Trying to sum up the truly Wonderful Life of Damien Lovelock, who died on Saturday morning aged 65, is no easy task. Where to begin? Lovelock was a rock & roll singer (for the Celibate Rifles, the Sydney band he fronted since 1980), solo artist, author, spoken-word performer, football broadcaster for the ABC, Sky and SBS (alongside the late Les Murray), yoga instructor, father to Luke and friend (to the Dalai Lama, among countless others).
Above all, he was a fabulous raconteur. Lovelock was a big man with a big voice and a hell of a lot of stories. Silence wasn’t in his vocabulary. Even in his yoga sessions, he peppered his students with anecdotes that had them trying to maintain poses in between contortions of laughter. This combination of physical mastery and people skills saw him hired as an instructor by, among others, the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team.
But most of his stories were poured into the lyrics he wrote for the Celibate Rifles, whose name was a pun on the Sex Pistols. The band released nine excellent studio albums, along with a clutch of EPs (including their first effort, the tearaway garage punk of 1981’s But Jacques, The Fish?), compilations and live releases, and garnered a dedicated cult following around the world.
The Rifles emerged from Sydney’s northern beaches, and were a mainstay of the city’s post-Radio Birdman independent music boom in the 1980s. Lovelock was their point of difference: older than his bandmates, and from a musical family (his mother Joan Wilton, who died when he was 19, was a jazz singer; father Bill wrote and produced songs for a young Nina Simone), Lovelock’s words and presence gave the band’s all-out attack gravitas.
But the band also provided a necessary centre of gravity for Lovelock’s life, or one might say lives, for he’d already used up a few before he joined them. In between more standard punk fare of the time – songs of suburban alienation and disaffection with the modern world – early songs such as Back On The Corner broke the mould, rendering the tougher side of Lovelock’s early years in often startling lines:
He makes his connection and he glows with delight
As his demons he banishes into the night
On a thin beam of white light, he flies through the air
Wrings out his hopes, trying to drown his despair
Live, while his bandmates flailed furiously, Lovelock radiated deadpan cool, his movements minimal, a shake of his broad hips and the occasional pump of a fist usually enough to accentuate a song’s groove or get a point across. While other singers were hurling themselves around the stage like Iggy Pop, Lovelock commanded attention rather than demanded it. He never screamed, and the faster the Rifles played, the more time he seemed to have.
The band peaked as a touring act in 1988 with the album Blind Ear and its classic singles Johnny and O Salvation. They constantly blew bigger names away in clubs (my first experience with the Rifles was an O-Week gig at the University of Queensland, where they wiped the floor with the Buzzcocks) and played to large festival crowds, including the inaugural Big Day Out at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1992, famously headlined by Nirvana.
Lovelock himself told me that was among the best shows his band ever played, but from there the Rifles slowly began to fade, even as they continued to produce excellent work. Their 2000 album A Mid-Stream Of Consciousness (which featured a jar of urine on the cover) briefly revived their fortunes and featured one of the band’s most loved and funniest songs, I Shoulda, in which Lovelock paid homage to his own life of happy accidents:
I shoulda read the instructions
I shoulda had me a plan
I shoulda made preparations
I shoulda act like a man
I shoulda triumphed regardless
I guess I shoulda began
But Lovelock was really only just getting started. His life seemed like an endless series of acts, where he would stumble on stage and star by force of his impossibly authentic personality. The shock of losing him to cancer at a comparatively young age comes from the fact that rather than succumbing to rock’s vices, Lovelock had been a health guru for decades. The only solace is that he packed so much into his 65 years that he shoulda been 200.
When future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau wrote his instantly infamous review of the man he saw as “rock & roll future” in 1974, the more personal, vulnerable elements of his enthusiasm were drowned out by his own hyperbole.
Landau caught The Boss at a time when he needed to be reminded of why he fell in love with music in the first place, and he quoted a line from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic: “I’ll tell you about the magic that will free your soul / But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock & roll.” He concluded that as long as the magic still existed, his mission was to tell a stranger about it.
No one would be so foolish as to predict rock & roll’s future more than 40 years later. But I found myself reminded of Landau’s review, on a couple of levels, while watching Cash Savage and the Last Drinks tear through their set last Friday to maybe a hundred or so disciples. Savage – barefoot, black jeans, black T-shirt, greasy black hair, black Telecaster, cowboy belt – may be the best rock star we’ve got right now.
The sparse crowd is initially reserved, hanging back several metres from the stage. Savage opens the set ambitiously, with the agonised slow dance of One Of Us. Within 45 seconds, the stage has been rushed. “We are alone / We are all alone,” she croons, and instantly, we’re not. She sings in the most gender-indeterminate voice the other side of Anohni: where Anohni is most often compared to Nina Simone, Savage’s deep growl and wild shriek is like a reincarnation of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, of the Gun Club.
This comparison is not new. Any similarities, however, are supposedly accidental. In one of those strange examples of convergent musical evolution, Savage claims not to have even heard the pioneering early 1980s punk-country-blues band until she became sick of being asked about their influence, and investigated them for herself. (“Then it was like, where has this band been all my life?” she tells me later with a grin.)
The Last Drinks include some obvious traditional elements – Kat Mear’s fiddle, Brett Marshall occasionally on banjo – and on beautiful ballads like My Friend, they’d tear up any folk/blues festival stage in the world. But theirs is no Antipodean alt-country try-on. By the second song, the murderous thump-and-grind of Let Go, Savage has dropped her guitar. She’s poised on the edge of the stage, death-staring the crowd, preachin’ the blues like Pierce and Robert Johnson before her.
This is the kind of classic pose only a true believer can pull off. Ann Powers once wrote of the young PJ Harvey (circa To Bring You My Love) that she was “bent on touching rock’s magical core”. Savage does this repeatedly, particularly as her set nears its climax with the closing one-two punch of Run With the Dogs and The Hypnotiser – careening songs that tear through the room and take everybody with them.
Savage’s presence and songwriting is matched by a wonderfully sympathetic band. Joe White, one of three guitarists on stage, is a standout with counter-melodic leads alternating with sheets of noise. Mear is possibly even better: she sometimes leads, but more often hers is the band’s locomotive breath; another rhythmic force propelling the songs over the tracks laid down by Chris Lichti’s bass and Rene Mancuso’s drums. And they can all sing, often in huge chain-gang choruses.
Just to be clear about this, no, Cash Savage isn’t rock & roll’s future. Who knows if there even is one? But whether she’s aware of it or not, she carries its spirit and history within her, and as long as there are performers with her conviction and commitment around, it lives on in the present. And after a month spent running from my own dogs, which had been barking and snapping at my heels, she reminded me of why I fell in love with it in the first place, too.