.
One could speculate that all this was possible evidence of repressed sexuality on Bob’s part, because it’s obvious from his public statements over the years that he’s spent a lot more time thinking about it than he cares to admit. But, like so many ageing white men of his era, he’s befuddled by the shift in public mood.
Not so long ago, his views were cheered. Here in Queensland, before homosexuality’s decriminalisation in 1990, TheCourier-Mail rendered the word “gay” as I just have, in quotation marks, and employed a prominent columnist who frequently spewed the sort of rhetoric that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Westboro Baptist Church.
Katter is regarded warmly by many Australians outside of his Deep North constituency. A contradictory man (his heroes are Red Ted Theodore and Black Jack McEwen), he has deservedly won admiration as a voice for farmers driven to the wall by deregulation and an all-powerful supermarket duopoly.
But, like Pauline Hanson before him, he represents a longing for old certainties and values that the rest of us mostly view as outdated at best, and bigoted at worst. Like Hanson, he has attracted candidates driven by fear and anger, confused and alienated by a country that no longer resembles the one they grew up in.
If Katter wishes for his party to attract credible candidates and become a force beyond the provinces, he needs to revisit this issue. He could start by having a conversation with his gay half-brother, Carl. Then he needs to have a conversation with himself about whether this is working out for him.
Otherwise he might as well begin that long march backwards to Bourke.
Note for overseas and interstate readers: The Zoo is a music venue in the quaintly-named inner suburb of Fortitude Valley, in my hometown of Brisbane. It’s 20 years old this week, a startling achievement in an industry where places to play appear and often disappear in the space of 12 months. This is my happy birthday message to one of my favourite places, which changed the face of the Valley, and helped change the way we viewed our own city during a time of great change.
The first time I walked up that short but steep staircase, it was to see former Go-Between Robert Forster. The stairs brought you not to the entrance, but smack into the middle of the venue. There was a small stage in the far right-hand corner; a basic wooden platform less than a foot above the floor. I heard the cracking of pool balls as I walked in.
In the left-hand corner was the serving area. The conditions of the nascent venue’s license at the time meant that food had to be provided with drinks. Being an impoverished student (and a lousy cook besides), there were many times when the Zoo’s cheap, nourishing meals were seriously appreciated.
On the walls, covering most of the available space, hung paintings by various local daubers. So The Zoo was a gallery space, too, as well as a pool hall and venue. The dedication to promoting Brisbane’s musicians was matched by its philosophical alignment with, and commitment to the city’s artistic community.
That word: community. That was what made The Zoo different. When you went to see a show there, you felt like you were part of something special, vibrant and new.
Part of it came down to timing. The early 1990s was an era of transition for Brisbane. Queensland itself was in a process of profound social change. Musical change, too. The punk generation had grown up; the grunge generation was moving in. There was a feeling of political and cultural renewal.
Part of it came down to place. The venue was in Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, which a corrupt alliance of cops and criminals had called home for decades. The Fitzgerald Inquiry had seen them off – to exile, or to prison – but the Bjelke-Petersen years were not yet a distant memory, and the Valley could still be a little scary.
It was the middle of a recession, too. It seemed like every second shop in the Valley was vacant. The ultimate example was the old Target building, in the middle of the decaying, neglected Brunswick Street mall. That was where many of the bands that played at The Zoo – and would soon become household names – honed their craft.
That was important, because the cheap rents then available in the Valley allowed the musical community to set up house. The Zoo was among the first in, and it quickly became the new face of the changing district and, in hindsight, an early harbinger of its gentrification.
Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor with the attractive young lady whom I was (hopelessly) trying to woo. There were maybe 100 people sitting in a semi-circle around the stage, watching Robert hold court. He was playing an acoustic guitar. “I want to be quiet,” he sang. That was quite a statement in a post-Nevermind world.
The Zoo liked acoustic artists. Amid the tide of grunge, there was something of a folk revival happening. Mexican-American songwriter Rodriguez was as important a part of Powderfinger’s early makeup as Soundgarden, and arguably it was the former’s influence, more than the latter, that eventually turned them into million-sellers. Others, like ISIS and Paddy Dempsey, were beloved acts here.
Women always found a voice at The Zoo, too. Women ran the venue, after all, and there was a distinct absence of machismo in both the presentation and the atmosphere. There was no balding publican pulling beers with a tea towel slung over his shoulder; no security guards built wider than they were tall.
Instead there were two young ladies – Joc and C – who had a vision of the kind of place they wanted to run, and they had strong values. They didn’t sell cigarettes, or rum, and preferred not to book metal bands. The venue had no dress code, but you were expected to mind your manners. All of this commanded respect.
I have countless gigs and memories to cherish. The Dirty Three, just before their relocation overseas, with Nick Cave sitting in comes to mind. A young and messianic Ben Harper. The so-called Australian Go-Betweens show, marking the debut of the new line-up with Glenn Thompson and Adele Pickvance.
Even some of the less palatable aspects of the venue – like the unrelenting heat of a full house in summer – had its virtues. Perhaps my strongest recurring memory of being at The Zoo is just standing by the big timber sash windows, sucking in the fresh air while a storm raged outside; the rain making the city sparkle afresh in the night.
Over time, The Zoo grew and changed. Soon there was a real stage, and a real bar. You no longer had to order a meal to get a drink. The paintings on the walls disappeared. More and more international acts played there, though the commitment to local artists remained.
These days, Fortitude Valley might be regarded as a victim of its own success. Tens of thousands of revellers swamp the entertainment precinct every weekend. There’s more alcohol, more drugs, more violence, and I wouldn’t like to ask how much higher the rent is. But The Zoo has endured. Indeed, it’s something of a haven.
That’s because, despite the aforementioned alterations, what hasn’t changed are the values the venue embodies. Those values, above all, give The Zoo its atmosphere and warmth. It’s a culture, which everyone who works there buys into. There’s still no dress code, and you’re still expected to mind your manners.
So, with that, there’s really only one thing left to say.
Thank you, Joc and C, for the gift you have given Brisbane: from all the musicians who have performed on your blessed stage, and all the punters who have enjoyed so many wonderful nights here. May The Zoo endure another 20 years.