AUSTRALIAN MUSIC - PETER ALLEN and BILLY THORPE
Book Review, April 1997, pp.
Late in his career,
Peter Allen was touring Australian when a man about his age made himself
known: “I followed you in that Armidale pub.” Allen had performed
there as an eleven-year old before moving on to the bigger time of
Sydney where, at fourteen, he acquired his stage name and a new
identity. Allen asked him where he was performing now. “I’m not”
came the reply.
No moment from
Allen’s galaxy of the glitterati is more telling than this encounter.
What was it that made one gawk from the bush into an international hit
while another disappeared from public view?
It is unlikely that the
other man had a worse singing voice, or was less trained as trained as a
pianist than Allen who stretched his talents across scales and
keyboards. Part of the answer was guts. The kid who coped with his
alcoholic father learnt how to survive against the odds. This upbringing
also let him deal with his mother-in-law, Judy Garland, by knowing when
it was safe to answer back as well as how to pretend nothing was amiss
when everyone else was being destroyed by her tantrums. No reverse could
destroy the bush battler, not even the flop of his under-rehearsed
Broadway musical Legs Diamond, until HIV-AIDS put up the “Performance Cancelled”
signs in June 1992.
The guts came with
hyperactivity. In his mid-forties, Allen opened his shows by bounding on
stage and springing onto the lid of his grand piano with little regard
for the consequences.
Just after Allen left
Sydney for the US in 1962, the 17-year old Billie Thorpe arrived in
town. With Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll, he has come up with a hit to
rival Poison Ivy, the song
that took him and the Aztecs to the top of the pop charts in 1964. Read
as a crime thriller, it challenges Peter Corris. It gets closer to evil
on the streets than Christopher Koch in The
relies on the timing he developed to hold audiences. The prose reads
like yarns polished in thirty years of retelling. He tells it how it was
in the language and attitudes of a time when gays were still
shirt-lifters. If you want to be cheered up by being reminded how much
Australia has changed for the better, then the offensive bits of this
year with a teenager following his dick around will give you the lift
you need to get through another Hanson interview.
Like the typical bloke,
Thorpe can put his chauvinism into words which disarm through their
inventiveness and lack of guile, as in this description of the bad guy
in his plot, which was also his life: “He was ugly to say the least,
but it was the ugly that makes men wary and women wet.” After a
sentence like that, you give up either reading or resisting.
The crims, the good
cop, the bend Demons, the aged whore with the heart of gold who still
had the portrait that George Lambert had painted of her in the late
1890s, the two show girls with whom Thorpe shared his bed, the merchant
seamen who brought in the latest of Carnaby street for the Aztecs to
flaunt on stage, the envy of Johnny O’Keefe as he saw his style of
Rocker being replaced, the vicious woman crim Jackie Marsh, and Ivan the
brainless bouncer combine to make Sex
etc the most televisable biography on offer.
Here is the Cross and
Australia at the cusp of change, before US troops on R-and-R from
Vietnam transformed crime and drugs, while Surf bands were cutting the
edge, before the Beatles made it here, and when a teenager from Brisbane
could waltz into Sydney and upend the scene.
presents Allen’s life story with enough glimpses of the social and
cultural shifts to carry The Boy from Oz above the transit of a star. Expatriatism has moved
away from high culture into popular and mass entertainments. Thorpe has
worked the US circuits since 1976. Until the late 1960s, professional
performers accepted that complete success required long periods outside
Australia. Now, they come and go, but go for training or on contract.
Film-making sucks our
directors permanently towards Hollywood because the money needed for a
career is tens of millions for each project. Bands and singers also seem
to need to be released by the overseas arm of their recording companies.
But these circumstances
might be about to end. The non-stop flight to LAX makes a working life
on both Pacific coasts a possibility. If Fox studios establish a
production house here, Weir, Schepisi and Gibson might relocate to
reflect on the patterns of globalisation in the commerce that is mass
entertainments are only one reason why everyone with an interest in
where twenty million boys and girls from OZ will fit into the market for
distraction should read both these books. By 2007, will anyone’s
signature tune be I still call