Monday, April 22, 2013
In memory of Chrissy Amphlett...
For a long time there, whenever your name came up in conversation, people would say "Is it true she pissed on stage once?"
This would infuriate me.
I understand every great rock star must have a surrounding mythology. But it seems unfair that Bob Dylan gets to be the eternal rambler and Jimmy Page the dark master of witchcraft while you got to be the woman who peed in public.
But that apocryphal widdle is unimportant, always was. It's an annoying example of how our brains remember the sensational. It's not their fault, it's in the wiring.
When people would say that (and thankfully I think that era passed long ago), I would answer in different ways:
"Is it true she pissed on stage once?"
What's true is that she fronted a hard rock band in the early 80s when it was almost unheard of for a woman to do so. They did rough-as-guts pub gigs in venues bikies were afraid of making a scene in. And she owned those rooms.
"Is it true she pissed on stage once?"
I don't know but she is one of the greatest singers to front a band in history. Bon Scott, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chrissie Amphlett. She's right there on the list.
"Is it true she pissed on stage once?"
Shut up. Her voice is incredible. Theatrical but not melodramatic, a perfect mix of chaos and control. She is one of the greats. Don't you get it? It's irrelevant. STOP IT!!!
I first heard your voice when I was about eight. My family was living in the residency of a tiny country school at a place called "Clintonvale." There were 19 students in total, and one teacher who was my Dad.
It was a sheltered Catholic community. When my classmate Danny Ramsey brought a Gene Simmons KISS mask to school, a group of the school's leading personalities announced it was the work of the devil and buried it under the library.
I remember being home one lunchtime and Dad blasting "Boys In Town" on the stereo. He was pacing up and down and rhapsodising about the simple, punchy lyrics of "Boys In Town." About how a stream of mostly one syllable words perfectly tell the singer's story: "Get this bus in top gear / get me out of here…"
To me a perfect song is one where the singer's persona and the lyrics of a create and strengthen each other. "Boys In Town" and all of the other songs on the "Monkey Grip" EP are brilliant examples of this. After listening to the album you come away with a sense of a person who is using a tough exterior to cover an incredible vulnerability. Someone who is at once innocent and world weary. Fearless and damaged.
The world that these lyrics spoke of was one of inner-city excess and desperation. Of drugs and sex and heartbreak. All adult stuff, all fascinating and mysterious and a universe away from Clintonvale.
I loved the Monkey Grip record, and above all the others I loved the song "Elsie". It is a hypnotic portrait of a desperate woman living in a seedy flat in Melbourne. Obviously you know this, having written it...
"She just sleeps all day in her squalid little slum
and takes little white pills to make her body feel all numb
and it's dark and dirty and there's nothing left to eat
And in her heart there's a feeling of defeat
Smells of bugs and fornication
And a bottle of cheap scent"
In the nightmarish reprise, you scream over and over, "Open the door, Wally! Open the fucking door!" I had no idea who Wally was or why he was opening the door but it scared the living shit out of me.
A few years later we moved to the regional town of Toowoomba. Puberty hit me and turned everything upside down. I was being crushed by an ocean of horniness. I forgot about your music for a while. Iron Maiden seemed to voice more accurately my concerns - things like the ancient Egyptians, samurais and the problems facing a WWII flying ace.
Then one day I was home sick from school and saw that the movie of Monkey Grip was on TV. I hadn't realised your Monkey Grip EP was a soundtrack of a movie that was an adaptation of a book. Imagine my surprise when I saw Noni Hazelhurst off Play School was playing the lead role. Imagine my surprise when Noni took all her clothes off. I vigorously and repeatedly reevaluated my ideas about Noni and then, afterwards, renewed my acquaintance with the appropriately titled Monkey Grip album.
Late one night on Rage the "Boys In Town" music video came on. You were everything a fourteen year old boy dreamed of. You posed and pouted and jeered and played with your skirt.
Around the time I was sixteen you released the single "I Touch Myself." It wasn't as hard edged as your previous material, and so I didn't like it as much, despite being able to relate to the lyrics.
One night I was reading George Orwell's 1984 and found the line "bugs and fornication" in it. It's a memorable pairing of words and I recognised it instantly as being out of the song "Elsie." I suddenly had this weird feeling of seeing one of your songs before it was written.
Fast forward twelve years or so and I had become a musician, dropped out of Uni, played in pubs and lived a lot closer to the urban squalor the Monkey Grip soundtrack paints. Through the whole time I remained a fan.
I had been seeing a girl for a couple of years, Kate, and was shocked to learn that she would be performing with you in a show called Women In Voice.
As soon as I found out you were on the bill I began to fret because I knew the day was coming when I would have to meet you. I was terrified. I began to plot ways to avoid it happening, I knew nothing good could come if it, and I would just clam up and embarrass myself and stain my whole concept of Divinyls and ruin the chance of ever enjoying your music again for the rest of my life unless it was in some masochistic way.
Anyway, one night, Kate rang me. She sounded very drunk and needed a lift home from an impromptu Women In Voice cast party. I agreed on the condition that I didn't have to come inside, as I was not yet mentally prepared to meet you.
After sitting out the front of the party with my car engine running for twenty minutes, ringing Kate over and over I realised I was going to have to go in and get her.
Inside, the members of the cast were taking turns singing unaccompanied songs to each other. The show's Director was singing a broadway tune and doing high kicks while everyone clapped along. Someone handed me a joint and without thinking I frantically smoked half of it in long, deep inhalations.
As soon as I passed the joint on, I realised I had made a terrible mistake.
A familiar panic rose in me. Everyone appeared strangely caricatured, the broadway song suddenly sinister. Fight or flight kicked in. I had to leave.
And then I looked up and you were walking towards me. You glowed. I thought meeting famous people was supposed to be surprising for how human they looked in real life. You didn't look human. Your fierce eyes. Your flaming red hair. You looked like a god.
Kate said, "This is Keir, my boyfriend. He has thousands of questions to ask you."
My mind screamed, "Not now! Not now! I am not ready!"
"Well how about you start with one," you said. You waited.
My mind went blank.
"Um. Well, now that you're actually here I can't actually think of anything." I said.
You rolled your eyes and turned to leave. Kate, seeing my big chance to meet one of my heroes was about to be lost, said the first thing that popped into her mind. She said, "Is it true you that you did a shit on stage once?"
Instead of answering Kate, you spun on your heel and fixed me with a ten thousand watt stare. "Is that all you care about?"
You walked away.
I stood there, my mind racing, trying to think of something to salvage the moment in some small way.
"Were you reading 1984 when you wrote the song 'Elsie'?"
"Um, I just, I was reading George Orwell, 1984 and I ah..-noticed the phrase "bugs and fornication" in it I was wondering if it was, er if you…"
I realised I was accusing you of plagiarism, "Er sorry, sorry."
But when you turned around, your expression had softened. "That song must mean a great deal to you."
What followed was like a bizarre dream, you told me all about recording the Monkey Grip record, and Divinyls early career. When it was your turn to sing a song to the room, you chose to sing "Elsie."
You were so generous of spirit. And yes, you seemed vulnerable under a tough exterior.
Today I heard that you died, and like thousands of people around the world I am thinking about you.
I feel sad, and look to the cliches for comfort. One cliche is that you'll live on in your recordings, through all the people who listen to them. I find I believe that.
Woven through all the music that has been playing behind my life so far on car stereos, at parties, in bedrooms, smoky lounge rooms, in hateful bars and clubs and battles of the bands, by choice or just randomly, woven through all of that is your voice. Thank you.