Inside Story

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12 November 2015

Books | Brett Evans follows Peter Garrett from West Pymble to Canberra, via French’s in Oxford Street


Coming down to earth: Peter Garrett at Sydney’s Maroubra beach in June 2004 announcing he will run as a Labor candidate in the forthcoming federal election. Mark Baker/AP Photo

Coming down to earth: Peter Garrett at Sydney’s Maroubra beach in June 2004 announcing he will run as a Labor candidate in the forthcoming federal election. Mark Baker/AP Photo

Big Blue Sky: A Memoir
By Peter Garrett | Allen & Unwin | $49.99

Back in early 2010 Australia’s environment minister was about to fly out for an important meeting of the International Whaling Commission. But he still managed to find the time to catch up for a chat at the Sydney Opera House with one of the world’s most influential musicians.

Lou Reed was in Australia to curate the annual Vivid Festival. But why had this famously cantankerous performer agreed to meet a mere politician? Well, the minister in question was a fellow rock star: Peter Garrett, the former lead singer with the internationally successful band Midnight Oil. They were members of the same club.

But when Garrett explained what he was doing for a living, Reed couldn’t quite believe it. According to Garrett, “Lou listened thoughtfully for a minute, and then said very slowly in his New York drawl, ‘Amazing. You’re actually in the government?’”

A bemused Reed shook his head in wonder that anyone from his world of backstage riders and late night gigs would actually choose to work in a world of endless meetings and fundraising dinners. The two chatted amiably, shook hands and Garrett left to save the whales.

With the perspicacity of a great songwriter, Reed had captured in just a few words the strange nature of Garrett’s journey. How do you get from the rock-and-roll beer barns of Australian suburbia to the soundproofed cabinet room in Canberra’s Parliament House?

I first saw Peter Garrett performing with Midnight Oil at Narrabeen’s Royal Antler Hotel in 1979 when I was sixteen. This frenetic, imposing, charismatic, bald giant, with his eccentric dance moves – splayed fingers and convulsive legs – fronted a tight, talented, high-decibel band, part Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls, part Radio Birdman. You could feel the waves of sound passing through your chest. I remember Garrett throwing buckets of iced water into the grateful, sweltering crowd.

One night at the Antler, the sauna-like conditions proved too much even for the man at the centre of all this pulsing mayhem. “I leapt from the stage and tore across the road to grab a night-time surf,” he writes in Big Blue Sky. “Head clearer and body cooled, I ran back to the pub and up onto the stage to finish the night.”

And when the night finished and the house lights snapped on, the floor was calf-deep in discarded beer cans, our ears were ringing, and the humid walls were glistening with the sweat of a thousand punters.

Midnight Oil was an extraordinary live act. And they worked hard. In their early years they trudged relentlessly through the venues of my youth: French’s in Oxford Street, the Manly Vale, the Trade Union Club, the Stage Door Tavern. And then they toured the nation, sprinting from leagues club to RSL up and down the east coast. Finally, they conquered the world, sleeping on their tour buses as they sped along the endless highways of Europe and the United States. Every day the same blur: soundcheck, dinner, gig, back on the bus, do it all again.

By the time the band shut up shop in 2002, after nearly three decades of touring and recording, the Oils had produced over a dozen Top Ten albums, and several worldwide hits, including their best known, “Beds Are Burning.” Along the way they had become a multimillion-dollar business.

And that could have been the precis of a memoir written by Peter Garrett: life on the road with a successful band. But Midnight Oil weren’t an ordinary rock group; they took politics seriously. Unlike many of today’s celebrities who adopt a photogenic cause on the advice of their PR consultants, Garrett and his bandmates chose a path that actually made their professional lives trickier and potentially less profitable.

Like a Catholic refusing to meet the Pope, they never appeared on Molly Meldrum’s Countdown. They never became famous for their love lives or drug habits. In what now looks like self-parody, they even performed at a Save the Whales Concert at Balmain Town Hall in 1978. That was the first of many such endeavours: they campaigned for Indigenous rights, to save Ningaloo Reef, and against Exxon, perpetrators of the oil spill that ravaged the Alaskan coast.

And though they never managed to write a really good love song, they found more than enough to say in their anthemic, turbo-charged protest songs.

Through most of his career with Midnight Oil, though, Garrett was pursuing another full-time job, as an environmental lobbyist. He was twice president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and worked for Greenpeace. It’s a bit like finding out that Mick Jagger moonlighted as chair of Amnesty International while recording Exile on Main St.

So where did this influential, workaholic musician-activist come from? Until I read his memoir, I had no idea that Garrett was brought up in the sleepy suburb of West Pymble on Sydney’s North Shore, just a block from my own childhood home. His fond memories of 1950s and 60s West Pymble are heartfelt and – I can vouch – wholly accurate.

Suburban kids enjoyed an element of freedom unheard of today and Garrett spent a lot of time chancing injury in a quarry at the end of his street. He learnt to love the Australian bush by exploring the nearby Lane Cove River Park with his mates. His family helped to raise money for the local scout hall by organising progressive dinners – that staple of fundraising in postwar Australian suburbia. And he discovered – as I did – that you got paid less and less during the scouts’ bob-a-job week the further up the hill you went into the better-established and old-moneyed suburb of Pymble.

In rapid succession Garrett was force-marched past the time-worn educational milestones of Middle Australia: private school (Barker) and then tertiary education (Australian National University and University of New South Wales). And he could have ended up as a self-hating lawyer but for the intervention of music.

Garrett had learnt to sing in church as a kid, and while he was at ANU he began singing with bands. Around this time, he famously answered an ad in the Sydney Morning Herald for a lead singer and met the musicians who would form the backbone of Midnight Oil: guitarist Jim Moginie, drummer Rob Hirst and, later, guitarist Martin Rotsey.

Though he can carry a tune, Garrett is not a great singer. Even his bandmate Rob Hirst has described him as a “character vocalist.” But he could perform; he could sell a song; he could lead a band on stage.

Where this rare skill comes from is a little obscure. But the younger Garrett, it seems, was a bit of an adrenaline junkie. If he hadn’t studied enough for an exam, he would wait ten minutes before he picked up his pen. He liked hooning around on motorbikes and chasing big waves at the beach. He obviously loved the high-wattage thrill of being the man with the microphone in front of a big crowd. And he would soon learn the emotional solace that performing can bring.

By now Garrett was in his twenties and the family had moved to Lindfield, the next suburb along from West Pymble. When Garrett’s father, also named Peter – whom he admits he wasn’t close to – died after years of illness he was sad but not grief-stricken. He was much closer to his mother, Betty. Her values seem to hold the clue to Garrett’s interest in politics. He writes how he and his mother letterboxed together on behalf of Whitlam’s Labor Party through the indifferent streets of Lindfield.

And then, one night, when only he and his mother were home, Garrett was “woken by the popgun sound of windows shattering.” The house was on fire. His mother didn’t make it out.

“I ended up sitting, howling, in the gutter,” he writes. “The house turned into a blazing inferno in minutes. By the time the fire engines arrived it was way too late. The sounds of her screams still haven’t completely faded away.”

The night after the fire Midnight Oil had a gig booked. They played the show. Garrett writes that he “could still smell singed hair on the back of my arms.” Sometimes, I suppose, the safest place is at the centre of the storm.

A decade and a half ago, at the turn of the millennium, Garrett faced an interesting choice. He could keep on making music and promoting causes he believed in or, courtesy of the Labor Party, he could enter Australia’s famously red in tooth and claw federal parliament. He could opt for an easy life on the sidelines as Saint Peter, or he could take the less-travelled road into the heart of power.

Garrett famously chose power. And his reputation took a battering. What was a genuine man, a venerated artist no less, doing supping with the devils down in Canberra? And why hadn’t the respected environmental activist softened the blow for his fans by joining the Greens?

As his memoir makes clear, Garrett is neither a foolish man nor an ideologue. He knew what he was getting into, and whom he was going to get offside. He had pursued politics through the channels deemed appropriate for celebrities by Australia’s cultural gatekeepers, but now the man who would wait ten minutes before starting the exam grasped his chance to step into the ring.

Art, argues Garrett, doesn’t really change anything – “by itself music doesn’t do the job of getting on the right side of history” – but he knows it’s good for the soul. And activists, he knew from experience, can do a lot of good – by pressuring and cajoling and convincing people with real decision-making power. But as a minister – if you get to be one, he argues – you can make key decisions, legislated decisions, decisions that might outlive you; provided, of course, you schmooze the pressure groups, fight off your colleagues, and survive the next election.

As Garrett points out, politics is a “messy business of incremental change, often with two steps forward and one step back. Only rarely is there the big flash of light and a great leap ahead.” This is clearly the view of a practitioner who has learnt the hard way.

And as an amazed Lou Reed discovered, Garrett actually managed to get inside government for a large part of his party political career. And he willingly accepted the constraints this put on him. He was bound by party discipline and cabinet solidarity, both of them very useful political institutions in a democracy. Having chosen a team he not surprisingly became a team player.

In a funny sort of way, entering politics made Garrett an even more attractive figure. To far-off observers like me he became a lot more human. He made mistakes; he compromised; sometimes he failed, sometimes he succeeded. And he is refreshingly honest about all this in the book. What more do you want from your elected officials? After all, unlike rock stars, they’re not gods. •

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Small picture: NZ prime minister John Key at the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia on 31 October. Alastair Grant/AP Photo

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