Tagged: Tex Perkins

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

Cash Savage & The Last Drinks: Good Citizens

Everyone’s got a “fucked-up way” of being good citizens – or so Melbourne’s Cash Savage tells us on the title track of her fourth album. Some of the things that might help us feel good about ourselves are rooted in inequalities and injustice. Like, for example, voting in a voluntary postal survey on whether or not LGBTIQ people should be able to marry.

Good Citizens was written against the backdrop of that risible survey, the trauma it caused Savage’s community, and the aftermath: that even when you might have got the result a large majority of the population wanted, amid the celebrations and self-congratulations, the scars of being asked to justify and defend your own identity and humanity remain.

That trauma though has produced her most focused, cohesive record. Gone is any vestige of the faint Americana leanings of her earlier albums. The nine songs here are all brawling rock & roll and crushing ballads. It’s got more in common with Nick Cave and the Dirty Three, in Savage’s vocals and Kat Mear’s sawing violin, than Wilco – much less the Band.

But while the basic reference points are clear, Savage has never sounded more self-assured – or more Australian. Her voice is magnificent throughout, whether she’s gently chiding her country on Better Than That (“There’s a lot of people thinking I’m up for discussion”, she notes) or tearing through the pub-punk rock of Pack Animals.

It’s a voice that’s got more in common with Tex Perkins and Jeffrey Lee Pierce than Jen Cloher or Courtney Barnett – a deep, feral growl that can rise to the occasion when the moment demands – and her unpredictability helps invest the taut arrangements of the Last Drinks, one of the most powerful bands in the country, with coiled-spring tension.

That tension and power is nowhere more evident than Good Citizens’ opening track, Human, I Am, which hurtles out of the gates at a speed the rest of the album doesn’t try to match and redoubles in force with each verse. “Sometimes it’s hard to be when everyone’s talking at you, about you,” Savage declares. “I am human / Not your human.”

There’s a huge amount of hurt shot through this record. Savage asks whether she’s being oversensitive in Pack Animals, right after telling us she’s done with trying to express herself in a way that won’t cause offence in Better Than That. It finds solace in love, and Savage shows her capacity for great vocal tenderness in February, the most moving song here.

But it also kicks back in fury. On the graceful, swaying title track, Savage takes aim at, perhaps, a Sydney tabloid newspaper, which after the marriage equality vote was carried pictured Al Bundy (the fictional male archetype of the American sitcom Married With Children) on its front page: “Ain’t it funny how they joke about their wives as if they hate them?” she sneers.

Savage has been moving towards this record for a while. Her last two albums, The Hypnotiser (2013) and One Of Us (2016), were both compelling, with soaring high points. Good Citizens is more evenly measured, her band even tighter, and it’s her best set of songs to date. You won’t hear much that’s better than this in 2018.

First published in The Guardian, 21 September 2018

Spencer P Jones: Hellraiser among Australian rock greats

Spencer P Jones wasn’t a household name of Australian rock music. But he worked with many who were (Tex Perkins, in their band the Beasts of Bourbon, as well as Paul Kelly and Renée Geyer) and was held in high esteem by many beyond these shores, notably Neil Young.

His work as a guitarist and songwriter also influenced many, including the Drones, who covered one of his songs and whose principal members, Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin, recorded an album with him under the name the Nothing Butts in 2012.

The news of his passing from liver cancer on Tuesday, aged 61, was no surprise. He’d been forced into retirement from the stage (a place you otherwise couldn’t keep him from) a few years ago, and was advised of his terminal condition in June.

His rare appearances had been limited to guest spots, one of his last being for the Beasts of Bourbon’s bass player Brian Hooper in April. Hooper came out of hospital to perform, took the stage in a wheelchair and wearing an oxygen mask, and died days later, aged 55.

If this paints a familiarly grim picture of the rock musician’s fate, it might be worth mentioning that Jones’s first album with the Johnnys, recorded in 1986, was called Highlights Of A Dangerous Life. The highlights from Spencer’s could easily fill a book.

But unlike most rock stars, Jones didn’t look away from the consequences of his choices. One of his later songs, sadly never released, was called The Monkey Has Gone. A sad lament punctuated by clashing guitar chords in the chorus, it was about cleaning up, and owning it:

The monkey has gone
Time to move along
Get on with my life
Say sorry to my wife
But that’s a different song
Thankfully, the monkey has gone

Born in Te Awamutu, New Zealand in 1956, Jones arrived in Sydney in 1976. In his first week there, he saw Broderick Smith’s country rock band the Dingoes, Radio Birdman at French’s Tavern in Darlinghurst and a much-bootlegged show by AC/DC at the Haymarket.

Those three gigs and their respective influences – country, punk and hard rock – all informed his later work. The Johnnys, Jones’s first band of note, were dubbed “cowpunk”, and they played the image to the hilt, wearing Stetsons, chaps and Cuban heels.

They also kept bar fridges on stage, painted as black as their amplifiers, which they’d open between each number to take beers from – a gimmick that helped prevent their riders from being pilfered.

The beer poured in rivers from the bar taps, too, but other stunts made them a publican’s nightmare. At the end of shows, the band would cut the twine holding the hay bales on stage, scattering straw throughout the venue. (This back in the days when everyone smoked at gigs.)

The Beasts of Bourbon, a supergroup featuring Perkins and the Scientists’ Kim Salmon, were an even more lethal proposition. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded in a single eight-hour session, fuelled by three cases of beer and, well, who knows what else.

By the band’s fourth album, The Low Road – led by a song called Chase The Dragon – the band’s hard edge and habits were becoming obvious. They were ferocious live, Jones lurking in the shadows, puffing smoke from under the hat that obscured his receding hairline.

As a guitar player, he was highly rated, coming in 17th in a poll of Australian musicians that was topped by Cold Chisel’s Ian Moss. His Stratocaster chugged and wailed, always a bit behind the beat, and he held the history of rock & roll in his right hand.

At that stage, Jones wasn’t a prolific writer. The two Johnnys albums were padded with covers, and he contributed a minority of songs to the Beasts of Bourbon. But the quality control was high, and after his first solo album, Rumour Of Death in 1994, he blossomed.

For much of the 1990s, Jones played in Paul Kelly’s band. Jones once told me that Kelly taught him that songs didn’t just fall out of the sky: “You’ve got to do the work,” he said. After leaving the band, Jones hit a purple patch, recording a string of terrific albums through the 2000s.

Looking through his body of work – with the Johnnys, Beasts of Bourbon, Hell to Pay (formed with another hellraiser, Ian Rilen) and his solo records, what stands out above all is the consistency. You’d be hard pressed to identify a bad song on any of them.

It’s easy to imagine Bleeding Heart, a single recorded with the Johnnys with a little help from Kelly, as being a big hit in the latter’s hands. In time, we may view Jones as a songwriter of Kelly’s equal, but Jones’s snarling delivery and reputation undoubtedly scared many off.

There’s another story to be told here, about the Australian music industry’s cowardice and ageism. Had Jones been based in Austin, Texas and started a little earlier, he might have been venerated and celebrated for both his songs and transgressions, in the way of other outlaw country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

But that’s a different song. Paraphrasing one of his best, The Day Marty Robbins Died, he’s with Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams now, in that Grand Ole Opry in the sky.

First published in The Guardian, 23 August 2018

Brisbane will go on without you, Bridie

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.