Vale Jim Keays. You signed your name on my left wrist about forty years ago, and for weeks and weeks afterwards I kept it there, with the occasional touch-up to keep it legible. I don’t remember ever washing it off- perhaps the summer spelled the end of it, or perhaps it began to look so over-written that it lacked authenticity. When I heard of your death last week, I realized that though the signature has faded, my affection for you hasn’t.
You burst into my life at the Banyule High School social, held at Scots Church Hall in Burgundy Street in 1969. Looking back, it must have been the junior social because Scots Church Hall was a small, rather unprepossessing hall where I had bumbled my way through calisthenics two years previously, and it couldn’t possibly have accommodated a school social for a school nearing 1000 students. Nor do I remember the presence of those impossibly cool 4th, 5th and 6th formers who drifted through the corridors so confidently who, had they been there, would have dominated any whole-school social event.
In your autobiography “His Master’s Voice” you described the mad rush on Friday and Saturday nights between locations at town halls and venues all over Melbourne in a manic round-robin with other bands of the day: Zoot, Town Criers, Axiom etc.. This mid-week gig wasn’t like that: you were the only act on stage and you stayed all night. You’d just released ‘5:10 Man’. And there I was, probably too shy and inhibited to dance, pressed up against the stage watching you gyrate in your skin-tight black leather outfits. In your book, you explained that you saved a fortune by not having your clothes ripped off every night. All I can think of now is that those leathers must have absolutely reeked. It was probably my first exposure to raw adult male sexuality, flaunted so provocatively.
And so began my Tuesday night ritual, walking around to the St James Rd shops to pick up Go Set to find out where your songs were on the charts and what you were up to this week. The St James Rd shops at that time boasted two milk-bars (the ‘top’ milk-bar and the ‘bottom’ milk-bar), a wool shop, a two-aisle grocers, a butcher, a hairdresser and a fruit shop. [Today, beyond a massage centre and a closed reptile shop, it’s all just small offices.] I received 25c pocket money a week, with which I could buy Go Set for 20c and twenty Tarzan jubes at four a cent. I’d walk home slowly, reading Go-Set as I went, with its very wonky printing, manic layout and its columns by Lily Brett and Molly Meldrum. Apparently, a friend tells me, I was enraged enough to write to Molly to take him to task for attacking you- something I have no memory of at all. Occasionally there would be a colour poster, and it would join the other pictures of you that I had sticky-taped onto the inside of my wardrobe door because I wasn’t allowed to sticky-tape pictures to the wall lest I damage the pink paint.
You’d appear on television, all decked out in your leathers, miming away to your own songs on Up-Tight and Happening 70, shambolic four-hour shows on a Saturday morning that became a much-missed feature once I got a Saturday-morning job at a hardware store.
I joined the Masters Apprentices fan-club and each afternoon arrived home from school hoping that there would be a newsletter. There rarely was, although when one finally did arrive, it was a bulky, typewritten, black-and-white roneo-d and stapled production that gave much pleasure. At one stage ‘Denise, Di and Mrs G.’ put on a function at their house in the eastern suburbs somewhere (Bayswater maybe?) and what seemed like hundreds of girls crammed into their small house, spilling out into the backyard with a fibro garage. Some time later there was another function, this time at Croydon Park, and this time I achieved my dearest wish- you kissed me (along with hundreds of other clamouring fans).
I bought your 45s as soon as they were released and eagerly awaited your L.P. Masterpiece – the first full-price ($5.95) L.P I ever purchased (having been lured until then by the K-Tel Happening Hits compilations). But I must admit that a little bit of the magic must have been fading by now. I can remember listening to the track ‘Titanic’, with the unforgettable chorus
Ti-tan- IC! Ti-tan- IC! Ti-tan- IC!
The unsinkable sank.
The sound of bubbles being blown into a glass of the water as the song faded out was a whimsical touch that even then struck me as rather ridiculous.
Then you went to England, and although Go-Set continued to report on you, you sailed out of my life. But I still always followed your career, and was delighted to re-encounter you at Melbourne Zoo as part of Cotton, Keays and Morris, and again right in my own home territory at Sills Bend, just down the street from that Scots Church gig some forty years earlier. By now you were one of the elder statesmen of the 1970s rock scene, and performing in combination with Darryl Cotton (now also deceased) and Russell Morris (who just keeps getting better and better), I think that I was more appreciative of your talent than I ever was at the time. You’ve been ill for a number of years, but still rocking on, almost right to the end. You recently described your music as ‘garage punk’ and I look back at myself in wonder that I could ever have enjoyed such a genre.
So, thank you Jim Keays. My fourteen-year-old self adored you; my fifty-something self admires you, and we both regret your passing.