Monday, April 2, 2012

Less Fun than it Looks

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 24-25, 2012 

Is there a job in the world that isn’t much less fun than it looks? From a distance, being a Wiggle would appear to be a pretty cushy gig. Roll out of bed at around ten, slip on the coloured shirt for a mid-day show, mingle backstage with some celebrity milfs, then spend the remainder of the day reclining in a hot-tub full of cash. 

Anthony Field, the Blue Wiggle, has written a book that unveils the less glamorous reality: the bad hotels; the terrible food; the backstage arguments, one of them culminating in the throwing of a toy drum kit; the grim logistics of coping with irritable bowel syndrome on the road. Field isn’t complaining, mind you: he keeps stressing that the joy of the live shows makes it all worthwhile. But he leaves you feeling that he and his fellow Wiggles have thoroughly earned their success. 

Field earned his while suffering from a diabolical array of health problems that threatened, at one stage, to curtail his wiggling for good. He pulled himself back from the brink, thanks to an exercise and dietary regime he details in the book’s second half. But it’s the first half, describing how he got to the brink in the first place, that makes for more compelling reading. 

Field played in the Sydney band The Cockroaches as a youngster. An uncomfortable fit as a rock and roller, he eventually quit to finish a degree in early childhood education. This would prove one of the shrewdest career moves made by an entertainer since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. During his final year at university, Field formed a children’s group with two other teaching students – Murray Cook and Greg Page – and the ex-Cockroach Jeff Fatt. The Wiggles were born. (A fifth Wiggle, Phillip Wilcher, played on their first album but left soon afterwards.) 

The group’s early struggles were not all that different from an emerging rock band’s: there were meetings with boneheaded executives, efforts to crack the American market, gruelling tour schedules. Sometimes they played three 90-minute shows a day. Could Keith Richards manage that? 

Probably not, if he had to spend two hours in the backstage toilet every time he ingested something mildly toxic. Field, during his darkest years, was so unhealthy that he made Keith look like Michael Phelps. His problems, according to his own incomplete list, included “hernias, back ailments, broken bones, food sensitivities, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, potentially fatal infections, circulation issues, and exhaustion.” 

Let's pause now to get a few things straight about the Wiggles’ collective health issues. Field is not the Wiggle who left the group to deal with a mysterious fainting illness. That was the Yellow Wiggle, Greg Page, who quit back in 2006, and was reinstated earlier this year, causing his replacement to be controversially stripped of the yellow shirt. (Field’s book, alas, was completed too early to tackle the Wigglegate imbroglio.) 

Nor is Field to be confused with the Purple Wiggle, Jeff Fatt, who had a pacemaker installed in 2011. No: Field is the one who has suffered from just about everything else. He is excellent at evoking what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Fellow sufferers will find some of his observations scarily accurate. “Pain,” he says, “becomes a habit that’s hard to break.” 

Field broke it when he met a holistic chiropractor named James Stoxen. In the book’s second half Field lays out, complete with photographs, the exercise routines with which Stoxen helped him morph from an overweight, pain-racked pill-popper into the chiselled, tattooed specimen depicted on the book’s front cover. (Sidebar question: now that even the Wiggles are getting tattoos, can we agree that the tattoo has officially lost its bad-boy connotations? Who’s getting one next? Kevin Rudd?) 

The book, it must be said, does get rather bogged down exploring the Stoxen philosophy. Stoxen views the body as a giant spring. He carries around a bedspring in his bag to demonstrate this principle. He believes that the spring is divided into seven “floors” or levels. He abhors shoes, and advocates walking around barefooted whenever possible. For all I know, he may be right about these things. But his intonations do sound, prima facie, like those of many other self-help gurus who have gone before him. 

Still, there is no doubt that his techniques have worked for Field. Nor can you question the genuineness of Field’s desire to spread the word. He knows he sounds like an evangelist, but feels that the good news must be shared. His fervour is contagious. At one point I seriously considered rustling up a set of witch’s hats (where do you buy a witch’s hat?) and giving his programme a try. I know how his young fans feel. Field has enthusiasm, and that can’t be faked. Somehow he never lost it, no matter how debilitating his problems got.