So, Archie Roach is dead at 66. It’s hard to read of the artistic triumphs and the personal catastrophes without a sense of sorrow despite all the admiration. ‘Took the Children Away’ became an anthem but it’s extraordinary what the man went through both before and after fame finally spread the news of his talents: the arrests, the homelessness, the casual but almost systemic abuse of the boy and young man, jailed, sleeping rough, drinking as if it were the only fuel, told of his mother’s death as if it were the merest formality and then the death of his beloved soul mate Ruby Hunter when she was just in her fifties and the long trail of inherited damage, the grand mal seizure, the oxygen apparatus he needed to breathe, the endless time the war with drink took.
Of course, there’s the other side. After several bad set ups he was adopted by the Cox family who adored him and introduced him to all that banks and braes Scottish music and gave him an environment where he could discover popular music from Elvis on. Yes, but there’s also the story of his first day with his foster family and how he got out of bed and stood by it because this was the regimented thing he had been taught to do.
Thank God that the talent burned so bright that it attracted Paul Kelly and Michael Gudinski and Paul Grabowsky. The turning point is when Paul Kelly gets Archie Roach as his primary opening act, as the integral preamble to his own show. And it was Kelly who said that Archie Roach was not only the pre-eminent songwriter, he was also (which is not quite the same thing) the greatest singer of those potent and poignant songs that seem to so many people to be as Archie Roach wanted them to be and saw them as being the primeval and immemorial voice of a culture older than any whitefella could know.
It is a weird thing that Archie Roach’s death, mourned by the multitude of Australians who care about music, should take place on the day of the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures when Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was celebrating indigenous culture, and the recently appointed American ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy, the sole surviving child of JFK, should have been lined up in the outside queue with all the punters to be doled out the communal lunch on a plate. Without her father’s civil rights initiatives, and the massive and systematic shrewdness in the follow-through from his successor LBJ, America would never have become a country that could elect Barack Obama president. Caroline Kennedy, you’ll recall, was an early supporter of his candidacy.
Obama is fond of quoting that paradoxical remark of the great Southern novelist, a very great master of the drama of fiction, William Faulkner, who used to say, the thing about the past was that it wasn’t even past. In a specific way that’s a thread that runs through some of the greater Faulkner novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!
It’s interesting too that Faulkner’s sense of fiction as extended drama is something he shares with Patrick White. Just the other day Charlotte Rampling, who played the mother in Fred Schepisi’s film of The Eye of the Storm – and I watched the delicacy with which Schepisi directed the ‘title’ sequence – was talking about how great she thought the novel was when she was interviewed about her new film Juniper. I also remember how she melted when she talked about working for one of the greatest of all film directors, Visconti, which she did when she made The Damned for him, that savage and sumptuous representation of the prelude to Nazism with Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin and that stunning and sinister young man, Helmut Berger. She also went on to make the S&M classic (if that’s the word) The Night Porter with Bogarde.
Not long before the death of Archie Roach on Saturday there was the news that Stephen Paige was stepping down as the head of the Bangarra Dance Company and handing over the leadership of the most dynamic of all indigenous stage troupes to Frances Rings. Bangarra are doing a show in honour of one of the great Aboriginal divas Ningali Lawford who appeared as an actress in Rabbit Proof Fence and Bran Nue Dae and whose stories inspired Bangarra and who died much too soon at the age of 52 in 2019 of an asthma attack.
Charlotte Rampling came to prominence in the 60s in Georgy Girl and she went on to film Tis Pity She’s A Whore, one of the last plays and one of the starkest to be written under the shadow of Shakespeare. Back in the 60s, David Warner looked as though he might be a great star given his brilliance with Vanessa Redgrave in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. He was never quite that, though Harold Hobson said his Hamlet was the most moving he had seen since Gielgud’s first Hamlet because Warner didn’t have God on his side. Warner was adored by that master of cinematic violence Sam Peckinpah who cast him in The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in Straw Dogs, and in the war film Cross of Iron with James Mason and Maximilian Schell. But he quit the stage for many years though he succeeded in playing Falstaff in 2007 and Lear in 2005. If you want evidence of why he was one of the very greatest actors of his day watch the two parts of Hornblower where he plays a captain who provokes a mutiny. It shows why Warner was as great an actor as his dazzling generation produced.
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