I was speaking to a mutual friend of Peter Lillies when the terrible news came that he'd died up in Sydney. Quite sudden news. My friend was wondering aloud how to have a wake of some sorts and being unsure how to get in touch with people, indeed, who to get in touch with.
Turns out he needn't have worried. Paul Madigan organized a wake at the St Kilda Bowling Club. I turned up at the designated time of 4:30 pm, maybe a bit later, and it was already pretty packed. They came from right out of the very woodwork of Melbourne. Johnny Topper was talking, and continued to talk for longer than I'd ever heard him talk. That strange, high, warbling tone of his. Very funny tales of working in the night rail yards along Flinders and Spencer Street with peter Lillie, lining up for the work like something out of "On The Waterfront". Also, stories of arts grants and spending them on old cars and guitars and starting a band playing at the Pram Factory and La Mama instead of in pubs. Anarchist bookshops and the like. This is early 70s Melbourne stuff. Jane Clifton was sitting near to the stage and Topper kept turning in her direction for corroboration of details. Paul Madigan was also on stage, drinking a pot and interjecting occasionally. The room was full of grey ghosts from that Carlton/Sunbury period. Some had had commercial success, or at the least, access to the public outside the bohemian village, like Greg McCainsh and Bob Starkie and Barry Dickins. Others were more from the world of poetry, theatre and inner city legendary rockabilly and western swing bands. There were also people from that late 70s Melbourne punk scene like Chris Walsh, Andrew Duffield, Ash Wednesday, Greg Ades, Lucky Last and Conway Savage and Amanda. Jim Shugg from the Feral Dinosaurs/People with Chairs up their noses. I had a chat with a bloke who used to do live sound and now runs a pub in Warburton. He was talking of the family who ran the Tote before it was the Tote. Paul, who ended up leaving the family and jumping over the bar to play guitar with the Johnnies, apparently named it. Said it should have something to do with the betting that used to go on there in John Wrens days. He asked if I was working much. "A lot", I said and added that it was hard work. He agreed that it was plain hard work getting people out of their teched up caves nowadays. This gathering was mostly talk of simpler times. People were never in for a while there. Maybe so far in they were out.
Mitchell Fairclough aka Slim Whittle gave a great talk and sang a song accompanying himself on a ukelele shaped like a Les Paul. The song was great. It had a line going something like " I sent a snail to his maker today- you can't always know what you're treadin' on". He had a face and tone of voice like many uncles of mine years ago in the country. They've all turned up their toes now, too. Tracey Harvey aka Tammy Whittle walked past. Johnny Von Goes sang a Lillie tune, Mark Ferrie spoke about going to see the Pelaco brothers at the Kingston Hotel in 1975 or 76. He said it was the coolest crowd he'd ever seen. Some of ' em would've been looking back at him now.
There was a man playing guitar who looked like that ghostly character from Twin Peaks. A passing friend told me he was the father of a kid he knew and he hadn’t seen him for 30 years. I sat with another friend who is not talking to Paul Madigan, who is ten feet away in front of him, playing the guitar.
Fred Negro sang a very respectful version of a Lillie song, as respectful as you can be holding a broomstick with a plastic horses head on one end and strumming it like a guitar.
People spoke of the person they knew. All being very close to him. All telling their truth. I met him much later on. I’d heard his name. He’d heard mine. We talked across a mess of reputations and bullshit. Ran into him in different places. Melbourne, in the city street the last time. Byron Bay in the mid nineties. Having sudden, spirited conversations about Ern Malley, Max Harris, Fender guitars and amplifiers, Don Dunstan’s vision of the satellite city MONARTO. He wrote songs about all that stuff.
Garry Adams read a wonderful telegram (how quaint) from Peter in heaven where he was in the band and saying that Hendrix was ok on guitar but “not really the sort of thing (I) was looking for…” Everybody laughed too easily. Must have been a raw truth there. My friend said it was great how short and succinct the musicians were when they spoke.
Then Topper was singing. Almost dancing. Never seen him put out so much in years!
I spoke to some of my friends, a decade younger than this lot. The older ones were living and eating healthier is all I can say. Must have gotten some good dietary habits when a brief window of common sense opened up there in bohemia.
Madigan sang "new road to Gundagai" and I shed a tear because that song always does that to me. Wistful tune of a delicate sensibility. Peter's and that whole scene of freaks. That crew saw and imagined everyday iconic lolly wrappings and ice cream brands as psychedelical shapes out of time. They celebrated dumb dead ends and non sequiturs. The new Road to Gundagai mentions staying a night in the TV Motel. The TV motel was in Gundagai and has been torn down now. It was shaped like a tv set! On legs which you parked underneath. Thing is gone and the sensibility and the reaction is gone too. All so delicate. Seemed so solid and powerful for a while.
Rick Dempster did a dance and twirl on his Cuban heel boots because Topper asked him to. A hat was passed around. There was an auction of some Fred Negro artwork. I left early, I guess, crossed the river and sat and watched the Hired Guns playing at the Standard. It was great to sit in a room and hear some music. Let the songs, old and new link up all those mismatched, half imagined and isolated scenes in your mind. In your life.