Singer and songwriter Archie Roach has revealed that he was critically ill at the time of his induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame on 25 November last year, performing from a venue near the hospital with a medical team in tow and an ambulance waiting outside.
Roach has lived with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for years, but it escalated in November. He was admitted to Warrnambool Base Hospital, where he spent some days in intensive care.
He was taken from the hospital in an ambulance to accept the award via a broadcast from the Lighthouse theatre in the south-west Victorian coastal town, where he also performed, with his medical team standing by backstage.
Roach sung his most celebrated song, Took The Children Away, sitting down and breathing through a nasal cannula, before being taken back to hospital for several more days.
“It wasn’t looking too good for a while,” Roach said, speaking to the Guardian ahead of rescheduled dates touring what is likely to be his final album, Tell Me Why. “Fluid had gone from my legs to [around] my heart, so I had to go to ICU for a while, while they tried to get me under control. After the ARIAs, things seemed to pick up after that.”
Roach had originally intended to accept his induction in Melbourne, but his illness and inability to travel meant the Lighthouse theatre was reserved for his performance instead. Members of his family, including his grandchildren, performed a Welcome to Country ceremony beforehand.
Fellow singer and songwriter Paul Kelly, who co-produced Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane, said the most emotional part of the day for him was rehearsing with Roach in hospital before the performance.
“The staff gave us their lunch room, they cleared it out for us and we went in there, they wheeled Archie in and we did a little acoustic rehearsal, just to know how the song would run with the band,” Kelly said.
“And I remember thinking at the end of that, thinking well, yeah, that’s the performance, we can go home now! But of course, we knew then, he’s going to be great – it sounded good, he could sing it strong.
“There was a little bit of uncertainty about whether it would go ahead, [but] if you’ve seen the performance from the ARIAs you notice how his voice got stronger throughout. So we were all really happy with the way it went, so was Archie, and so were the doctors.
“Talking to the them afterwards, they were saying, ‘Could you come down and do this every day? Archie’s got a real lift, he looks healthier today from just singing.’ Which I guess is not unusual; I think there are studies on that. It was a really, really good day.”
Roach said his induction into the Hall of Fame, which he received alongside trophies for best male artist and best adult contemporary album for Tell Me Why, meant a great deal to him – particularly to be standing alongside and as an example to other Indigenous artists.
“I’ve been doing this for a while now, over 30 years, and seeing some of the other people inducted, especially Uncle Jimmy Little and Yothu Yindi and others, I was very proud to see that,” he said.
“To be recognised in such a way of course is great and important, but to also be an example to others, especially our First Nations people – that no matter where you come from you can achieve great things if you put your mind and heart to it.”
Looking back on his career, Roach said the intimate relationship he had developed with his audience over the years stood out to him. “The people that come and listen to me and hear the stories, they actually give me as much if not more sometimes than I give them,” he said.
“It’s a real connection, so I think that’s very important to me. It’s more than just going out on the stage and doing a set and walking off. There’s this actual relationship that I have with these people.”
For many Australians under the age of 40, the first time they would have heard the voice of Jimmy Little would have been in 1999, the result of a chance meeting a few years earlier. Brendan Gallagher, of the sorely underrated Australian band Karma County, had accidentally caught Little singing in a Sydney bar. “I was instantly drawn to the front of the stage by one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard,” he wrote in the liner notes to Messenger. “I sat transfixed as Jimmy worked his way through a set of songs with such grace and style that I forgot to go to the bar and buy a drink; very unusual behaviour on my part.”
Gallagher introduced himself to Little after the show and struck up a friendship, and Messenger was the collaboration that resulted. It’s an album of classic Australian songs by the likes of the Go-Betweens, the Church, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper and the Reels – many of them radically rearranged by Gallagher, and most of which Little himself had never heard before Gallagher introduced him to them. The album was a critical and commercial success, receiving extensive airplay, and introducing a new generation of Australians to a voice that had first came to national prominence in 1963, via his hit version of the country gospel standard Royal Telephone.
Central’s never busy, always on the line You may hear from heaven almost any time ‘Tis a royal service, free for one and all When you get in trouble, give this royal line a call
That voice! It was high and flutey, but as rich and mellow as caramel. Most of all, Little had exquisite timing. He had a touch of Elvis about him in that he sang his ballads with seemingly endless patience – if a song was slow, Little was slower. He sang like he had all the time in the world. He was a gifted storyteller who, once he had you in the palm of his hand, was happy to keep you in suspense. He made it all sound and look so bloody easy, and he was a master when it came to interpreting other people’s songs. Have a listen to how effortlessly he gets inside the narrative of the Go-Betweens’ Cattle And Cane:
That’s where I first heard and saw Jimmy Little, too. Cattle And Cane was (and remains) one of my favourite songs, and I was impressed with how Little not only recounted Grant McLennan’s childhood vignettes as though they were his own, but also the sincerity and ease with which he recounted the final verse that, on the Go-Betweens’ version, was originally performed by Robert Forster.
Little’s storied history prior to Messenger would have been incredible enough without this late-career revival. Australia’s first (and for a long time only) Aboriginal pop star, he made nearly three dozen albums, and also lent his talents to acting, landing a role in Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World in 1991. He was an indigenous ambassador for literacy and numeracy, and after a successful kidney transplant in 2004 he established the Jimmy Little Foundation, set up to assist other indigenous Australians, who suffer from End Stage Renal Disease at around nine times the rate of non-indigenous Australians. 2004 was an eventful year for Jimmy; he was made a companion of the Order of Australia that same year, and also named as a National Living Treasure. (The latter award makes the catty part of me wonder if Jimmy had been disturbed by the company he’d found himself keeping lately.)
In the end, though, it’s his singing for which Jimmy Little will be remembered. He was a gentle man – “Don’t mistake kindness and niceness for weakness,” he once said – and that gentility shone through his recordings, which are not easy listening so much as they are the humblest of peace offerings to the world. Jimmy’s gone now, but to listen to one of his albums – as I’m doing with Messenger – will always be like picking up the phone and hearing that voice from heaven at the other end.
Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…
20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)
This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.
19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)
This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.
18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)
A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?
17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)
Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.
16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)
If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)
15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)
Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.
14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)
“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.
13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)
A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.
12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)
Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?
11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)
What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.