Ageing Skydaddies farewell Shirl

Ross Hannaford’s trademark rota-blade hat was a tad unfortunate, all things considered. And then there was the man in the audience who, when asked from the stage what he did, said quietly: “I fix helicopters”.

But it was the night after the death of rock larrikin Shirley Strachan in a helicopter crash, and nothing could spoil the way that his mates in the Old Skydaddies were belting out his songs to an audience that had grown up with Shirl.

“Tonight we’re living in the 70s” roared Frankie J.Holden and they roared back.

They were 20 years older than they had been in the 70s and often kilos heavier; they sat with middle-aged sobriety in padded chairs. But the man with white hair and bushy eyebrows carrying a jug of beer across the room could still sing all the words to You Just Like Me Cos I’m Good in Bed.

Many had phoned the Windy Hill Social Club to check that the show was still on – two of the band were part of the old Skyhooks – but Frankie J.Holden said that it was showbiz tradition, and that Shirl would have told them to go for it.

He always went for it himself, said guitarist Bob Starkie and drummer Imants (Freddy) Strauks, original Skyhooks. Strauks said: “He threw himself into life, no holds barred; he was full on, every ounce of him.” Said Starkie: “No way he would have died on a golf course of a heart attack.”
Strauks, who had played with Strachan in an earlier band, Frame, remembers a young guy so shy that he sang whole brackets facing the drummer because he couldn’t dare to face the audience.

“I used to say `turn around mate the audience is that way’. He was a shy, private, gentle sort of guy.”
He grew out of it. “He was the glue between Skyhooks and the audience,” said Starkie. “He could go out and, whether it was a party or a stadium, he had the audience in 30seconds. Skyhooks was OK on record, but live was where we really built a huge following and Shirl was key to that. He had take-no-prisoners sort of honesty that was key to the success of the music.

“The whole Skyhooks thing – there was a chemistry between the five of us and we have altered that chemistry on occasion and it was never the same … we were like brothers and it’s a big loss.”

Looking back, Strauks is struck by the near misses Shirl had: the time his skateboard went under a bus and him almost with it, the times he broke a wrist and arm. Strauks said Strachan died peaceful. He had refused a $1million offer to reform the band because he was content with life.

The audience of forty-somethings was full of people who spent their youth with Strachan. Darrell Lake (Swampie), a motor mechanic, reckons “he’s a deadset legend; just the larrikin in him and the villain in him … I was basically in tears to be honest with you”.

Holden is not quite Shirl without the curls but Balwyn Callin’ almost sounded like the real thing. Then you remember: you’ll never hear the real thing live again.


RED SYMONS: Skyhooks guitarist and friend

`In these situations you have to ask yourself whether you actually had closure with the person, whether the situation was resolved, whether there were things left unsaid. And I’m happy to say that with Shirley I have many times in the last 10 years said `I love you’ and I don’t have to do it now.’

MICHAEL GUDINSKI: Friend and head of Frontier Touring company

`There was a Skyhooks before Shirley, and there was a Skyhooks after Shirley, but there really was only one Skyhooks and that was the Skyhooks he was the leader of and Mushroom Records muchly wouldn’t be here without them. I’m shattered and shocked and sad. I’m quite emotional, because it was more than business.’
IAN “MOLLY” MELDRUM: Countdown presenter

`Being a performer was secondary to Shirl. He had far more important things in his life than just being the lead singer of Skyhooks (and those were) just being a bloke basically, being a carpenter, being the surfie, being what he wanted to.’

BILLY THORPE: Rock legend

`It’s a terrible shock, tragedy. He was a lovely bloke. There are only so many beacons in the entertainment business in this country, and he was one of them. That song Living in the ’70s said it all for them really, and Skyhooks kind of defined that type of pop music in that decade.’

JOHNNY YOUNG: Founder of Young Talent Time

`Very sad and tragic and a dreadful loss. I was always a big fan. He was a friend of everybody’s in our business. We were all sort of brothers-in-arm, so it is like losing one of our family. He left his mark with his music and what he did on television and it is very sad for Sue and all of his family. It is a big loss to the industry.’

DARYL BRAITHWAITE: Sherbert lead singer

`It is a sad loss, incredibly sad. I was just starting to get to know him, and it might sound strange that it took 25 years, but now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t know him better. Skyhooks were like the Rolling Stones of Australia. He’ll be sadly missed.’

First published in The Age.

The original popstar: Judith Durham

Long before Kylie, there was Judith Durham. Karen Kissane talks to the woman
who sang those Seekers songs …

Judith Durham doesn’t swing down the street so fancy free these days. She limps, just a little, the stiffness at her hip belying her youthful figure. She has the husky voice and throaty cough of a lifelong smoker even though she’s not one; it’s due to a chronic lung condition. And she has a face that matches her years; genuine, but thinner and more worn than that of the girl whose voice first put Australian pop music on the world map.

Then, just as you resign yourself to the looming reality check, Durham smiles. The world’s largest dimples traverse both cheeks. She beams irresistible cheerful rays of openness and warmth. Hey there, Georgie girl.

Durham is about to do a national tour to celebrate her 40th year in show business. It’s billed as a series of solo concerts but the three men who made up the Seekers with her – Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger – feature as guests. This is how Durham has resolved the long-running tensions between her ambition for a solo identity and the need to keep happy both her nostalgic fans and “the boys”, who were such a big part of the sound that produced her greatest commercial successes.

She has come to terms with the fact that any major concert must feature Seekers songs, those sweet evocations of an age in which optimism got more air time. When she left the group in the ’60s, she says, she had no idea of the staying power of their hits. “I knew that they were nice songs, but I thought there were plenty of nice songs around. I didn’t understand how few songs last for 30 years.

“How many fans follow an artist and play their music on a daily basis to their children, to their grandchildren for the next 25 years? How many artists have fans who want to come to their 10th anniversary concert or their 20th?”

It’s not just daggy parents who still rock their babies to sleep with the Seekers’ mellow classics. Durham tells of composing with Paul Kelly several years ago. He took her into his children’s bedroom at tuck-in time and had them sing her Morningtown Ride. “Paul was brought up on Seekers music himself, so even though he’s now moved on and is creating his own music, it’s still a love that he wanted to pass on.”

Durham began life in Essendon, Melbourne, as Judith Mavis Cock (a widening exposure to the vernacular when she started singing with jazz musicians alerted her that her mother’s maiden name might look better in lights). She was the product of sensible stock (her parents insisted she do secretarial studies in case the night job never took off) and middle-class schooling (Ruyton Girls School in Kew).

By her own account, she was earnest and innocent. Her biography tells us that the first boy with whom she played postman’s knock complained that kissing her was like kissing his sister. At 16, she wanted to exchange her birthday present of mascara for sheet music.

In her 20s, she had a smash tour of England with the Seekers and in 1965 knocked the Rolling Stones from No.1 with what became her signature ballad, The Carnival is Over. Others might have celebrated such youthful success with youthful excess. Australia’s sweetheart continued to cut her own fringe and make her own frocks, travelling with her sewing machine on tour.

Durham is still unabashedly earnest about the need for musical goodness and niceness. She says her world view was shaped by the sheet music lyrics she used to sing growing up. “A lot of my philosophies came from sheet music. Some Day My Prince Will Come, or Blue Skies Smiling at Me – they were very uplifting, wholesome lyrics, and I really believed those words when I sang them.”

She believes each generation’s outlook is shaped by its music and says she wanted the earlier Seekers’ reunion partly because “music out there was becoming quite negative and there weren’t those positive influences for young people. It’s important to do good in the world and I saw that as a way of doing it.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Durham believes “for sure in my heart” in the law of karma (she has followed the teachings of an Indian guru for many years and is a strict vegan). She says her belief that all positive and negative events are the result of her own good or bad actions earlier in life, or in a previous life, has helped her accept misfortunes. There have been quite a few of those.

In 1974 she lost all the money she took with her when the Seekers folded (about $80,000) in the financial collapse of a Swiss bank. In 1990 a car smash in country Victoria left her seriously injured and facing months of rehabilitation. In 1994 she lost her husband and musical colleague of 25 years, pianist Ron Edgeworth, to motor neurone disease.

Four years later she took much-publicised legal action to end stalking and harassment by the former president of her fan club. And last year she was forced to sing from a wheelchair at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics – not the big gig forecast in John Clarke’s satire on the Games, but an international spotlight nonetheless – because she had broken her hip in a
fall at home.

“I used to worry a lot and regret a lot before I took on this whole concept of karma,” she says. “But now [I understand] that destiny is what it’s all about. I still push ahead and look forward to achieving certain goals but I try not to lay up expectations that they have to happen.”

In interviews, she focuses on the positives. The hand injured in the car accident recovered enough mobility to play her beloved piano again; for most of her adult life she had that rare phenomenon, a happy show-business marriage.

And, while she has not had big commercial success in her solo career, she feels she would not have developed personally or professionally if she had not gone out on her own. “It wasn’t conceivable to keep the group going and still be able to develop as a human being and find out what it was life had in store,” she says.

Many fans have never forgiven her decision. But what they did not know at the time was the depth of her private misery. In England, she developed uncontrollable crying jags and became so depressed that she was hospitalised for several weeks. “I was very troubled,” she says of that time. “When I left the Seekers it was because I was unhappy. I wouldn’t have left if I’d been happy.”

It is almost a celebrity cliche now, but Durham might have been the first to develop “Diana syndrome”: anxiety and depression about weight and appearance as a result of being thrust into the public spotlight. She hated her face – too pudgy, eyes too small – and her well-fleshed body, which one British newspaper said made her look “more like Queen’s Pudding than Kings Road”. The arrival of Twiggy cemented the obsession.

“I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody about it,” Durham says now. “I was just consumed by it. You could go to a doctor then and ask for diet pills, but I don’t know if there was anybody I could have talked to who could have changed inside my head, who could have convinced me, ‘It’s all right to look like this’.”

Even after she lost 16 kilograms her self-esteem was so low that she still felt fat. “I remember being on a set of scales and reading the scales as a stone heavier than they actually were. It happens with plastic surgery when people change their nose and still see the old nose.”

Then there were the tensions in her working life. Reading between the lines of her biography, Colours of My Life, it seems that at times the male Seekers found Durham a tiresome princess (she admits to being bossy and perfectionist, but puts it down to professionalism), while she sometimes chafed against what she felt was their dominance and cliquey-ness (they had played together for some time before they invited Durham on board).

“It is true that back in the ’60s I was quite frustrated that I never got a chance to speak or be interviewed,” she says. “I think one element is strength in numbers with them. I mean, men like to stick together a bit, and back then I didn’t understand the male-female thing at all. I thought that if I didn’t get my point of view across to them that that was a failing in me rather than something that could have happened to many women at that time.

“I’m fascinated by that now. I often, if I’m in a confrontation, try and think, ‘Now hang on a minute, is this simply because I’m a woman trying to say this? Would it be an acceptable thing if I was a guy?’”

The final line of the gender divide was drawn when Durham discovered from an outsider that the man she had been seeing had been having relationships with other women behind her back – and that her colleagues had known.

“It certainly made me realise this was more of a professional situation; it put things on a different level,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that it happened. I’ve always questioned that situation ever since in the sense that you often hear people discussing ‘Would you tell your best friend?’ Do you do that? It’s a big question mark. In my mind, I believed that there had been a disloyalty there. It was a real shock.”

She had already made her decision to leave, though, and it is possible the Seekers had already passed their commercial prime. Their star waned after they stopped working with songwriter Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty).

Singing together now “feels like I’ve slightly gone back in time; it’s always just like picking up where we left off. It’s like not being a complete person but part of something. It’s a weird thing, really. But it’s lovely to see how they’ve grown up and matured. They’ve had families and Keith’s a grandfather now, a couple of times over.”

Durham had no children, by choice. So it is not grandchildren she wants to see grow and thrive as her legacy, but her music. “Paintings pass from hand to hand and people appreciate them through the generations,” she says passionately, the carefully ordered calm of her interview style cracking for the first and only time. “But a record, unless it keeps getting played, and keeps getting revitalised in a new format – it’ll be gone.”

She was surprised and pleased when the 1993 Seekers reunion tour resulted in the production of boxed CD sets of their albums and the reissue of some of her solo jazz recordings. “If we hadn’t had the reunion, gradually all those tracks would have disappeared,” she says.

She knows that her voice will eventually go. She has bronchiectasis, which fills her lungs with mucus that is difficult to clear and leaves her breathless. She tries to control it with her diet, avoiding cereal and dairy foods, “But it’s a chronic condition. It’s getting worse. That’s really why I’m treasuring this tour, because you just don’t know how long you’re going to be able to do a two-hour concert.” There’s a wistful pause.

Judith Durham’s 40th Anniversary Celebration with guests, the Seekers, is at the Sydney Opera House next Saturday. Inquiries, 9250 7777.



Born July 3, 1943

Training RMIT
(secretarial studies) and the Melbourne Conservatorium (classical piano).

Career highlights The Seekers were the first Australian group to hit No. 1 internationally. They also hold the Australian record for size of audience at a concert (200,000 people – then one-tenth of Melbourne’s population – at the Myer Music Bowl in 1966).

First published in The Age.

The love that dare not speak its name

KEVIN and Hannah like going into town together to do the shops and have a bite to eat. He loves her very much and buys her flowers and chocolates and takes her away for romantic weekends. They have sex every Saturday night – he’d like it more often, but she’s often tired from work during the week – and they don’t have to worry about contraception because she’s had her uterus removed.

They sound like your average child-free suburban couple; well, perhaps a bit happier than the average. But Kevin and Hannah have intellectual disabilities, so they live in a special accommodation house. This meant their romance had a rocky start under the stern gaze of staff charged with their care.

The first time they tried to sleep together, Kevin told La Trobe University researchers, “A staff member knocked on the door and found us together. She said, `Get into your own bed’. I didn’t like her much doin’ that, because we’re two adults and she should have let us do it.” Kevin and Hannah forced the issue: “We left one night and we had sex somewhere. When we came back they had a talk to us and they said, `You can move into a room together’.”

From Kevin’s point of view, he and Hannah were a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, with public servants playing the obstructive Montagues and Capulets. But the situation for carers is not so simple; they must try to balance the human rights to sexual expression of their clients with intellectual disabilities with the duty to protect them from hurt or danger. What if Kevin was coercing Hannah? What if one gave the other a venereal disease? Would their families be horrified to learn that their adult children with disabilities were having sex, and if so, whose moral values should prevail?
Kevin and Hannah’s story is one of 25 detailed sexual and life histories recorded in a report launched this week by the Minister for Human Services, Christine Campbell. The report, People with Intellectual Disabilities Living Safer Sexual Lives, was designed to follow up overseas research that found people with disabilities had much higher rates of sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases than others.

It said people with disabilities were often wrongly stereotyped either as eternal children who did not develop sexual feelings, or as potential risks to the community because they were unable to control themselves. One of the authors is Dr Kelley Johnson, research fellow with the Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University. Johnson argues that carers’ anxieties leave them either denying sexuality is an issue, and therefore providing no education about it, or practising strict surveillance to keep it from being expressed.

She says lack of privacy forces disabled people to hide their sexual activity, lack of information leaves them having unsafe sex, and lack of education about their rights and the power dynamics of sexual encounters leaves them vulnerable to abuse.

The report tells of Hussein, who didn’t use condoms because the men with whom he had sex didn’t like them. When Neville was institutionalised, he was often sexually abused by male staff, but when he tried to form a relationship with a woman living in the institution he was severely punished. “He learned that abusive sexual relationships were condoned but
that other relationships were forbidden,” the report said. (The names of all the people interviewed were changed.)

Jennifer Evans is president of the Health and Community Services Union, which represents the staff of community residential units. She says decisions about how to deal with sexual matters vary from one unit to another. “I think it’s a matter of (a), recognising your own values and morals, and (b), working out how not to inflict them on the people you are working with. Some carers believe it is their role to be a moral caretaker as well. I don’t see that.”

Evans says, for example, that she disagrees with the department’s ruling that staff are not to facilitate brothel visits by clients: “Other carers would strongly disagree with me, but I believe I am there to facilitate that person’s integration into
the community in whatever way that needs to be done, whether it’s as a visit to a massage parlor or to a local coffee shop.”

But even Evans has been confronted with situations that have made her uneasy. One unit’s residents were all young people in their teens and early 20s who had grown up together in an institution. When they moved to a community residential unit they began sexually experimenting with each other: “Their relationships were almost what I would term (emotionally) incestuous…because they were all like siblings to each other.” She still offered them sex education and condoms.

One of the girls was later found having sex with her boyfriend on an oval in a park: “She considered that more private than her bedroom. If she brought the boyfriend home, then everybody in the house would know about him, but in the park, she felt that nobody knew her.” Evans does not accept the notion that some carers fail to deal with sex because it is too confronting: “I don’t think it should be any more uncomfortable than helping people with other aspects of life that we’re not normally confronted with, like assisting them in the toilet or the bath…I think it’s more to do with the fear that if something happened, staff will be responsible for whatever goes wrong. I have worked with staff who have a very protectionist kind of attitude towards residents and don’t allow them to make mistakes they might learn from.”

A complicating factor in protecting them from abuse is that sometimes fellow residents are sexual offenders. “One chap in particular was very predatory,” Evans said. “He actually wanted to go back to living in institutions, where he had been abused himself and then became an abuser, because living in the community curbed his behavior. He used to say, `I’d get the ones who can’t speak because then they can’t do anything about it’.” Evans said it was decided he was never to be allowed out without a staff member, and other residents’ bedroom doors were alarmed at night to keep them safe.

For Johnson, the most striking thing to emerge from the research was that the yearnings of people with disabilities are just like everyone else’s, even if their chances of fulfilling them are lower. “Most of the people in the group we talked to desperately wanted close, intimate, loving relationships with somebody else. And that was really difficult for them to find because of the ways their lives were constrained and because of the kind of rejection they experienced from the community.”

Kevin is determined to hold on to his Hannah. “The only one I want to spend all my life with is Hannah. I love her that much. I don’t want to lose her,” he told researchers.

“I’m hoping to marry Hannah one day. Yeah. Hoping to.”

Also see: Marriage, Love, Sex … Not a Disability

First published in The Age.

Marriage, love, sex … not a disability

Sarah has sworn off men since she became a single mother. Tom uses massage parlors because he doesn’t know how to meet women. Luigi, who prefers girls, believes that toilets are the place where sex happens because that’s where men ask him for it. Alicia has been happily married for five years.

All of these people have intellectual disabilities. Their stories are told in a report to be released today that concludes that community attitudes leave many intellectually disabled people vulnerable to rape, forced to lead secret sexual lives and practising unsafe sex.

The report, People with Disabilities Living Safer Sexual Lives, contains the detailed histories of 25people interviewed by La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.

Researcher Kelley Johnson said the project was partly in response to British findings that about 70per cent of women with an intellectual disability had experienced sexual abuse, and that both men and women in this group had a higher than average rate of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Of the 25 people interviewed for this study, 18 (11men and seven women) reported sexual abuse. This occurred while they were in institutions, in independent or supported living in the community, or while they were living with their families.

Many still had active sexual lives and wanted a long-term relationship. Some had found partners and had children; one woman was lesbian and one man was gay.

Dr Johnson said the understandable anxieties of carers and families of disabled people often led them to deny sexuality was an issue or to try to prevent sexual activity. This violated human rights and drove the behavior underground.

“That doesn’t just happen to people with disabilities; it happens to the young and to the elderly, too,” she said. “People who have been married for 50years are often separated if they have to enter nursing homes.

“But for people with disabilities, the surveillance is life-long. Service providers and families are very concerned about safety and protection, which is of course legitimate. But the problem is the way it is often managed; people didn’t let them have information for fear it might lead to experimentation, or sometimes disabled people were just told, `This is not part of your life.”‘

Some disabled women were forbidden sex because of concerns about pregnancy, Dr Johnson said. “Some of them said, `Well, my mum didn’t want to have to raise another child and she thought she would (if I had sex),’ or `Mum thought if I had a child it would be like me.”‘

Janice Slattery and Amanda Hiscoe, who both have an intellectual disability, were members of the reference group advising researchers (they were not among those interviewed for the study). Mrs Slattery agreed that carers have to learn that “people do have their own freedom as well as being protected. There’s too much protection. They don’t get the correct information to protect them from sex, and they have to learn the hard way and that can be scary for them.”

Mrs Hiscoe said she hoped the project would force the rest of the community to take off “the horse’s glasses” (blinkers) they wear when looking at people with disabilities and realise “they deserve the same respect and same dignity and same rights
as being the very so-called normal people”.

The best outcome, said Mrs Slattery, who has been married for 15years, would be for a more open approach to “give other people with disabilities the opportunity to achieve what we’ve achieved; a happy marriage”.

The study recommended that services for disabled people develop policies in human relationships and sexuality, and that professional carers, families and people with disabilities be offered education about the issues.

The report was funded by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and will be launched today by the Minister for Human Services, Christine Campbell.

Also see: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name