Saturday, November 22, 2014

A barrage of blows

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 22-23, 2014

What can you say about Molly Meldrum that hasn’t already been said, less eloquently, by the man himself? Not much, was always the answer. Now, with the appearance of his genially candid and self-deprecating autobiography, Molly has put even more of himself out there than was out already. Like its author, the book is impossible to dislike. Showbiz is rife with people who claim not to take themselves seriously but really do. Molly really doesn’t. In a celebrity memoirist – in a memoirist of any stripe – this is a rare quality. 

The book, we are told, has been in the works since 1979, and has passed through the hands of several ghost writers along the way. No doubt that’s why it feels a bit all over the place structurally. It jumps around in time a lot. Molly’s narrative is constantly being interrupted by quotations, of varying relevance, from other industry figures. (“I will never forget the encouraging smile of Molly,” Plastic Bertrand breaks in to inform us at one point.) Important things are mentioned only once or twice. We hear very little about the head injury that nearly killed the author in late 2011. His childhood is skimped. His mother appears in the index only once, which is one less time than Wa Wa Nee. 

Then again, who would want to read a straight-faced autobiography of Molly Meldrum? Skimming over the stuff about short pants and personal demons, Molly gives us the full scoop on the Countdown years. Few readers will be disappointed by this emphasis. The book is rich with behind-the-scenes lore and gore. Elton John chucks a tanty, not unreasonably, when Molly implies that Hall & Oates are a superior live act. The guy from The Human League, suffering from toothache, throws a Cherry Ripe at a fan in the ABC canteen. Iggy Pop terrifies a studio full of schoolgirls by ramming a mike down his already thoroughly occupied trousers. 

Come to think of it, that last incident did not occur behind the scenes. It happened in the full gaze of the Countdown cameras. So did a lot of other surreal and spontaneous things. That was the charm of Molly’s show: the songs may have been mimed, but the action had a potential for chaos that was well worth tuning in for. 

Considering his verbal abilities, it comes as small surprise to learn that Molly was never meant to be Countdown’s host. He was hired to be its talent co-ordinator. He landed in front of the camera by accident, and accident became the keynote of his career. The audience seemed to like his naturalness, not to say his incompetence. His signature method of endorsing product – “do yourself a favour” – evolved as a sly way of getting around the ABC’s strict ban on advertising.

Mind you, he uttered that catchphrase when holding up many a dud piece of wax. His enthusiasm, at times, seemed so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. But Molly has heard this complaint before. He’s heard a lot of complaints before. To prove it, he generously repeats, in the pages of this book, some of the harshest things his detractors have ever said about him. A magazine writer alleges that Molly has “no obvious talent.” The late guitarist Lobby Loyde calls Countdown “the death of music … definite Satan land … a shit show … the beginning of the fucking end.” 

It’s a measure of Molly’s sheer good humour that he will quote such stuff in his own memoir. He offers some persuasive comebacks, too. Did he like pretty much everything he played? Yes, but he only had an hour to fill each week. Why fill it with stuff he didn’t care for? Did Countdown put the emphasis on pop, if not pap? Yes, but the show was aimed at kids. If you could get youngsters into the lightweight stuff, Molly felt, there was a fair chance they’d get into the better stuff later on. That is surely a valid point. Taste matures. The thing to acquire early on is passion.

As a poster-boy for that, Molly was the always right choice. He’s been a man of immoderate enthusiasms since his youth. During the Beatles’ tour of 1964 he contracted an alarming case of Beatlemania. At one of their Festival Hall shows, just before Paul launched into “Long Tall Sally,” Molly went so ape that security had to throw him out. A couple of years later, his beloved St Kilda won their first and only premiership flag. Molly was there, but he wasn’t conscious. He had fainted a minute before the final siren. 

If Molly wasn’t Molly, one would take that anecdote with a grain of salt. But we know, from years of video evidence, that the guy doesn’t do things by halves. Consider his notorious train-wreck of an interview with Prince Charles, which took place in 1977. Molly was an ardent Royalist. Moreover, the occasion required him to memorise a Palace-approved script, and memorisation had never been his bag. As a consequence, he got nervous. Not just nervous, but cartoon nervous. He looked like the world’s hammiest actor portraying the quality of nervousness in a game of charades. 

Molly’s written account of this incident makes you wish he were as good at evoking disasters as he was at causing them. We’re told that he breached protocol by referring to the Prince’s “mum.” “Prince Charles corrected me: ‘You mean Her Majesty The Queen.’” This, Molly seems to think, was a big deal. But we have to take his word for it, because he forgets, a bit crucially, to tell us what tone of voice Charles corrected him in. Was the Prince outraged, or more amused than annoyed? Or was he not annoyed at all? Is Molly playing up the exchange to make it seem worse than it really was? It’s hard to tell. Sometimes detail is everything. Without it, a world-class anecdote can fall flat. 

Molly isn’t always so deaf to the eloquent detail. Writing about his childhood, he recalls, touchingly, that he liked going to a friend’s house because the friend had AktaVite, which Molly’s family couldn’t afford. That is the sort of particular that brings you closer to a writer. Unfortunately Molly tends to shelve his relish for specifics when talking about his encounters with the famous. “A highlight for me was getting to talk with one of my heroes, The Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin.” Yes, but what did you talk about? The White Album? The weather? If Molly can remember, he doesn’t let on. Sir George’s cameo ends there, as if the presence of the big name is interesting in itself. No doubt it was, if you were there. 

Jeff Jenkins, Molly’s officially credited ghost, must have faced a dilemma when hammering Molly’s reminiscences into shape. Clearly, he couldn’t knock off too many rough edges, or add pertinence at every turn. Prose Molly still had to sound like the real Molly, within reason. And on the whole he does. He tells his stories the way he tells them on TV: with gusto, but with a tendency, like Shakespeare’s Kent, to mar a curious tale in telling it. 

This is a recurrent feature of celeb literature, and indeed of life in general. The people to whom the most interesting things happen are rarely the same people who know how to tell a good story. Most of us, if we got into a fistfight with Johnny Rotten, would memorise the encounter in incredible detail. We would hone it into our premier anecdote; we would burnish it with each telling. Molly, who really does claim to have gone toe-to-toe with Rotten, describes the moment in disappointingly vague terms. “I unleashed a barrage of blows on Rotten.” Okay, but what was Rotten doing? Screaming? Bleeding? Fighting back? There is an art to making unlikely things sound as if they really happened. 

But odd stuff happens to Molly so often that he doesn’t seem to realise how odd it is. It has been a big and improbable life. His enthusiasm and his large-heartedness seem improbable too, so over-the-top that they can’t possibly be real. But they are, and they make you forgive him for shortcomings you’d deplore if he was anybody else. Okay, so he’s a bit of a name-dropper. He has a weakness for pranks, double entendres, and other less advanced forms of humour. He enjoys the company of people who quip that they have never turned right when boarding an aeroplane. 

Why are we inclined to give Molly a free pass on these things? Is it love? Yes, why not admit it? It would be unpatriotic not to love the guy. He takes some of the better elements of the national character – lack of pretension, a love of simple pleasures – and cranks them up to eleven. He’s not a genius, but he’s never claimed to be. He’s never claimed to be anything he’s not. He started being affably unsecretive about his sexuality – “I’m bisexual,” he confirms at one point – in an era when that could be career suicide. If it isn’t any more, that’s largely because of the bravery of people like him. He’s part of the family. We grew up with him. If he’s never entirely grown up himself, who would want it any other way?