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.

Portrait of the artist as a mother

DEBORAH CONWAY’S second daughter, Alma delRay, is floating about in a pink cotton frock and burnished curls, talking shyly about her third birthday party. As the adult conversation resumes, she lays herself tummy down on mummy’s lap and waves her arms and legs enchantingly. The discussion turns to the deliciousness of childlike spontaneity.

And then Alma, perhaps tired of having to share her significant other with this stranger, makes a grab for Conway’s breast under her T-shirt and begins to knead the flesh. Conway keeps talking and wrestles the hand away.

She is partway through a description of her recent performance in chorales at the Sydney Opera House when Alma resumes her less-than-tender ministrations, this time moving up from a knead to a wrench. Conway squeals. “What is this? Some kind of schoolyard torture? A nipple twister?” Alma gurgles with delight.

A half-amused, half-embarrassed Conway sweeps the child into her arms and into the house, her voice admonishing. Rock’n’roll motherhood, it seems, requires the same sort of juggling act as working motherhood in any other trade, and rock’n’roll babies are just as jealous of mother’s attempts to keep a toehold in the outside world.

The beautiful, bolshie, singer-songwriter, Deborah Conway, burst onto the Australian music scene in 1991 with a hit album, String of Pearls. It sold around 100,000 copies and gave her a No.1 single – It’s Only the Beginning – that will forever be her signature song.

Her subsequent career has not quite lived up to the song’s buoyant optimism. Her later albums received positive reviews but were not picked up for radio airplay to the same extent and, while Conway has a loyal following and the respect of aficionados, Pearls remains her only big commercial success.

That does not mean, she points out tartly, that her more recent music is no good; just that it does not fit the current radio formula. “And if you don’t have something that’s being played on the radio it’s just impossible to make any headway … I think in a different kind of marketplace there would be a niche (for my music). It’s just about the size of our market.”

Her early success she attributes entirely to It’s Only the Beginning: “It was a huge song that tapped into exactly the kind of thing that radio loved. It was a feel-good song, there was an anthemic chorus, and I was the nice fresh `It Girl’ at the time.”

She was also the Cool Charm girl, the BigM Girl and the Southern Comfort girl, among others. In her 20s, Conway worked as a model. A feminist, she irritated employers because she refused to shave her legs or armpits or pluck the strong eyebrows that help give her face its arresting quality. But her sculpted cheekbones, sensual mouth and intransigent gaze still won her work.

Conway had no qualms about modelling itself as long as it was on her terms: “Six bucks an hour for waitressing and 60 bucks an hour for modelling; where’s the problem? And who’s exploiting me – me?”

It was her bare derriere displayed in ads for Bluegrass jeans that featured the letters “Bluegr” followed by a pair of buttocks. More recently, the cover for her album Epic Bitch featured her nude torso smeared in chocolate spread. Her mother suggested a little more mystery might be a good thing.

Conway says: “It never particularly occurred to me at the time that what I was doing was appearing naked dressed only in Nutella. What struck me more about the photo was that I was all mouth and covered in chocolate, rather than if you look really close you can see a tiny bit of nipple.

“We have all got them, after all. And as I’ve discovered now, it’s much more fun to actually throw them around when you can, as opposed to after three kids.” She says, with some regret: “The compass now points pure due south.”
Conway and her partner, Willy Zygier, live in a pair of converted grocers’ shops, full of space and light and family clutter, with their three small daughters. The girls have names like ’40s noir movie stars. Syd Dolores (named after airline baggage tags and Nabokov’s Lolita) is nearly six; the baby, Hetty Ira, is 13 months (“Hetty is after my grandmother, and Ira is because when I had her I knew I’d never have a boy, and if I’d had a boy he would have been Ira”).

And Alma? “Alma Ray is a cleaning company who’s card came through our door one time – no, I named her after Alma Mahler, who was married to Gustav Mahler. Alma means `soul’.” The glint returns to her eyes: “And it’s a fine road in St Kilda.”

Conway says motherhood has made her calmer and more patient – “People will disagree with me!” – and a “real mushbucket”: “Terrible stories about children – I can’t even listen to them.” But while she loves the children, she is hungry to get back to the writing she has had to put on hold since Hetty’s birth. “If I don’t start writing soon, I’ll go insane.”

The solution, she has somewhat reluctantly decided, was to “institutionalise” the children; the oldest is at school, and the two youngest are now in creche three days a week. Conway worries about missing out on some of Hetty’s babyhood, but finding the peace for creative work amid life with young children would otherwise be impossible.

For instance, the only way the Age interview can be completed is for the journalist to hitch a ride with the family as Conway drives Willy and the girls to appointments across town.

`WAS it George Bernard Shaw or Philip Larkin who said `The pram in the hallway is the enemy of art’?” she asks. “Absolutely true. It’s the mess and the lack of sleep and the lack of space to do nothing; just time to stare at the wall, or at a blank piece of paper.”

Conway has a reputation for waspishness, if not belligerence, an image she feels is undeserved. “Well, I suppose that if you have a vision as an artist that conflicts with the visions of the people around you, then obviously people are going to accuse you of being headstrong and difficult. If you’re a woman on top of that, it definitely compounds the problem.”

But she obviously enjoys the occasional joust with bourgeois sensibilities, and she has certainly had her moments. One of them came when a member of the audience at one of her concerts sat on the stage with his back to her and refused her request to move. “They said later that I spat but I didn’t spit,” she says defensively. “I just did this,” and she mimes pushing out her jaw, working languidly to develop a puddle of saliva, and then drooling. “They were upsetting me,” she says sweetly. Right.

But Conway has had to learn to be tough. She says she never made a cent from the record sales of String of Pearls because her contract entitled her only to publishing rights: “I’ve just made my first money for selling records, even though (my last album) sold a fraction of the amount of copies.”

She seems to have little fear of controversy. Heroin should be legalised, she argues, and it’s only the hypocrisy of vote-seeking politicians that stands in the way of it. “Alcohol does a lot more damage than the occasional recreational use of a tab of acid.”

Her own parents had been terrified that she would use drugs; her lawyer father (she grew up in Toorak) sent her to a psychiatrist when she first joined a rock band because he assumed it would lead to drug use.

And did it? She gives a slightly embarrassed laugh. “No, no, no. Like many children of the era, I experimented with all kinds of drugs and had great fun with them but they never took me over. It was just always fun and recreational and experimental in a purely scientific way: `What will this one do, I wonder?’.”

And she has probably always been impatient with what she sees as foolishness or pretension. She brushes aside questions about which career highlights should go in her CV. “Career highlights are always the best gigs, the ones that you know have been brilliant; the audience loved every moment, everything that came out of your mouth has been either in tune or funny or pertinent and you’ve played guitar really well and jelled with the band. When you’ve played music, really; when you’ve just been completely in the moment.”

Right now, though, a wriggly Hetty wants her next breast-feed.

Deborah Conway and her band will perform at a Valentine’s Day weekend concert at Eyton on Yarra Winery in Coldstream tonight at 7.30pm. Inquiries to 1800 622 726 or 5962 2119.

Deborah Conway, singer

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: Lauriston, Melbourne.

Career: Aria award for best female performer for the hit album String of Pearls in 1991. Subsequent albums include Bitch Epic and Exquisite Stereo.

Lives: Williamstown, with her partner and musical collaborator, Willy Zygier, and their three daughters.

First published in The Age.