DAVE WARNER, comfortably padded father of two, qualified psychologist, author of novels and screenplays, is reflecting on an earlier period of his life, when he wore black all the time and was known as the Grim Reaper:
“We used to do a song called Throbbing Knob, and at the end of it I’d bring out this big plastic cake decorator. I’d worked out that if you filled it with yogurt and did this great sudden plunge, you could ejaculate yogurt over most of the audience. It was very satisfying. The only trouble was that after a while you got this incredibly rancid residue in the cake decorator. So you had to be sure to wash it out every single night.”
The responsibilities of stardom. At the time (1974), Warner was a skinny demon leading a band called Pus. Pus was legendary in Perth, unknown in the eastern States. Scholars will one day declare that Pus was Australia’s first punk band offending the grown-ups long before Johnny Rotten started spitting at audiences in London just as Warner’s rhyming rants with his later, nationally known band, From The Suburbs, were Australia’s first example of what we would now call rap, long before that expression of urban angst was even named in the USA.
In any list of the seminal Australian bands of the 1970s, Dave Warner’s From The Suburbs would appear just below Skyhooks, Dragon, Cold Chisel and Mental As Anything. But that was then. Now he’s 46, Warner’s days as a rock pioneer are long gone (though the royalties from his biggest hit, Just a Suburban Boy, keep trickling in). Now he is finding once again how painful it is to be a prophet in your own land. Early in 1998, he wrote the script for a movie called Cut, which was intended to be simultaneously a horror thriller, a teen comedy, and a satire on the pretensions of the Australian film industry. The screenplay he handed in was rewritten several times by people he knew and people he didn’t know, and eventually came out last month.
In Australia, Cut seems to have flopped: total earnings of $450,000, which means only about 50,000 connoisseurs have been to see it. But the film has been bought by every possible international market, and is expected to do well on video. So Warner is in something of a dilemma about whether to claim authorship. “It ended up both very similar and very dissimilar to the way it started. Most of the characters are what I created, but the dialogue isn’t the same.
“It’s an unusual position to be in because I have ended up with the sole writing credit even though I certainly did not write all of it. I’m pleased it has sold well overseas. Just to have it there after 10 years of working on film scripts gives me a sense of accomplishment. I couldn’t fault the marketing campaign. The response was positive at test screenings, response on the Net was extremely strong. If it had done well the first week and then died the second week, you could say people saw the film and didn’t like it, so word of mouth must have killed it. But it started slowly and stayed that way. I’m at a loss to explain why it didn’t do better here.”
It’s that kind of ambiguous result that makes Warner feel better about his first love: writing books. (“I wanted to be a novelist from the age of 12 I remember writing it down when they gave me a form to fill in at the start of high school, asking what I hoped to be when I grew up.”) At least in the book business, he has control of his words, and he knows who to blame if the book is a failure, and who should smile if the book is a success, as happened with his crime epics City of Light, Big Bad Blood and eXXXpresso. One job he’s unlikely to go back to is rock singing, which was his second love, back at the point in his teenage life when he realised he wasn’t ready yet to write the great novel.
“Rock’n’roll has always been a young person’s game. When you’re a rock’n’roll performer over the age of 40, unless you’re the Rolling Stones or Elton John, basically no-one plays your records,” he said. “Being a kind of rock dinosaur myself, I have a lot of sympathy for performers who are still doing good work. But everything is focused on the youth market now. Australia in particular is a very hard place to have any longevity. The worst thing would be going to a gig and there’s hardly anybody there, and you think, ‘What am I doing singing Just a Suburban Boy for the 6,000th time?'”
I had taken Warner to see a stage show called The Ultimate Rock Symphony, starring such visiting relics as Roger Daltrey (The Who), Paul Rodgers (Free), Gary Booker (Procul Harum) and Peter Frampton (of Humble Pie), plus the local icons Billy Thorpe and Jimmy Barnes. Some of them were Warner’s gods in ages past, so I was puzzled that he seemed largely unmoved. He said the problem with the show was a lack of energy. With an orchestra and a choir behind them, it was difficult for the singers to do the wild things for which they’d been legendary.
“The key element that rock’n’roll performances have, when they are working well, is this huge exchange of energy between the audience and the band,” he said. “There’s no other buzz like being on stage performing. It’s the most immediate satisfaction. This raw energy you are putting out provokes an incredible response from the audience, and they start to go off their heads, which in turned spurs you to greater heights.”
Does he miss that? “I used to. Not any more. I’m not a particularly nostalgic person. I very rarely listen to my old stuff or read my old books, for that matter.” Warner started trying to play rock’n’roll when he was 15, in the Perth suburb of Bicton. His parents bought him a small electric organ and his grandmother bought him the album Absolutely Free, by Frank Zappa, who proved to be highly influential on the way Warner wrote.
“Frank Zappa was anti-everything. He loathed hypocrisy and cant in any form. He hated the fake hippies as much as he hated Nixon-style politics. I remember his lines about going to San Francisco: ‘I’ll stay a week and get the crabs and take a bus back home. I’m really just a phony but forgive me ‘cos I’m stoned. Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet. Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.'” After a variety of musical false starts, and four years at university doing an honours degree in psychology, Warner found himself leading Pus.
He’d read a lot about an American performer called Iggy Pop, who leapt about and gouged himself with drumsticks. Warner’s version of this was to dress in black, call himself the Grim Reaper, and scream his own compositions at the audience while showering them with yogurt. He went to London in 1975, expecting to make his fortune either as a songwriter or as a singer, but London wasn’t yet ready for the Grim Reaper. Just as he was heading back to Australia a year later, the Sex Pistols were starting to break. Home in Perth, Warner pulled together a new band and created a style which came to be called “suburban rock”. Part of it involved haranguing the audience with theatrical recitations which would nowadays be called rap.
“It was an opportunity to vent your anger without having to smash up cars or throw rocks through windows. I didn’t have a great political consciousness. My raves were more social or personal, about the hypocrisy of people who were pretending to be cool drug dealers or Travolta-like disco dancers, or about eastern States’ bands coming and getting the good gigs in Perth or about how some guy had cracked onto your girlfriend and she’d left you.”
From this came the hit songs Just A Suburban Boy (“I know what it’s like to be rejected every night”) and Mug’s Game (“You hit the pub at nine and you’re looking for a root/But you leave alone when it closes/Stash some tinnies in the boot”). Warner was speaking to lonely guys playing vinyl in bedrooms of houses all over the most suburbanised nation on Earth. By 1980, the band had broken up. A deteriorating asthma condition had Warner coughing up blood after particularly energetic performances, and his fourth album, This Is My Planet, got what he considered unfair reviews.
“I thought, ‘Ah stuff it, what’s the point. If it’s not cool to like Dave Warner now, I’ll do something else.’ And that’s when I started writing my first novel, which sits unpublished to this day.” Warner’s literary breakthrough was his discovery of crime. He went to rest his lungs in Crete, and needing to pass the time one overcast day, he bought an Agatha Christie paperback called The Murder of Roger Ayckroyd. “I was just fascinated and went back and bought every Agatha Christie novel I could find. I totally got into it, tried to work out what her process had been, how she set the clues and the red herrings.
“When I was back in Perth, I started organising these murder weekends, where a friend and I would take about 40 people down to an old house, and we’d play out a script I’d written. It took place around the guests, and when they got there nobody was sure who was the cast and who was a guest. “It was complicated, but it worked, and I realised that I knew how to plot. So I thought I should work in that crime genre and not try to do the great Australian novel. Then as I read more modern American crime fiction - Jonathan Kellerman, James Ellroy, and so on I felt that style was right for the books I wanted to do then.”
His first published novel, City of Lights, was about a series of murders of young women abducted from Perth pubs. It won the WA Premier’s Literary Award in 1996. Warner decided he now had a profession. “It was more like: ‘Well I’m nothing else, what the hell am I if I’m not a novelist?'”
His second novel, Big Bad Blood, was about the Sydney underworld of the mid-1960s, and managed to incorporate solutions to classic mysteries such as the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen and the Wanda Beach murders. Although Big Bad Blood has been widely praised for its analysis of police and political corruption, Warner says he didn’t do any special research. He based it simply on what he had observed while playing in Sydney with From The Suburbs in the late 1970s. “After our gigs we used to go and have meals at the Bourbon and Beefsteak about 3am. I met Abe Saffron because he was the owner of the Raffles Hotel, where we played many gigs. He was very gentlemanly.”
His novels sell moderately well, he does occasional radio commentary on AFL matches, and he churns out sporting books, CDs designed for AFL clubs, stage shows, sitcom scripts (none produced so far), and movie scripts (one produced so far). His albums still sell slowly and steadily via his Web site. Does he think the Grim Reaper and The Suburban Boy left a legacy? “Maybe. My main achievement would be in focusing attention for a while on what you might call Realist Rock, giving rock’n’roll some sort of cultural background. You can say a lot with some very simple words, and the best rock’n’roll does that. But the words don’t matter in popular music now. I’m lucky I can say what I want in books.”
Article copyright © David Dale, 2000. First published in The Sydney Morning Herald. Reprinted with permission.