This loving tribute to “Uncle Bob” McGowan was written by Mark Basil Butler and John Dease, the “non-driving” roadies (and much more) for the eponymous Uncle Bob’s Band.
SOME people strive all their lives to be authentic, but master guitarist Bob McGowan, who died on October 4 in Melbourne from pulmonary fibrosis, aged 73, had no need to try, for he was born that way.
This did him no favours in the music industry, which he came to believe, after spending more than a decade labouring in it, was the very antithesis of authentic. So he turned his back on it for the next twenty years, building a healthier, more sustainable life in a secluded hamlet near Eden in southern NSW, before returning in a new century to what he considered to be real music, on his own terms and in a new city, Melbourne. Bob continued to work in the local music industry playing music he loved: roots, blues, country and bluegrass – authentic music.
“In his own way he was a giant,” said music writer and historian Toby Creswell. That would be a sentiment shared by the thousands who saw and heard Bob play in his youthful prime with UBB which, Creswell has written “was, for a few years … hands down, the best rock n roll band in Australia”, as well as in his later incarnation as a fingerpicker interpreting the riches of blues and roots music by the likes of Charlie Patten, Doc Watson and John Fahey.
Robert John McGowan was born in Ryde, Sydney, on March 7, 1945, into a family steeped in the playing and teaching of music. His father Mac and mother Ursula were musicians and who also taught at Gallahers School of Music, which was set up in 1928 by Bob’s maternal grandfather William. At its peak Gallahers employed more than 30 staff in four studios, at Parramatta, Blacktown, Penrith and Merrylands. It was renamed the McGowan School of Music when Mac and Ursula moved to Tumbi Umbi on the NSW Central Coast; indeed, during down periods with his various bands, the income Bob earned as a teacher in his parents’ school was very handy.
Bob and his younger three sisters and brother had music lessons as part of their daily routine, and he mastered acoustic, electric and steel guitar, as well as ukulele and mandolin. Playing music became as natural to him as breathing.
As was rambling, his younger sister Susan recalled: “We lived at Seven Hills near Blacktown. At the time the area was very rural and the road outside our place was dirt. There was a railway station about 10 minutes walk away and a tiny general store near the level crossing.
“We had a pretty free outdoor lifestyle. Bob was able to explore the fields and creeks near out home. Siblings mostly got on and many good times were had budding bliss carts, building bonfires for cracker night and playing cricket in the back yard. We all had chores to do as well as music practice.”
Family, music and nature would became the pillars of his life.
He was educated in the Catholic system, moving from a primary school in Seven Hills to high school at Patrician Brothers, Blacktown, completing his final two years at St Patrick’s College, Strathfield, a lengthy train ride away. His children recall him telling them about his interaction with one very intimidating Christian Brother at primary school, who demanded to know “What is God?”, and when Bob answered incorrectly, proceeded to cane him with every shouted word of “God! Is! Love!”. Painfully aware of the hypocrisy, he decided organised religion was not for him.
His music progressed more quickly, he recalled earlier this year, once he realised at about age 14 “the girl-pulling power of the guitar”, and he began to listen to instrumental bands such a The Shadows and The Ventures, before moving on to BB King and the blues. He loved The Beatles, “but identified more with the bad boys, The Stones”. He also found himself attracted to folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary. “I got involved in the folk music revival, I basically became a folkie, broadened my outlook, but I didn’t forsake my rock roots.”
He obtained his Leaving Certificate in 1962, winning a two-year scholarship to study at Wagga Wagga Teachers College, which he took up in 1963. While there, he joined a Shadows cover band, and to get around the college curfew he obtained a black wig: “I’d put a lump in the bed, put this wig on top of it and sneak out to the gig.” Study suffered, and he failed to qualify as a teacher. He returned to Sydney in 1966, his heart set on being a musician, and it was inevitable that he would end up immersed in a milieu where the attraction was the music and the quality and honesty of the playing, not the size of your ego.
He became an enthusiastic member of a disparate group in Sydney brought together not, as legend would have it, by sex and drugs (although those were undeniably a big attraction for him, as for many others) but by music: Chuck Berry, early blues, swing jazz (particularly Django Reinhardt), bluegrass and Hank Williams.
The heart of the scene was Whitty’s Wine Bar in Taylor Square, Darlinghurst then a dingy down-at-heel inner suburb that had long been mired in poverty, like its neighbours Paddington and Surry Hills: a perfect home for the penny-pinching university students who made up the bulk of the Whitty’s scene.
In 1967 he enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Sydney. ‘I only lasted at uni a year,” he recalled, “but I met lots of alternative types and characters who were into the blues, such as Steve James, his sister Kathy and Mort Fist, and we’d meet at the Wayside Chapel.”
He lived in a share house in South Dowling St with John Swan, who was the lead singer in the Sons of Agamemnon, which Bob had joined as lead guitarist. “It was a pretty raw blues band, with a lot of intensity, I guess,” he said. The band performed at the Oxford Hotel, across the road from Whitty’s, where The Original Battersea Heroes, founded in 1963 by Martin James, older brother of Stephen and Kathy, which featured Terry Darmody on harmonica and vocals, had a regular gig.
“Eventually I met Terry, and joined the OBH, which was basically a jug band. It was Terry, me and couple other people. OBH was a bit more genteel than the Sons,” he said. The band, he said, would be hired for gigs in tandem with older established bands such as that led by jazz legend Ray Price: “I guess we were the comic relief,” he said.
He and Kathy James began living together in 1968 and were married in 1970, and when Kathy gave birth to Jessica later that year, he attended her birth, the first father to do so in Hornsby Hospital.
Once Tony Burkys, a raw, hugely talented guitarist besotted with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, joined the OBH it began to change from a jug band to a more mainstream rock band, but it still had a decidedly quirky edge. As such it attracted the attention of booking agents around the country, and was soon on the touring treadmill.
Neither Burkys nor Bob found this to be a satisfying way to live and play and, after the band had made one album, Rock n Roll with The Original Battersea Heroes, in 1971 and changed its name to The Heroes, it called it quits in 1972.
In 1973, Bob, with Burkys and Darmody and a fresh rhythm section of John Taylor (bass) and Warwick Kennington (drums) embarked on a new venture, Uncle Bob’s Band, based in the then-rural Hills district of Sydney. Bob, Kathy and Jessica had settled in a tumbledown cottage near Dural where he could indulge his passions for bushwalking, nature photography and fingerpicking his Stella acoustic on his back step or around a fire at night with a floating group of players, including Burkys, Steve James and host of others, one of whom was Kennington, who lived at Forest Glen a few kilometres up the road.
UBB coalesced through subsequent rehearsals at Kennington’s home and a barn on Cattai Ridge near Glenorie, home to, among others, Mark (Basil) Butler and John Dease, who would provide lyrics for many of the band’s original songs, most often in collaboration with Burkys, largely inspired by the rural lifestyle and city-outsider status the band rejoiced in at the time (they would also become the band’s non-driving roadies). To these country-pop flavoured songs were added other essential elements of the UBB sound, vintage Chuck Berry-style rock and the swing jazz typified by Fats Waller and, crucially, guitar virtuoso Reinhardt. To enhance the accent on swing, the band would recruit saxophonist Keith Shadwick, formerly with Sun, a few months after forming.
It was a heady mix, and didn’t take long to catch on in inner Sydney where UBB became heavily in demand at venues such as Balmain and Paddington town halls. And for Bob, the mix was ideal: as well as providing some occasional manic scat singing, he drew on all facets of his guitar expertise; laying down a solid rhythm while Burkys blazed Django-esque solos on classics such as Honeysuckle Rose or I’ll See You in My Dreams, some deft fingerpicking on laid-back first set blues sweeteners Creole Belle or Deep River Blues (which would become a signature tune throughout his life), but most importantly as a fiery and soulful electric lead on the rock songs and big ballads, two of which, Goin’ Home and Plainsong, he made his own after initially muttering darkly about “them creamy chords” to composer Burkys.
“In the 1970s Ross Hannaford was the king of Aussie guitar players , Kevin Borich was the best rock guitar god but Bob McGowan was the most exciting and the most fun to play with,” Burkys said.
As taciturn as he was off stage, once Bob was under the spotlight the antithesis was the case. He was showmanship personified, capable of reeling off solos of the calibre of Jimi Hendrix or BB King which, as Burkys has said, would propel the band to another level.
“With guitar in hand, Bob was an uncontrollable force, ” he recalled. “Sometimes he would lean back and his legs would shake. He would play the guitar behind his head a la Jimi Hendrix except his whole body would jerk around like an electric shock was going through it. One night at Joseph’s Coat we looked around during one of his solos and he was gone! He’d climbed a ladder on stage and was sitting on a ledge 20 feet above us. He’d continued soloing all through this. I swear he’s even done the ‘Curly Shuffle’ on the floor while still playing.”
Bob’s sly contempt for the cliches of rock guitardom was exemplified in one of the UBB’s showpiece numbers, a sci-fi spoof that he and Burkys had cooked up during their last days with The Heroes, called Intergalactic Space-Age Girl, which featured a full-on blistering guitar solo at high volume, with Bob shaking and trembling as Burkys described, his long black hair flailing, manic smile beaming. Often, during the solo, to underline the send-up, singer and frontman Darmody, suddenly redundant for the next ten minutes or so, would sit on the edge of the stage and read a newspaper or a book until Bob had finished frying the frets. The performance never failed to bring the house down.
Behind the clowning, though, was a serious intent, for those solos were often the highlights of the gig, and if he drew into the mix two of the band’s other virtuosos, Burkys on guitar and Keith Shadwick on John Coltrane-hued saxophone, the result would be incandescent.
While UBB was developing a solid fan base in the city, helped by the support of fledgling ABC “youth radio” station 2JJ and the band’s willingness to provide its services to causes such as women’s refuges such as Elsie and the Green Bans inner-city conservation movement, its heart, and especially Bob’s, remained on the fringes of the metropolitan district. The band shared his innate suspicion of the music industry, which prompted them to embark on self-promoted gigs, initially at the isolated Dural Memorial Hall, with some spectacularly low-budget ventures such as Adventures in Paradise and The Sydney Xmas Show.
Kathy remembered these early days as a golden period of innocent joy: “I’ll never forget Bob’s brilliant guitar solos improvising and taking off in Uncle Bob’s Band, bouncing off Tony’s rhythm and Django Reinhardt jazz-style guitar. They had band gigs in Balmain and Paddington Town Hall and Dural Memorial Hall. At Adventures in Paradise gigs, they did costume changes for each different bracket and style of music: from Flip Dunbar and his Inflatable Thongs, to the brilliant Django-esque Hot Club du Balmo, to Don Mentionit and the FourGettables (plus one), the Ordinaires plus Mr Ignatz, the Religistics, and Desi Romero and his Red Hot Ameches. We had parties out in the paddocks in Forest Glen, where Bob mostly wore a white suit and white gum boots, a touch of sartorial style, with tons of friends and supporters, and everyone dancing all night. ”
But the city was where the punters were, and if the band was to make a liveable wage it knew it would have to go to town more often, albeit on its own terms as much as possible. Adventures in Paradise was expanded and run over three nights at Paddington Town Hall, and other ventures were staged at Balmain Town Hall, all of which drew large and enthusiastic crowds, especially after 10pm, when the pubs emptied out.
However, outside of those self-promoted shows, regular work was scarce in the city due largely to the dearth of venues. The band did appear once or twice at Bondi Lifesavers, and once at the Oxford St wine bar French’s, where they were infamously docked $5 from their $40 fee after a puncture on Bob’s van en route delayed their start by about 15 minutes.
This contrasted sharply with Melbourne, which the band had toured twice, where there was a vibrant and often quirky live music scene, battling it out in the wake of the huge successes of national hit-makers Daddy Cool, Skyhooks and The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, the last of which shared much commonality with UBB, both in musical direction and camaraderie (and on whose Wangaratta Wahine album UBB is credited with “bird noises”). In fact, it was Skyhooks’ original singer Steve Hill who had booked the tour engagements and who would persuade the band to relocate to the southern city.
If not exactly the lure of fame and fortune, it was the prospect of regular work and the possibility of making an album of the band’s original songs that saw them up sticks from the Hills district and head for the brighter lights of Carlton and St Kilda. And indeed, an album was recorded, produced by Dave Flett, former bassist for Captain Matchbox.
Professionally, though, the move would fall by the wayside. The album got lost in the shuffle somewhere between negotiations among rival distributors and the gigs, while more plentiful than Sydney, were still not sufficient to put them in the financial black. But for Bob, the shift was to have a profound effect on his life. Having separated amicably from Kathy prior to going south, in the spring of 1976 he met and fell in love with the woman who would be his partner for the rest of his life, Annette Winthrope, then an science education student at the University of Melbourne with a talent for photography.
In later years he was fond of saying theirs was a one-night stand that turned into a lifelong commitment, and that commitment began when Annette completed her degree and moved to Sydney to live with him at the end of 1978.
And it was in 1978 that Bob with Kennington and another old mate Rob Luckey formed The Works in Sydney. They added bassist Ron Lamont, and began honing a raft of new (and a few older) original songs, and joined the Sydney pub circuit which was beginning to burgeon with the rise of punk music, spearheaded by bands such as Radio Birdman and X. The venture proved short-lived, however; the songs were too quirky and melodic for the aggro-driven punk zeitgeist of the period and though Luckey upped their tempo and introduced elements of thrash, Bob found the fit increasingly uncomfortable and left at the end of 1979. The Works did attract a keen hard-core following during their brief blaze, and managed to release a single for Piranha Brothers Records, a zany, frenetic version of a Butler/Burkys song (originally written for the Matchbox Band) called Button on a Shirt, backed with a Butler original, Don’t Blame Me.
But Bob and Annette were becoming restless with the city blues; the deep south of NSW was calling, where a new chapter in their personal lives, and Bob’s music, was to unfold. They indulged their love of nature, and of photographing it, exploring the South Coast, and in particular its fishing potential. (Since winning his father a new set of car tyres in a fishing competition when he was eight Bob had never shaken the allure of angling. Indeed, when he lived at Birchgrove in the late 70s, he regularly paddled his kayak out on to Sydney Harbour on midnight fishing expeditions.)
On one of his southern rambles, he struck up an unlikely friendship with country singer, timber worker and fisherman Trevor Duggan. Duggan had worked and still lived in the former dairy village of Towamba, nestled in a valley about 40km west of Eden and accessible by one tortuous dirt road. It was one of a loose agglomeration of seen-better-days counter-culture settlements scattered through the district, some of which Bob explored enthusiastically, encountering many kindred souls and renegade musicians among the forests.
“In usual McGowan fashion, plans were vague after Bob left The Works,” Annette remembered. “However, Bob had a dream of living in either East Gippsland in Victoria or the far southeast corner of NSW, so I think that we travelled down to visit Trevor in Towamba and thought we’d try living in that area, also dreaming that we would find a lovely old farmhouse to rent, but no rentals were available.”
In 1980, when Duggan told them of a condemned cottage in town for sale for $5000, they scraped together the 10% deposit and settled in Towamba, with the aim of living off the land, and the sea, as much as possible.
At the urging of his first wife Kathy, with whom he had remained good friends, Bob also took steps to complete their divorce, so he and Annette could marry, which they did in 1982, deciding at the last minute to have the wedding ceremony at the lookout at Eagles Claw, Eden, followed by a meal of fish and chips.
Their $5000 had bought them an overgrown, officially condemned timber worker’s cottage and a few hectares of land, much of it on a barren hillside. The house was being slowly but inexorably dismantled by a rampant wisteria vine inside and out, the walls that were still standing were hand-hewn weatherboard, and the gaping timber flooring let through chilled southern air in winter and blast-furnace heat in summer. For an innate do-it-yourself person such as Bob, it was an irresistible and nerve-wracking challenge. The restoration would take almost 20 years and many hours of hard labour from him, Annette and their neighbours, but they did it, using whatever materials they could scrounge or repurpose. Along the way they had two children, Tal (1982) and Eva (1985).
During those 20 years, Bob continued to work as a professional musician and also teach music. In the summer of 1984 -85, he and other musicians, Neil Graham (harmonica and vocals), Ian Wright (drums), Steve James (Dobro and slide) and former Works colleague Robert Luckey (vocals and rhythm guitar). put together a scratch band, The Heart Starters, to entertain holiday makers. He regularly played with touring country bands and many south coast bands such as Road Ranger, The Roaring 40s, Loading Zone, Front Porch Pickers, The Welcome Strangers, King Tubby and The Brent McLeod Band, drawn from many local musicians. The Welcome Strangers, with Bob on lead guitar and vocals, Ray Gardaya (guitar, mandolin and vocals), Chris Ralfs (bass guitar) and Phil Scott (drums and vocals), were a highly regarded fixture at the annual celebration of motorcycles in Bombala for many years .
Bob became involved with various environmental movements on the South Coast between 1986-2002. In 1992 he was elected president of the Towamba Progress Association and took a leading role in efforts to protect Egan Peaks, a large area of forest around the Towamba Valley, from clear-fell logging. His involvement with this community activism inspired him to write an unpublished novel, called Eaglenest Blues.
In 2002, Bob and Annette decided to sell up and moved to Melbourne, where there were greater work, musical and educational opportunities. Bob developed musical collaborations with singer-song writer Suzie Dickinson and bass player, music studio designer and engineer extraordinaire, Dave Flett, and together they worked with Ross Hannaford and Ron Mahony (drums) at private functions.
In 2003, he recorded his solo album Finger Pickin’ Good with fellow South Coast musician Nick Timms. He continued to perform, playing at various bluegrass and folk music festivals in Victoria, NSW and Tasmania. More recently, Bob formed Uncle Bob and the Hoochie Couch Men with Steve “Slippery Sid” James, and this core duo would play with a range of musicians John Taylor, Rob Luckey, Rick Crothall, Eva McGowan and Jessica McGowan (The Bobettes). In the past 10 years of his life he also played music regularly with Eva in Melbourne.
In May 2015 Bob was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. His condition was stable for a while but a bout of pneumonia in 2017 really knocked him around and he began attending a respiratory clinic. By August this year, even though his health had declined greatly, he was driven to record (with Eva and Jessica) two tracks written or co-written by him for the final Uncle Bob’s Band album, Now and Then, due for release in early 2019, a fitting coda to a musical life.
MB & JD
You can read and see more on the life of Bob McGowan and Uncle Bob’s Band at the band’s Facebook page here.