The recent call by the Australian Road Crew Association (ARCA)—including this piece on the ABC by Guy Stayner that highlights the appalling suicide rates in the live music industry—gave me pause to reflect on my previous career in music, mainly working as a roadie (doing FoH sound in the main) with rock ‘n roll bands on and off for about 20 years from the late 1970s.
This is part one of I-don’t-know-how-many-parts looking back at my time on the road.
In keeping with ARCA’s focus on the well-being of road-crew present and former (see more here) I want to pay tribute to four–I’m sure there are many more–men with whom I’ve worked on the road and who have now gone off to the great bump-out on high.
The toll on road-crew once the music stops is apparently horrific.
As Ian “Piggy” Peel of ARCA told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015:
“Of the roughly 400 roadies who worked in the industry since the late 1970s, at least 123 have died prematurely, 26 by suicide,” says Ian “Piggy” Peel, director of the Australian Road Crew Association (ARCA), a non-profit support group for roadies.
The photo above is of me with my colleague Sam Marini. We worked together for the Melbourne band Stiletto for at least a year or so. During that time we spent more time together than with any of our respective significant others. Sam always had a ready smile, worked like a bitch and could roll a perfect three-paper hash joint while driving up the Newell Highway at 100+ k’s an hour.
Stiletto were on a roll at the time and we worked hard with weekly residencies all over the Melbourne pub scene and gigs up and down the east coast.
It was years later that I heard he’d topped himself and I’ve never been able to find out any details as to why.
Nowadays we lose contact with people by unfriending them and just about everyone can be tracked down without looking too hard. But it was very different in the early ’80s. Back then you could lose track of people in a blink, no matter how good your networks were.
I still look at this photo and wonder what troubles lay behind that angelic face and willing smile that caused Sam to take his own life.
The ARCA runs a thoroughly depressing—but informative and necessary—Roll Call of brothers and sisters in the trade who’ve passed on.
Sam Marini isn’t on that list but I’ll attend to that matter in due course.
Sadly I recognise more than a few of those names on the ARCA Those We Miss list but there are three men that I worked closely with that come first to mind.
Tony Norton (nee Hunt) but he was just “Norton” to everyone because he, well rode Norton motorcycles—as well as Harleys, Triumphs, BSAs and anything else with grunt—as did I back in the day. We first me when I was about two weeks into my second job as a sixteen-year-old at on the comp floor at Fairfax and Sons on Sydney’s Broadway. My first job had been upstairs in Editorial as a copy-boy on the fifth floor. That lasted a month or two before I was bumped downstairs.
Norton and I were in the same intake of Hand and Machine Compositor apprentices at Fairfax. I was a weed from the southern fringes of the Sutherland Shire and Norton—already covered in biker tatts—was a hard man from the western suburbs. Most likely because we both rode motorbikes—I was on a 250cc Bultaco trials bike at the time and he on a 750cc Norton fastback (the fastest production bike of the day)— we clicked and remained firm friends for life.
We moved on from Fairfax as it soon became clear that hot metal was dying as a production method for newspapers and somehow both found ourselves working together again with bands a few years later out of Melbourne, sharing the odd house, girlfriend and drugs. Lots of drugs. Norton was a lot further into the hard powders than I was and suffered badly at times in all manner of ways because of it.
We last spent time together at the naval base in Darwin—he’d been in and out of institutions most of his life and the Navy was a good fit for him—after I moved there in the mid-eighties following a very difficult tour (for me at least) with Paul Kelly and his band. Darwin in the mid-eighties was most definitely not the place to go to get away from drugs—at times back then it seemed like the whole town was off its face on some substance or other.
Last I heard Norton moved back south and Navy discipline had caught up with him and he’d been bounced out of the service. As with Sam Marini, back in those days it was easy to lose touch with people in a blink. I heard later that Norton died from some infection in his leg, but the ARCA Those We Miss roll lists his passing as due to an overdose.
Andy “The Hat” Crosby is next on the list. We worked together with The Sports out of Melbourne for, as best my foggy memory can tell me, about two years from the late seventies to the early eighties. as with Stiletto (I was poached by The Sports with an offer I couldn’t refuse) they were on the up-and-up, though much further up that road than Stiletto would ever travel. Andy was, as they say, a rather unsophisticated suburban boy.
But Andy had a Ford F350 truck with a big pan tech on the back and knew how to rig a lighting set-up and someone gave him the gig. We just about drove that truck into the ground until I did it for real outside of Yass in central New South Wales while doing an overnighter to Sydney. We’d not slept for what seemed like days and had been doing gigs back-to-back and the speed had well worn off as we went past Cemetery Road a few clicks south of Yass on the Hume Highway at around dawn. One minutes I was going down the road, the next minute my head is down with the pedals, Iggy Pop’s “Sister Cocaine” is still playing on the cassette and I can smell fuel.
Turns out I’d fallen asleep—no licence—I didn’t get one until Darwin a few years later but that never stopped me. Somehow I scrabbled out of the smashed cabin and saw The Hat down the road, he having gone through the windscreen. The local police sergeant—God bless his serge blues, big boots and impeccable roadside manner—reckoned the truck had rolled end over end at least two or three times. The truck was a wreck and our gear, including the precious instruments, was strewn across the roadway. He booked us into a motel, all the usual kicked into place and a week later we were back on the road. I had a few bumps and bruises and a bad back that a Chinese bone-cracker in Collingwood sorted out quick smart and The Hat had a bad cut over his kidneys.
You get lucky sometimes. According to the ARCA Those We Miss roll Andy “The Hat” Crosby died of a heart attack, date unrecorded.
I could tell you about the time that Graham Parker’s crew fucked up The Hat in Sheffield but that can wait for another night.
Finally, we come to my good mate Declan Cooney. As smart as a whip and just as skinny. He had the broken face of a bog-Irishman and a heart and soul to match. “Big Dec” was a gifted technician with all kinds of instruments and machines. We could walk down the road and he could tell me to the second how long it would take him to break into and start any car on the street. He’d fed a vicious smack habit for years with a diamond-tipped drill that he used to cut through the old Telecom pay-phone money boxes to steal the coins within, until they changed the box design. And then he worked out a work-around for their fix.
For all that he was a great man and a good friend and I miss him so. I could tell a hundred more tales about him but …
We shared houses and much more and worked on-and-off with many bands in many towns on too many nights and I can never recall a cross word between us.
I miss him still to this day.
The ARCA Those We Miss Roll records that Big Dec died of cancer, date unknown.
ARCA has a scheme that proposes that a 5c (10 cents more better) levy be paid on every ticket to every live gig across the country to support road crew that have fallen on hard times.
This is a GOOD THING.
If you or someone you know needs help, call:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467