By Adam Gibson
Around seven Australian men commit suicide every day. Seven men. Per day. For god’s bloody sake, that’s ridiculous. Shocking. Donald Horne was being ironic when he said Australia was the “Lucky Country”, but that phrase has become common vernacular usage for what people do feel about the place. It’s a badge of honour, to be worn to express “How good have we got it?!” But seven men pulling the plug per day!? That’s nothing to spruik about. Someone ain’t sharing the luck. That’s shit.
And bloody hell, it’s not a contest and it isn’t anything to be proud of, but that’s more than three times the figure for women. What a disaster. What is going on? Every suicide is a tragedy, be it a man or a woman, but that disparity is just so vast and so heavy. Why isn’t this known more widely? Perhaps it is. I hadn’t been made well aware of it. All I know is that on this warm Monday afternoon in Spring in Sydney, it suddenly occurred to me that I personally know at least 10 to 20 men – friends or acquaintances – who have committed suicide. Extrapolate that out to all the people I know … and jeeezussss.
I have been through depression; I’ve given anxiety a solid nudge. I’ve seen the dark of the night and I have been on first name terms with the otherwise nameless shadow figures of 3am, those spirit souls wandering the night, throwing doubt and hopelessness around like flowers at a 70s hippie party in Nimbin, granting black blood blessings to your horrible individual self, a self that would give anything for sleep. Been there, got the damn prescription. But I have found ways to get through, put my head down and carry on.
So forgive me if I sound glib about this, but something needs to shift in Australia, something needs to be arked up and sparked up and revved up and any-other-verbs-you-can-think-of upped up… Jesus Christ. Seven men per day. Seven men who maybe followed footy teams, seven blokes who maybe had kids, wives, mums/dads, Labradors named Billy or Alsatians named Sasha, who played in bands, who owned Toyota Hiluxes with mag wheels and ARB canopies; fellas who were happy the North Queensland Cowboys made the NRL Grand Final (and pissed off Melbourne won) or that Richmond finally won the AFL; men who were stoked in the last Gang of Youths album, who loved Suzanne Vega or the new Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile record; guys who ran triathalons, who loved Game of Thrones and Q&A, who caught the bus to work playing Megadeth on their headphones so loud even the bus driver could hear … basically guys who were just like you, or not far off, or someone you know, or maybe who you used to know, back in the day.
I’m baffled, I’m struggling to get my head around this. But I do believe that I come from a position that I have seen the dark side and have worked things out which, to a degree, can make a difference. I also come from a solid family, live in a good area, have had a decent education (arguably) and am reasonably fit. “All good”, you might say. But such things don’t in themselves negate the blackness.
So yes, the first and basic idea is that, I believe, no matter how bad things are, they will always eventually pass or get better. And if they get bad again, they will again pass too. I don’t know. Try to damn well stick with it… I am no psychologist and I am no doctor. This is perhaps akin to the sort of homespun homily you find everywhere these days, shallow “inspirational” quotes attributed to people whom you don’t even know and who probably didn’t even say them in the first place.
But anyway …
Just try try try … try to move onward … give someone a call or email, give ME a call or email, go for a surf or a run, sign up to a bloody yoga class, get on Tinder and swipe right a zillion times till you get a match, do a knitting workshop, go to a decent GP (eg. Dr Simon Gerber, Bondi Junction), don’t outright reject anti-depressants or similar, think that through, do a meditation class (talk to Lis Cancio, Bondi), learn to box and hit the heavy bag (talk to Maydad at the Bondi Boxing Gym), go live in the hills in a shed at the back of Bangalow (LJ Hooker Bangalow, I guess??)…
Essentially, do SOMETHING to shift things; try, have a go, go and see a band, start a band, explore the Clash’s back catalogue, get on YouTube and search for Husker Du, listen to every song, buy every PJ Harvey album and learn every word, listen the spoken poetry of Kate Tempest or Sean M Whelan, read the novels of Peter Carey and the non-fiction of Helen Garner, order the novel ‘The North Water’ online (it’s bloody great), read about when Leonard Cohen met Marianne on Hydra, listen to all of Leonard’s works, go to a Boon Companions event, buy a Patrick Lee Fermor book, listen to a Mick Thomas album, learn to surf (talk to Let’s Go Surfing in Bondi and elsewhere), learn to play the trumpet (let the neighbours know first), do an acting course at the Actor’s Centre, my god … find a GOD, almost any one will do!
Deep breath… more … Find a sport and a team to support, join the SES and get a nice orange uniform, join the RFS and fight fires (say hi to Tony Abbott), go for a beer with a mate at Bat Country at The Spot in Randwick, join a writing workshop to purge yourself of those awful rough angles in your mind (call me, we’ll start one), buy a surfboard; a shortboard, a longboard, a fucken ironing board, anything will do, hang it on your wall if that’s all you wanna do with it.
Basically, my point is … just do something, anything to turn the days onward, to shift the dark feelings, cos they always do eventually shift.
Many years ago, old-time Aussie movie buff Bill Collins (“What do you have to do to be a ‘buff’?,” – George Costanza) showed the classic surf film ‘Big Wednesday’ on his Saturday Night at the Movies show. In the customary intermission, I remember clearly, he came on and just said, “Wow, I have never been a surfer and never will be … but I can see that it is something … that makes the bad days good and makes the good days better.” Nailed it Bill. It’s what everyone needs.
That is an absolutely shithouse statistic of seven men per day … it is affecting every one of us in Australia. I don’t really have the answers but a collective effort aimed directly at men encouraging such things as I mention, is, perhaps, somehow required.
Ok, I’m going for a surf now…
- All those specific names I have mentioned have been people, or places, which have helped me. They are just reference points to indicate that these aren’t abstract ideas I am simply tossing around.
It’s on again … + WE’RE on again! That sweet lil’ big festival, that old-school-wander-around-and-discover-unreal-bands event, that classic friendly, cruisy shindig of sun, music, grass and bands – Fairgrounds – is back on. And we’ve been invited to play again. We are stoked beyond measure having just found out the news.
If you haven’t been in previous years, make your debut this year. If you’ve been before, we’ll see you there. The usual spot. In the shearing shed, near the windmill. The Shins are playing! Gang Of Youths are playing! You Am I are playing! Saturday, December 9.
Stay tuned for some good news, coming in the next week or so.
I was in an opera with Dame Joan Sutherland. It was Lakmé, performed at the Sydney Opera House in the late 1970s, just before she was actually made a Dame. I didn’t sing a note. I stood onstage dressed as “Chinese Boy” whilst the great coloratura soprano took the lead role. I remember her head being a massive edifice of fixed-tight hairsprayed hair, seemingly as solid as hardened fibreglass. Her costume was equally elaborate; a massive bust embroidered, in both reality and in my memory, with intricate scrolls and patterns. Her image is fixed in my head as this gigantic perfumed operatic monster, a ship that seemed to move with the steady assuredness of the Queen Mary, with an equal sense of the wisdom of getting the hell out of her way if she was approaching.
I was eight years old. The Sydney Opera House stood as the pinnacle of Australian culture. Only having been open for a handful of years at that point, it was (and still is) the only real place in Australia that seemed to hold the true devastating mystery of the entertainment world. In his position as one of Australia’s most well known big bandleaders, my father Bobby Gibson had spoken of the Opera House in such a fashion and the awe and wonder of the place was transmitted down to my brother Simon and I. Those strangely long but small steps; that grand sweeping jut out into the harbour, those magnificent “sails” and the cold off-white tiles that seemed to hold something grand and historic in their smooth-to-touch feel. This was a place where Things Happened, where the Great Magic of Entertainment lay.
My brother and I hung around the Sydney eisteddfod scene in those days, venturing all over town as kids did their best performances in shopping centres and community halls from Bondi to Burwood and back again. As a talent agent, our mum was also involved in all sorts of television shows and TV commercials and stage shows and every year at the Sydney Easter Show at the Sydney Showground we based ourselves at Joy O’Neill’s Daffodil Theatre, just near the main arena, down a bit from the famous Tasmanian Hot Chip stand. Simon and I, and our friends, were often to be found on stage performing in some form, or else we were haunting the rest of the Showground with the Goodman girls, scamming free rides on the Cha-Cha or Wild Mouse or Ghost Train or Matterhorn by saying, “We’re Showies, can we have a ride?” So when it came to the casting of kids for Lakmé, we were at the front of queue. Not that there was really much of a queue. Things just happened then. Showbiz? Yeah, why not. A role in an opera with “La Stupenda“, aka the soon-to-be “Dame” Joan Sutherland? Yeah, why not?
And so I found myself being cast as “Chinese Boy” in Lakmé. This was the late 70s and whilst there were obviously real Chinese boys in Sydney at the time, it was absolutely not an issue for a completely Caucasian boy from Bondi to be cast in the role. No one seemed to think that there was any problem with that, not one iota. And thus so I further found myself, with my mum, dad and brother, deep in the bowels of the Opera House, sitting for an hour each time in the make-up chair pre-performance, the smell of the thick make-up and cold cream and cigarettes and heavy 1970s aromas emanating from devastatingly beautiful opera singers and other cast members. The women lithe in the flowing robes the “Oriental” theme of the opera demanded, with dark mascara and heavy eye-shadow across their faces; the men, huge handsome figures with booming voices and an air of ancient solemnity mixed with a pheromonic base note of all the sex I’m now sure they were all having.
Onstage, the lights shone brightly into my eyes, the huge audiences filling the Opera Theatre, the hustle-bustle backstage of the crew moving gigantic backdrop scene structures. And in the arc light of the drama, Joan stood like an immovable mountain; like dead-set Mount Everest, the sheer force of her voice eviscerating the dreams of any of the other singers who thought they may come close to her. I recall one of my tasks involved having to stand at the rear of the stage, near a pylon, stage left, and at a certain point having to move forward with some sort of item, which I cannot now specifically remember – perhaps a box with a trinket inside – and place the item on a table near Dame Joan. I did this on the instructed cue, and every night, the sheer terror of the moment nearly made me freeze but, every night, I managed to do it, walking forth into the direct, silent, gaze of La Stupenda, placing the item, then retreating slightly while she regarded me with a stare that contained all the great power of European operatic history and drama and death and struggle and the beauty of all humankind. And then she’d look away.
Backstage and down in and around the legendary performers’ “Green Room”, myself, Simon, and a bunch of other kids who were also in the cast ran absolutely amuck in the hushed and magnificent labyrinth of corridors and rooms and deep hidden places that lay beneath the bedrock of Bennelong Point. I recall the plush carpet, the low ceilings, the pale wooden doors with brushed metal handles, each with a code indicating some information about the room’s role, which we could never decode. We had complete free run of the place. During long afternoons between the matinee and the evening show, we would find our way into places that I am certain Jørn Utzon didn’t even know existed. We’d take that corridor this way, then this one that way, and find ourselves behind false backstage walls of the Concert Hall or the transport loading dock or the kitchen, ancient security men not bothering too much with security and cleaners finding a hidden room in which to have a ciggy and maybe a bit of a nap. Oh what a superb subterranean world, a great incredible mysterious place for a bunch of kids dressed in fancy dress and performing before or later onstage with one of the world’s greatest ever opera singers.
Life moves on, you travel overseas, you come home again, you fall in love with someone, then they fall in love with someone else. You get older and your memories bury themselves somewhere just below your breastbone or form as an ache in the hip that just won’t go away. You remember things just as quickly as you forget them before remembering them again, just in time before they’re gone forever …
And so, a little while ago my brother and I had the opportunity to go and see The Whitlams play a show in the Concert Hall in the Opera House, backed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I hadn’t been inside for years, even though I’d always looked at that superb building whenever remotely close to it. As my ferry rounded Bennelong Point from the east, I again looked up those truly magnificent sails and felt that same frisson of excitement I’d felt all those years ago when I gazed upon the building. I alighted my ferry and walked past the thronging crowds at the restaurants beneath the Toaster and made my way towards the venue. Every feeling again returned; I ascended those tricky low steps, felt my feet on the plush carpet and, as I approached the ticket counter to pick up my tickets, looked to my left and saw an unmarked door. It all came back to me. At eight years old, I knew that door well. It was one of the many that led into the mysteries within. I looked around and, despite the crowd, nobody noticed me as I walked towards it, just to see if it was unlocked. I placed my hand on that brushed metal handle, pushed down, and yes … the door creaked open. I could easily have slipped in, gone inside, gone underground. But I didn’t. I pulled it back closed again and continued upstairs to meet my brother, simply happy to realise that such doors to the past do sometimes remain open.
By Adam Gibson
Kenny was one of our crew. One of the fellas. One of us. A brown-skinned nugget of muscle and sinew, the fittest bloke you ever saw. He was part of a long lineage of Third Ramp blokes who hung at that particular spot on the Bondi promenade and surfed and played handball and made themselves a menace at a time when everyone at Bondi mostly grew up there and knew everyone else. My close old mate Platty introduced him to my brother and I and we became firm, close friends.
He had a surfing style that reflected his tightly-wound physique; little finesse but a mad muscular wave attack that at least in part corresponded to his often twitchy, tightly-wound (but always friendly and funny) on-land personality.
He favoured tight camouflage boardshorts, loved how Tommy Carroll surfed and had a turn of phrase that could eviscerate a try-hard or a blow-in in a single growled sentence.
In an era and at an age when hedonism was worn with a badge of honour, and the pub just as much as the surf was your proving ground, Kenny gave as good as anyone. A cutting sense of humour, a charmer of the opposite sex when he wanted to be, a great travel companion and an even better drinking buddy.
And I remember …
The morning after a long mad party at my mum’s place up in the valley, where various people lay in drunken repose at various locations, including the front garden, of the old semi …
I can picture Kenny right now twisting the top off a VB and joyously imbibing. No worries at all.
An early sign.
But these were the days. The long summer afternoons of the mid to late 80s and into the early 90s. An era of our respective lives when Bondi was still resolutely “local”, before all the old families had been pushed out and if you saw someone with a surfboard near the beach, you would almost certainly know them.
These were hot bitumen-under-feet days, Oakley sunglasses days. Entire weekends being spent with a revolving but tight gang, moving from the promenade to the sand to the surf to pub and back to someone’s rented house or dilapidated flat and cases of beer arriving somehow and the music being cranked up or the guitars being pulled out.
And the music. Oh the music. It was the Clash first. London had called to this faraway town called Bondi and we lived for them. The Clash ruled, they were our guiding light, to quote my brother. They gave us hope and gave us light and infused in us a sense of possibility and endlessness which many of us have only in recent years began to realise may not actually exist. We knew every word to every Clash song and barbeques on Kenny’s rooftop of the old Shangri-La block of flats, next door to the now-demolished (of course) Diggers Club, where he lived were long sessions of Clash dissemination.
But Midnight Oil too of course. ‘Run By Night’. A world captured in a song, an echo of long coast drives and and runnin’ and chasing waves and girls and all the possibilities of surf and music and early 20s and an era of Australia which also echoed with encouragement and possibility. We lived for “Powderworks”, we lived for Head Injuries and “Place” and “10 to 1”. We could see the outside world, everything was inviting in the outside world.
Kenny sung ‘Run By Night’ in my brother’s band The Few and once when they played at the Racecourse Hotel in Randwick, Kenny decided to bring along an orange boat flare from the marina he worked on, and we decided to set it off in the venue about the size of a postage stamp. People ended up running for their lives, their mouths pinned to cracks in metal-barred windows trying to catch a breath as the Fire Brigade and Police swarmed Alison Road, about to be asphyxiated themselves…
There was V Spy Vs Spy too of course. A key and integral band. I can see Kenny tugging on a ciggy and his mouth singing the words to ‘Clarity of Mind’ or ‘Don’t Tear it Down’ and more, many more. Big Audio Dynamite massive, life-changing, the first two albums cranked up as we dissected the lyrics and guitars for reassuring hints of the Clash in Mick Jones’ playing, lyrics and delivery. The Sunnyboys naturally too. The first album. The Buzzcocks also. The first album. More. Many more.
Oh how we gathered for songs and beer and pizza in the old beachside huts and ruled a Kingdom of Salt by the sea of our battered old coastal town, where no one wanted to live as the shit smell wafted down from the sewerage works with every nor’ easterly and the shit itself came in on the tide in every sou’ easterly.
Oh a Kingdom of Shit, but our kingdom, passed on from the generations above us, those who still lived in the brick veneer valley and cast their eyes on us younger generation, making sure we didn’t put beer glasses on the sides of the exquisite snooker tables in the strictly-ruled snooker room at the Diggers or ran too amuck in the Rasa Restaurant.
But these were the years when no one really cared what you did either. You could do whatever you wanted. You could work in bar or travel up the coast for years or go and live in G-Land for six months and come back full of stories and then head off again once you’d saved enough money on the “Government Surf Scheme”.
Kenny was here. Kenny was in his G-Land Surf Combat cut-off t-shirt. His cammo boardies, his Oakley sunnies, now having taken to bike riding with a vengeance. He would ride to Wollongong and back just for a morning ride, just for the hell of it. His physique as taut as a snare drum, he looked like a hard little walnut.
And the beers went down and the years began to pass, and he remained so fit looking. But we were young, we were doing our utmost to live every second for ourselves and if we saw the signs at all, we didn’t know what we needed to do with those signs.
Everyone was “on it”. In our crew it was never really drugs, more just booze. Surf trips and booze. Burleigh Heads and booze. Byron and beers. It was all ok, no one saw a problem.
But the drum began to seemingly wind tighter and tighter and whilst we’d kind of joke about it, something was happening within Ken. Most of us could leave the booze alone after a big weekend. But one night, a Tuesday, when I bumped into Kenny returning from the bottlo with a case of VB, a small alarm bell must’ve rung but I was too young and silly to hear it.
Something happened with the flat he owned at the Shangri-La … we don’t know, whatever it was is now lost in a salt mist. But then there was a flat up on Ramsgate or Brighton, and continual and growing stories of some argument with an upstairs neighbour about music being played too loud. Trouble was brewing. Someone visited Kenny and said his walls were all painted black and the place was a mess.
We didn’t know and if we did, we didn’t know what to do. Life just went on.
We grow up, we try our best, and as Bondi changed, many people began to move away. The sense of community that many of us once felt was fast disappearing and whilst some of us were able to withstand that, many others weren’t. Kenny was one of these people, I believe. The “trendies” were coming in and everything was suddenly different. It was no longer okay to play the Clash at full volume in your flat. It was all different, people had moved on. Girlfriends came and went for Kenny and something began to change.
A schism occurred and many of us seemed to lose track of different people. Some couldn’t seem to handle the change. They “moved inland, got a job, the whole damned thing”, to quote our favourite movie, ‘Big Wednesday’.
And it was somewhere here that we lost Ken. A phone call missed here, a catch-up not caught there. From being someone who was with us every Friday night, he drifted away.
I can’t say exactly when it happened, but it did. And we did try to reach out to him, to give him a call, to see if he was ok. But he pushed back, he swore at some of us when we rung his mum to see where he was. He didn’t want to know that we wanted to know about him. He didn’t want to know about Bondi anymore. The place was “rank” now, to use his expression. Too many yuppies, too much noise and crowds and tourists.
Who can say how all this really occurred. And if there is anything we could have done. I simply don’t know. I simply cannot say. We would’ve tried to understand if we’d had the actual ability to understand. But we didn’t, no one gave us a guide on this.
But I do know that for the past 15 or 20 years barely a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of Kenny and wondered how and where he was. In that time, I was always, for some reason, completely confident that he was alive, but that he just didn’t want to contact us. That was fine. That was ok.
We’d heard of the odd unconfirmed sighting here and there and we just assumed that he was getting on with his version of life and whilst it hurt us that we’d lost touch with him, we were at least content with the fact that he was doing what he wanted to do.
Which was, of course, drink. And drink some more.
When I heard today that Kenny died almost a year ago from booze-related stuff, mine and many others’ hearts broke.
A Bondi tragedy. The oldest story in the book.
If we could have done something, we would have done something. But now, of course, there is nothing we can do … other than go and put on “Stay Free” and think of that bloody good fella we knew, that fit little nugget snapping a quick cutback or riding along the prom on his racing bike.
In those Oakley sunnies.
Twenty years ago or more.
‘Cities of Spinifex’ will be released this week, Friday, April 7.