Tagged: Yothu Yindi

Michael Gudinski 1952-2021

For more than 45 years Michael Gudinski, who died on Monday aged 68, was a dominant, domineering, polarising but above all passionate figure in Australia’s cultural landscape. He lived and breathed Australian music.

Everyone who met Gudinski had a story to tell about him, not all of which are printable. What is indisputable is that life in Australia changed in a profound way when Mushroom Records – the label he co-founded in 1972 – released Skyhooks’ first album Living In The 70’s (complete with its errant apostrophe) a couple of years later.

Living In The 70’s topped the charts for four months, selling 240,000 copies. Beyond the sales, the album changed perceptions of what Australian music could be. Many of the lyrics (by bass player and songwriter Greg Macainsh) were hyperlocal to Gudinski’s beloved Melbourne.

In many ways, the album was a reflection of Gudinski himself: brash, hyperactive, coarse (more than half its tracks were banned from airplay), unapologetic and funny. It helped that it was released just as the music television show Countdown first appeared in Australian lounge rooms, with the support of Ian “Molly” Meldrum propelling Skyhooks to stardom.

Over the next decade, Mushroom released dozens of albums that presented their own interrogations of Australian life, from the Models’ Local &/Or General (1981) to the Triffids (Born Sandy Devotional, 1986), Hunters & Collectors (Human Frailty, 1986), the Go-Betweens’ 16 Lovers Lane and the Church’s Starfish (both 1988).

Gudinski also threw his weight behind transformative Indigenous artists Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi, whose careers have left an immense cultural legacy. And when Jimmy Barnes was struggling in the wake of Cold Chisel’s breakup, it was Gudinski to whom he turned for help launching his solo career. It turned him into Barnsey: an even bigger star.

Other Mushroom alumni included Renée Geyer, the Sports, Sunnyboys, New Zealand expatriates Split Enz and Scottish band Garbage. But Gudinski’s biggest success story by far was Kylie Minogue, whom he signed to Mushroom as a teenager. Minogue quickly outgrew her suburban soap origins to become a global dance music icon, selling more than 70m records worldwide.

Michael Solomon Gudinski was born in Melbourne on 22 August 1952, to Russian-Jewish migrants Kuba and Nina. He promoted events in Melbourne, staging the Sunbury festival in 1972, before launching Mushroom. In 1979 he launched the juggernaut touring agency Frontier, which Billboard ranked the third-largest promoter in the world in 2018.

In 1993 Gudinski sold 49 percent of the Mushroom Records label to News Ltd (now News Corp) and the remaining 51 percent stake in 1998, while keeping the Mushroom Group name. Subsidiaries of the group include the Harbour Agency and Liberation Music, which includes Dan Sultan and Julia Jacklin on its roster, and heritage label Bloodlines, which houses Barnes and Roach.

Gudinski was most commonly described as “larger than life” or a “force of nature”. The Hunters & Collectors’ singer Mark Seymour wrote in his memoir Thirteen Tonne Theory how Gudinski jumped all over his desk while browbeating the band for their signatures. “The guy was a nut,” Seymour wrote. But they ended up calling him “God”.

Many recalled his loyalty to artists. In his second book, Working Class Man, Barnes wrote that artists were “nurtured and given time to find their feet”. Few benefited from Gudinski’s patience more than Paul Kelly, who had two failed albums with his band the Dots before establishing himself in 1985 with his debut under his own name, Post, the first of a run of several classics for the label.

International artists also remembered Gudinski with fondness and good humour. In a statement released on Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen wrote: “Michael always spoke with a deep, rumbling voice, and the words would spill out so fast that half the time I needed an interpreter … He was loud, always in motion, intentionally (and unintentionally) hilarious, and deeply soulful.” Springsteen said he had never met a better promoter, describing Gudinski as “first, last and always a music man”.

In his later years Gudinski could still be spotted in Melbourne clubs catching shows, scouting for the next big thing. His final gig was Midnight Oil at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney last Friday, with Frontier staging the band’s Makarrata Live tour.

There was an irony in this. Gudinski and Midnight Oil, the most self-consciously Australian band of all, did not always got along so well: “We had our ups and downs back in the day,” the group acknowledged on Twitter. But, they said, his “passionate advocacy for Australian music was never in doubt”.

Gudinski is survived by his wife Sue, son Matt (executive director of Mushroom Group since 2013), his singer-songwriter daughter Kate, grandchildren Nina-Rose and Lulu, and about 200 Mushroom Group employees.

First published in the Guardian, 3 March 2021

Archie Roach critically ill during ARIA performance

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.”

First published in the Guardian, 12 February 2021

Words are easy, words are cheap

Down by the (supposedly) crocodile-free creek that runs alongside the town of Barunga, an Aboriginal community south-east of Katherine in the Top End, 24-year-old Yirrmal Marika – son of Witiyana, co-singer and clapsticks player for Yothu Yindi – is holding a large crowd in the palm of his hand as he furiously strums a familiar song solo on an acoustic guitar:

Words are easy, words are cheap

Much cheaper than our priceless land

But promises they disappear

Just like writing in the sand

His voice is high and wild, with a guttural edge, and he pushes himself to screaming point as he sings: “The planting of the Union Jack never changed our law at all!” before encouraging the crowd to chant the chorus with him.

“This is the place, Barunga, where they made a deal,” he tells me later. “Are we going to make a truth of it, or are we going to make a joke of it?”

Back in 1988, in the middle of the Bicentennial, former prime minister Bob Hawke visited Barunga for its annual festival. There, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Wenten Rubuntja presented him with a 1.2 square metre sheet of bark painted by nine Aboriginal men. On it was a statement of 327 words.

It demanded Aboriginal self-determination, a national system of land rights and compensation for loss of land, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination and the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

And it concluded with a call upon the Commonwealth parliament to negotiate a treaty recognising the prior ownership of First Nations people and their continued occupation and sovereignty of the land. Hawke affirmed the statement, promising a treaty between black and white Australians.

Hawke’s promise remained unfulfilled. His last act as Prime Minister on 20 December, 1991 – exactly one minute before Paul Keating was sworn in as his successor – was to hang the Barunga statement in Parliament House. Only a few months earlier, Yothu Yindi’s leader Mandawuy Yunupingu (Galarrwuy’s younger brother, who died in 2013) had reminded him of his promise with a song that became a global smash.

This year’s Barunga Festival was not like the last 29, though there was no shortage of “talking politicians”, as Yunupingu called them. On the festival’s first day, the Northern Territory government, led by chief minister Michael Gunner, signed an agreement with the Territory’s four Aboriginal land councils committing them to a three-year process to develop a treaty.

The push is gaining momentum at state level. On June 21, the Victorian government passed legislation intended to establish a framework for a treaty; the New South Wales Labor opposition has also committed to begin a similar process if it wins government. Negotiations in South Australia ceased with the election of Steven Marshall’s Liberal government in March.

Labor leader Bill Shorten is at Barunga, along with Western Australian Labor senator Pat Dodson – who helped craft the words that made up the statement – and Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. From the Coalition, minister for Indigenous affairs Nigel Scullion stands in for Malcolm Turnbull.

The first Barunga Festival was held in 1985. Normally a closed community owned by the Bagala people, Barunga opens itself up to the world on Queen’s Birthday weekend in an annual celebration, a rolling maul of music, sport (including a full Australian Rules carnival, played in baking daytime heat), traditional arts and cultural activities.

There are also cross-cultural collaborations, such as between R&B sextet B2M (Bathurst to Melville, a name honouring the band’s Tiwi Island heritage) and the Bunun Taiwanese children’s choir. The Bunun are an Indigenous Taiwanese people known for their polyphonic harmonies. The combination, presented on the final night’s concert, is heavenly.

This year, the political element is inescapable, with treaty talks hanging over all of it. But there’s also a theme: of growing confidence and pride, of which Marika is the most extroverted example. “You’ve just got to push yourself,” he says, a huge grin on his face. “If that’s your passion, you have to open your heart and let everyone in.”

Michael Hohnen, former manager and producer of Dr Gurrumul Yunupingu (who died in 2017) and creative director of Skinnyfish Music, says that the Warumpi Band’s singer George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga stressed to him the importance of this. “He used to say we need more people who are not scared to be really bold … [Marika] embodies so much of what is possible.”

Rrurrambu is gone too, having died in 2007. He was a charismatic performer, the polar opposite of Gurrumul, whose shyness was such that he quit Yothu Yindi for another group, the Saltwater Band, based on his island home of Galiwin’ku. Gurrumul’s original intention was to stay there, before becoming a worldwide sensation as a solo artist.

The festival presents an annual award in Rrurrambu’s name for the best community band. Last year it was won by Black Rock Band, from the community of Jabiru, further north in Kakadu National Park. Formed in 2015, they’re already playing the event for the third time, after shows in Sydney and Melbourne and an appearance at Tasmania’s MONA FOMA.

Ritchie Guymala, the band’s singer, has mild cerebral palsy, and the resulting contortion in his left arm only adds to his commanding on-stage presence. “It means a lot, playing at this one, and we feel really proud of ourselves, [although] we’re missing our families back home,” he says.

“A treaty, it’s got meaning, you know. That will make our people feel a bit more confident, and with the Uluru Statement from the Heart – if we have a voice in the parliament house – it will really make us feel like we’re part of something. And we are part of something, but I think our voices need to be heard, that will make our people feel strong and proud.”

Women, too, are stepping forward and pursuing the same theme. Ripple Effect are a seven-piece from Maningrida, a full 10-hour drive and a number of river crossings away, on the north coast of the Arafura Sea. They started in 2006 as a school band originally called the Frontstreet Girls, a cheeky play on the Backstreet Boys.

“We [wanted] to inspire women out there to feel confident and to love themselves,” says singer Marita Wilton. In 2006, the band won best high school band at the Garma Festival, ahead of another Maningrida group, Crazy Boys. “Race you, boys!” Wilton laughs, adding she’s not sure what became of them. “I don’t know; maybe they retired.”

But the band’s drummer, Tara Rostron, says bigger Maningrida groups like Sunrise Band and the Letter Stick Band also inspired them to start an all-female group. “It was really important for girls to see us on the stage and [playing] an instrument,” she says. The band has an EP coming out in July, recorded with celebrated electro-pop producer Paul Mac.

Jodie Kell, the band’s white guitarist, is from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and has made her involvement in the group part of her PhD project. She returned to Maningrida to rejoin Ripple Effect, which performs its songs in six languages: Burarra, Kune, Ndjébbana, Kunwinjku, Na-kara (which only around 20 people are known to speak fluently) and English.

Kell says many of the women face challenging social situations, and life is not easy, but that “the land is such an important part of their identity and their culture, and when they go out on country they come alive. They speak to the country, they have an incredibly deep knowledge of their culture, and all their Dreaming and Songlines are attached to country.”

In between the music, the politicians keep talking. Nigel Scullion won’t use the word treaty but tells the crowd: “Thirty years ago was really a moment in our history. And there’s been some commentary around what wasn’t achieved and what was achieved, but I can tell you, it wasn’t in vain completely.”

He quotes Turnbull, who says the festival commemorates “a striking moment in the life of our nation, affirming the dignity, strength and the resilience of Aboriginal people and their long and proud custodianship of this land.” He calls it an opportunity to reflect on how we can all advance greater enrichment and understanding between all Australians.

Shorten stops short of renewing a call for a treaty, but not by much. “I say to the people who fear the concepts of agreement-making, of an Indigenous voice [to parliament], of treaties, I say to those people: you have nothing to lose. You still will be able to play football on the MCG; your backyard Hills Hoist will not be part of any claim. The chickens will still lay eggs.”

But in the following speech, he is pulled up by John Christophersen, deputy chair of the Northern Land Council. “We’re not custodians, we’re not caretakers,” he says. “We weren’t looking after [the land] for somebody else to come and take away.

“We were the owners,” he says to applause. “And occupiers. And custodians. And caretakers.”

On the day the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the NT government and the four land councils, Galarrwuy Yunupingu provocatively said a treaty meant nothing to him. “And in actual fact, he’s right,” Christophersen says. “It doesn’t mean nothing, unless you dig into the word, what does a treaty mean?

“If it’s empty, then you’ve got nothing. If it’s got escape clauses where people can run away from it and neglect it and ignore it, then we have nothing.”

Words are easy; words are cheap.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 29 June 2018. I was a guest of Skinnyfish Music

A mic drop on the nation

Archie Roach is normally the gentlest of our Indigenous protest singers. He writes songs of great moral force and clarity but his voice, even after the ravages of age and illness, is quiet and hymnal, giving his work a bittersweet quality that allows him to connect easily with a broad audience.

The song that introduced him to most Australians, Took The Children Away, remains the one for which he is most famous. Its opening lines are:

This story’s right, this story’s true
I would not tell lies to you.”

The song was released in 1990, when few of us knew about the stolen generations of Aboriginal children. Its impact was profound, on both Indigenous people, who finally heard their intergenerational trauma being articulated with such grace on a national stage, and on white Australia. By itself, it may not have precipitated the royal commission that produced the Bringing Them Home report, or then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in February 2008. But its resonance was crucial. Like Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, released the following year, it did what great protest songs do: it started a conversation.

Uncle Archie is an elder now and, on AB Original’s album from last year, Reclaim Australia – which won two Arias on Tuesday night – he brought his considerable gravitas to the album’s opening monologue. It is arresting because Roach recognises that being quiet doesn’t always cut through: not now and not when he marched with his people for land rights in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, he boasts of bringing Melbourne to a standstill. “Because you had to be in their face,” he says. There’s a silence, then he repeats the words with greater emphasis: “You had to be in their face.”

AB Original’s song January 26, featuring Dan Sultan, has similar moral force to Took the Children Away but it is no hymn. Instead, Sultan’s soul vocal is offset by a caustic tirade from rappers Adam Briggs and his production partner, Trials (Daniel Rankine).

Hip-hop is the perfect modern vehicle for Aboriginal Australia’s tradition of oral history and, as Briggs pointed out to Guardian Australia yesterday, the only reason they could make this album now was because it still didn’t exist: “Australia didn’t have its Public Enemy … Australia didn’t get its NWA moment.”

The release of January 26 was that moment. The song is totally uncompromising in its directness – an Indigenous equivalent to Public Enemy’s anthem Fight The Power:

Fuck celebrating days made on misery
White Aus still got the black history
And that shirt’ll get you banned from the parliament
If you ain’t having the conversation, well then we’re starting it”

I’d call that more of a mic drop on the nation than the start of a conversation. You can try to argue with it if you want but good luck when Trials tells you that, to him, celebrating Australia Day on the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival is like pissing on his nan’s grave.

At any rate, when Triple J put the track on rotation last year, it connected, hitting #16 on the Hottest 100 – a music poll that is “traditionally” broadcast on 26 January.

It’s important to remember that it wasn’t always so. The original Hot 100 (a concept and name which had been used by Brisbane community radio station 4ZZZ since 1976) was first broadcast on Triple J on 5 March 1989 and didn’t settle on 26 January as the semi-official broadcast date until 1998 – only four years after the gazetting of that date as a national public holiday.

As former Triple J host Lindsay McDougall pointed out to Guardian Australia, “I’ve been coming to the Arias longer than the Hottest 100 has been on January 26.”

Triple J has been very careful with its language surrounding their decision to change the date of next year’s poll to 27 January. It acknowledges the national debate around changing the date of Australia Day itself, then says (quite reasonably, in my view) that the Hottest 100 shouldn’t be a part of that debate.

After putting it to an online survey, in which 60 percent of respondents opted to move the broadcast, it concluded simply that it should be held on a day “when everyone can celebrate together”.

It’s clear that Triple J is mindful of the difficult political climate in which it is operating and doesn’t want to be drawn into culture wars around the issue. But it needs to hold firm in ignoring the views of the communications minister, Mitch Fifield, who in one breath accused the ABC of responding to the controversy surrounding Australia Day and in the next said there was nothing controversial about Australia Day. We all know Canberra is a bit of a bubble but surely Fifield has bigger problems to attend to.

What can’t be denied though – even if Triple J wasn’t mentioning it – was the impact of AB Original’s song.

The debate around moving the date of the Hottest 100 was well under way by the time of January 26’s release but the station would have known that playlisting the track would be like lobbing a grenade into the discussion. “People always ask us whether we dropped it [January 26] on purpose because we felt it coming or something,” Trials said on Tuesday. “But these are all very old issues, it’s all old hat.”

Still, it’s impossible not to see the track as a crucial intervention. It certainly was a hit with announcers: last week at the J awards, Reclaim Australia was named the station’s album of the year.

More importantly, the song reached a huge proportion of the station’s young audience, giving them a history lesson they mostly won’t have been taught in schools, in a language that they understood and wouldn’t quickly forget. Other than to those who seek to rewrite white Australia’s black history, its story is right and true. And it’s in your face. Because it has to be.

First published in The Guardian, 29 November 2017

The power and the passion of Midnight Oil still burns

I’m at home and listening to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1; Midnight Oil’s apocalypse-themed fourth album. Fucking loud – there was never any other way to listen to them, really. I haven’t listened to the Oils for maybe 10 years, though, because I haven’t needed to. They’ve always been there. I’ve just caught myself singing quietly along to the opening track Outside World as I’m writing: every lyric is embedded in my skull.

Now it’s Only The Strong. “Speak to me, speak to me / I’m at the edge of myself / I’m dying to talk.” Midnight Oil were a deeply political band, but earlier in their career they could do post-punk existential angst with the best of them. They were everything you remember them to be, but also more than maybe you’ve forgotten, or perhaps ever realised.

To call Midnight Oil a pub rock band is, as Nick Kent once famously observed of Televisionakin to calling Dostoevsky a short-story writer. They merely played in pubs before graduating to arenas and stadiums. Their closest peers were the Clash, Gang of Four, and early Elvis Costello; the Who their direct forebears. And they were genuine radicals. Time and again, they put their money where their mouth was, in benefits and donations, to the many causes they championed.

The music on 10, 9, 8 was immensely powerful, attacking, and as complex as it was memorable. Being complex and memorable at the same time is a damn near impossible thing to do in popular music. Get the balance wrong and you end up in the pretentious mire of ’70s progressive rock. But Midnight Oil had a different ethos, emerging from the northern beaches of Sydney as a high-energy surf-punk band.

They changed my life irrevocably. I was a skinny kid growing up in Melbourne’s outskirts in the early ’80s. The Cold War was in full swing: “In the shadow of ban the bomb we live,” Peter Garrett sang, on US ForcesAnd we did. It’s easy to forget we still do. Midnight Oil were a political awakening, as well as a musical one. Countdown was Duran Duran and Madonna at that time. Midnight Oil never played Countdown.

The news that they’re reforming next year makes me both happy and apprehensive. Will I see them? I’m not sure: I’ve done that maybe 30 times already, and I saw them at their thrilling peak. A show at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 1987, on their Diesel And Dust tour, still looms large in my catalogue of greatest-ever gig memories. Midnight Oil were a force of nature live, even more so in their early years.

10, 9, 8 has finished – in a locked-groove scream, for you vinyl junkies – so I’ve put on Diesel And Dust. Forget about Peter Garrett’s political career for a moment; focus on the music. On that album, the Oils stripped their sound back. They became kinder and gentler, but the lyrics on Beds Are Burning were as bald as Garrett’s head: “The time has come to say fair’s fair / To pay the rent, now / To pay our share.”

Truthfully, angst-ridden teen that I was, I missed some of their earlier brushes with alienation and ambiguity. But the late ’80s was not a time for subtlety or navel-gazing; if you wanted to make a point, you needed to get straight to it. And in Garrett – who at his full six feet, six inches was one of a handful of seriously tall men in rock & roll – the Oils had a messianic spokesperson, with a unique dance step to boot.

Many, including friends who introduced me to the band, have never forgiven Garrett for his move into politics. I deeply admired it. Say what you will, but the man is no fool: do you think he answered the call not knowing that every lyric he ever sung would be hurled back at him, both in newspaper headlines and across the chamber? That he would be a party to decisions he deplored, because he was bound by party rules?

Garrett may have been a more effective advocate than a politician, but as he once sang (on Arctic World), “Don’t wanna be an advocate / Don’t wanna be a monument”. He became an insider because changes get made on the inside, by increments, more often than they’re forced from outside by revolutionary means.

That’s a brave and, dare one say, mature call to make when you’ve just entered your 50s, as Garrett had when he joined the ALP, 20 years after coming within a dodgy preference deal of being a senator for the single-issue Nuclear Disarmament Party.

He didn’t write most of the music, anyway. Rob Hirst, the drummer, and Jim Moginie, the band’s guitarist, keyboard player and resident evil genius, did almost all of that. Garrett mostly added finishing lyrical touches (as he also did on Yothu Yindi’s Treaty: “This land was never bought and sold”). The singer’s profile has obscured Hirst and Moginie’s status among this country’s finest ever songwriting teams.

Could Garrett sing? Not really. Did it matter? Not at all. It’s called a character vocal, where technique is less important than how it speaks to both the music and the audience. Gauging their influence on contemporary Australian bands, Eddy Current Suppression Ring remind me inescapably of early Midnight Oil, not least for singer Brendan Huntley’s irresistible charisma, combined with his endearing inability to carry a tune.

If there’s anything I’m nervous about, it’s the prospect of a Garrett solo album. He’s not a man given to public introspection (he dedicates two pages in his 443-page memoir Big Blue Sky to his bearing witness to his mother’s tragic death in a house fire), and some introspection is crucial to the writer’s craft. But the rest of the band have pursued their own creative paths post-Oils, and Garrett is every bit as entitled to his.

Diesel And Dust is finishing as I write this, and the last lines are ringing out. “Sometimes you’re beaten to the core, sometimes / Sometimes you’re taken to the wall / But you don’t give in.” I might not need to listen to it for another 10 years: the music we grew up on is always with us. Sometimes when we need it the most.

First published in The Guardian, 6 May 2016

The hitch-hiker: Andrew McMillan, 1957-2012

I first met Andrew McMillan in July of 1999. The place was Gove Airport, which services the north-east Arnhem Land mining town of Nhulunbuy. Andrew was acting as a media liaison officer for the inaugural Garma Festival, an annual cultural exchange program between the local Yolngu people and Balanda (whites) established by the Yothu Yindi Foundation. I was working on a story for the Australian edition of Rolling Stone. I spent nearly a week in Andrew’s company and only caught up with him on one other occasion, but he certainly left a mark on me.

I was already familiar with his work. When I was a teenager, growing up in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne before my family relocated to Brisbane, Midnight Oil was the band that changed my life. They were a rock & roll awakening, and a political one, too. McMillan’s book, Strict Rules, was a document of the Oils’ tour through the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, an experience that led to the ground-breaking Diesel And Dust album in 1987.

Before that, Andrew had begun his writing career in Brisbane in the late ’70s. He’d been turned on by punk and had started Australia’s first fanzine (the horribly named Suicide Alley, quickly re-christened Pulp) with Clinton Walker. But his trip into the Dead Heart of the country changed his life, and he became one of the keenest and most honest observers of the tortured relationship between this country’s original inhabitants and their colonisers. In Strict Rules, he refers to himself as “the hitch-hiker”, marking himself as an interloper in a country that’s not his own. Yet he also had an affinity with the landscape that shone through in his frequently luminous prose:

“Out in the deserts of Central Australia, the razorback ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges split the plains like a wedge, splintering the earth with shards of granite and sedimentary deposits. A glowing, primeval spine from the air, they crease the desert like the ceremonial scars on an old man’s chest.

For thousands of years the region was the domain of tribes like the Eastern and Western Aranda, nomadic hunters and gatherers whose relationship with the land was so deeply spiritual that to harm the country of their ancestors would have resulted in unspeakable retribution.

In person (and I stress that I did not know him well), he seemed quiet, a listener. He was a slight, Livingstone-esque character with a mop of curly hair under a pith helmet and a severely cleft palate which left him with a slight lisp. Whether out of shyness, reserve or unusually good manners, he spoke quietly, and seemingly only when he had something genuinely useful to say; a quality to aspire to.

At the airport, I noted a bunch of Yolngu kids kicking around a football. Australian Rules is close to a Territory religion. Andrew noted my interest.

“Who do you barrack for?” he asked slyly. Among AFL fans, it’s a potentially incriminating question.

“Collingwood,” I replied. It’s the most incriminating of answers.

He regarded me sidelong, nodding. There was a pause. “We’ll be mates,” he said, unsmiling, but with a warm twinkle in his eyes. Remembering it is something that makes me wish I’d done better at keeping in touch with him.

But Andrew could be irascible. He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly. And he liked a drink: on the last night at the bone-dry Garma festival, I found him swigging from a flask in his swag, earning him a rebuke from a Yothu Yindi backing singer. Of course, he was hardly Robinson Crusoe that evening. A couple of years later, I cold-called him at his home in Darwin in the hope of interviewing him about Brisbane for my first book, Pig City. I should have found another means of getting in touch first, for I fear I caught him on a bad night.

Many years later we reconnected, as he swung through Brisbane for a writer’s festival, plugging his Intruder’s Guide To East Arnhem Land, for which he’d won the inaugural NT Chief Minister’s Book of the Year award. I don’t think he’d been back here for a long time. He autographed a reprinted version of Strict Rules for me to replace my long lost original, and I had the pleasure of doing the same for him with a copy of Pig City. I never did find out what he thought, or even if he got around to reading it, but it doesn’t matter. It was a pleasure to meet and speak to him again.

I didn’t know he was sick until just before Christmas, when another Brisbane writer called Andrew McMillen came calling to borrow Strict Rules ahead of a planned trip to Darwin. The prospect of interviewing his near-namesake was too tantalising to resist, and apparently Andrew was intrigued too, as he’d been getting confusing calls and emails for a couple of years from people inquiring about new pieces they’d read which he hadn’t actually written.

Unfortunately, the two Andrews with only a vowel between them didn’t quite get to make the connection. Andrew McMillan died in a Darwin hospital on Saturday night, the result of a battle with bowel and liver cancer. He was 54. A bit over a year earlier, he’d attended a living wake in his own honour; he did well to make another 14 months, and he was apparently working up to the end.

To me, he’s a great example of how the briefest of encounters with individuals can leave lasting impressions on us. Andrew took the traditions of New Journalism and put a dry, dusty and uniquely Australian twist on it that I doubt anyone has matched before or since. I don’t think my friend Andrew McMillen will mind my saying, with affection to both, that there was only one Andrew McMillan.