Memoir

Child's play

In memory of Harvey. Dedicated to Donna.

 

IN 1977, ON a windy summer day, two thirteen-year-olds walked into a milk bar on Sydney's Broadway and, as they often did, struck up a conversation with a complete stranger, sharing their love of Sherbet, the Australian pop phenomenon du jour, star act of an outdoor concert held that day across the road at Victoria Park. The stranger turned out to be Mike Meade, host of Flashez, an ABC TV music show. Captivated by the fans' fervour, he asked if he could interview them. In the park, before the camera, the girls, poised between the wholesomeness of childhood and the waywardness of adolescence, poured their hearts out. This slice of film is now a time capsule testimony for a generation of Sherbet worshippers.

When I heard that Harvey James, the English-born guitarist of Sherbet, had died, I remembered those crazed and vivacious, bold and unspeakably vulnerable girls, and the young man who had been kind to them at the height of his fame. Harvey died of lung cancer, in Melbourne on 15 January 2011, aged just fifty-eight. Donna and I heard the news as women of forty-seven.

Following his death I found that six months earlier Harvey's children, Gabriel, Alexandra and Josh, had set up a Facebook page when he was diagnosed. I joined 'Send your love to Harvey James', where hundreds of fans were paying homage, alongside Harvey's family, friends and musical comrades. There were many photographs of Harvey, including some from Sherbet – photos I had mooned over when they covered my bedroom wall, photos that went everywhere I went, images burned deep in the still reverberating pubescent region of my psyche.

Though Harvey was the object of my fanatical affections, devotion to my best friend was the heart of my Sherbet passion. Donna and I had met when we were about six, after my mother and I moved into the house across from hers in Annandale and into the same class. It was the early 1970s and a quiet neighbourhood, made more interesting by the mysterious 'Abbey' around the corner, a fifty-room gothic mansion rumoured to be haunted. We bonded swiftly and fiercely, our friendship characterised by outrageous pranks. We packed our mothers' bras with tissues, stuffed small pillows under our clothes and wandered around talking up the trials of faux-pregnancies. We plotted against my mother's boyfriend, a childish alcoholic whom I despised. We stole flowers from gardens and planned to start a guerrilla florist business. We made up unflattering ditties about our nemesis, a rude, bespectacled bully who tortured animals. We choreographed elaborate routines to popular songs and performed them for our families and schoolmates. We devised escapades on family outings and shared beds during countless sleepovers. We were the daughters of mostly absent fathers and often troubled mothers, and we took refuge in our friendship. When we were grounded, as punishment for some especially dastardly transgression, life felt sunless and unbearable, and I watched, desperately, the front of her house for signs of Donna, living for the day I could see her again.

Time rolled on and brought with it changes: new homes and schools, first in the miserable Eastern Suburbs abode of the boyfriend I loathed and in a class with a teacher who took an instant dislike to me. I missed Donna and Annandale North Primary terribly, often crying before school. Then there were consuming years of fun, high drama and pseudo-sisterhood in Glebe with my mother's new boyfriend and his daughter of the same age. During that time Donna's family moved further west, out Concord way, and though we had few opportunities to meet, we stayed in contact and remained best friends.

I was twelve when, finally alone with my mother, I had enough impatient autonomy to pursue my own wishes. I was granted permission to travel by train to Donna's on weekends, and we resumed regular contact as if the years between had never intervened. Recent years have revealed our different perceptions of who was the leader and who was the follower – I maintain I followed her lead and she is convinced she followed mine. Even so, I am certain it was Donna who instituted two key rites of passage: smoking and Sherbet. Donna's influence on me is irrefutably captured: in the Flashez clip I mimic her speech, a manner of speaking so notable that Chris James, Harvey's girlfriend in 1977, and later his wife and the mother of their children, asked on Facebook if I still had 'that unique accent'. I replied no, I didn't, because it was not mine.

Our fondness for Sherbet reached hysteria during a summer holiday at my grandparents' Maroubra flat. Somewhere amid excursions to the beach in knit bikinis to work on our tans and flirt with surfers, and lusty binges on lollies and fast food, we got focused about Sherbet. Donna had already declared Daryl Braithwaite her true love and another friend, Fiona, had laid claim to Garth Porter, so – Alan (Sandow), the drummer, being too bare– and hairy-chested for my virginal liking and Tony (Mitchell), the bass player, being too dark and curly haired for my Anglo-child taste – I settled on Harvey, the replacement for founding member Clive Shakespeare.

Tall and lean, with intelligent blue eyes, feathery honey-brown hair and an impish grin, Harvey became mine the moment we launched our project of pop paradise. We enlisted my grandmother to make us satin jackets of the kind favoured by Sherbet, with 'Daryl' and 'Harvey' embroidered on them. We wore them constantly, pasted posters on our bedroom walls, and listened to Sherbet songs over and over again. And when school resumed we spent every weekend together pining.

It wasn't just about the music – though we liked the songs. It wasn't so much about Harvey himself, though he was a good musician who turned out to be a good man. It was the instigation of adult desire, a ritual in girls' tribal life: the teen celebrity crush. Sherbet offered a thrilling escape.

The year after we started high school – suburbs apart – Donna and I ramped up our commitment. It was no longer enough to listen to records and gaze on Sherbet's backlit, big-haired, semi-nude form in glossy pictures. We had to meet them.

Sherbet were huge. The band were not manufactured, as charged, expressly for teenyboppers, but they attracted a big pre-teen and teen following. Some assume a child audience devalues music as the kind fit only for undeveloped, indiscriminating tastes, but at their best, like the Beatles and the Jackson 5, Sherbet produced pop that defied age. They had eleven top-ten singles, were the first Australian band to break the million-dollar sales barrier, and they appeared on Countdown more than any other band in the show's history.

Sherbet put out their share of forgettable fodder, but their finest stand up: heartfelt everyman anthems like their '71 big-band, crowd-cheering cover of 'Free the People' (an early favourite); soft rock classics like 'Slipstream' and 'Cassandra'; the delicately pretty 'Only One You'; the bass-heavy 'You've Got the Gun'; and the unapologetically sentimental ballad 'If I Had My Way'.

In 1977, at the start of our all-out fandom, Sherbet were the biggest band in the country and you couldn't get near them. Still, Donna and I were not average fans. We crossed the line to obsession. When Mike Meade interviewed us we were at the threshold:

Do you go to all their concerts?

Me: Yeah, most of them.

Donna: All that we can.

 

Do you follow them around?

Me: If we know where they're going we do.

 

In what way do you try and catch up with them?

Donna: Find out where they live.

 

Do you know where they live?

Me: Yeah. We know where Harvey lives. We know where Garth lives. We know half of Garth's phone number.

 

So, you know where they live. Have you been around there?

Me: No, not yet.

Toward the end of the interview, asked how we hoped to meet them, I reply with an earnest, 'Any way we can. I've just got a feeling we're going to meet them.'

Mike Meade replies wryly, 'I still feel that way about the Beatles.'

Donna nudges me and whispers for me to tell him what Harvey said. I respond obediently: 'Harvey says in this little book we've got – Sherbet or Harvey, I don't know – your dreams can always come true if you believe your mind.'

'And we believe our minds,' concludes Donna.

 

WE BEGAN HANGING around EMI when we knew they were recording. We got autographs from most of them, but Daryl managed to evade us. Soon after we started spending every weekend staking out their houses. The weekends were crowded with other fans that had done their homework and had the moxie to loiter. Donna maintains that we were friendly to them and enjoyed a sense of camaraderie, but not without some bitchiness and jealousies. I recall a sense of competition, a drive to prove ourselves the biggest Sherbet fans ever.

Before long we were forging our mother's signatures on sick notes and wagging school to stalk them unfettered by rivals. We'd meet at Central Station, then catch buses or hitchhike around Sydney in chase.

Our interest grew beyond tobacco, and there were various getting-high experiments in the nooks and crannies of Central – the Aspirin and Coke failure, and the smoking nutmeg disappointment. Eventually I managed to source a supply of joints. After smoking one we'd giggle irrepressibly for hours at everything and anything, up the back of buses, walking along the street, in people's faces. We spent a lot of time at Garth's in Watsons Bay, perhaps because it was in the nicest location. There was glass at the back of the house, and we'd watch Garth and his girlfriend, Mary, and sometimes the whole band, hoping they'd notice us – the biggest Sherbet fans ever – and reward us with their time and favour.

Harvey lived in Paddington, and we made personal contact with him several times from our many stakeouts. He was the sweetest to us, the one who seemed to see beyond the fan stereotype to the girls we were, the one who returned a little of our love.

'The first time we knocked on his door and he opened it he knew who we were from the Flashez film clip. He was so happy to see us,' Donna recalls. 'He said something like "You're the girls from the interview – that was fantastic!" and he had a big smile on his face.'

Another day he let me use his bathroom, my ploy to get a glimpse inside his life. But the best meeting took place at Garth's. We were out front and the sun was beginning to set after a day of waiting. Harvey walked out, shook his head and said, 'Are you girls still here?' He asked where we were headed and we told him we had to get to the city. 'Jump in, I'll give you a lift,' he said, opening the door of his Jaguar. 'It was only because he knew us from the Flashez clip, and he liked us and we'd already met him,' Donna says of the remarkable gesture. 'That's the only reason we got the lift. He wasn't going to put just any Sherbet girls in his car.'

I distinctly remember that when 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina' came on I said, 'I hate this song,' and Harvey said, 'Me too,' and I swooned. Donna insists that Harvey said he loved the song. 'Whenever I hear it I think of Harvey. I love that song now,' she says.

Donna's quest was more arduous. Daryl was the hardest to pin down and took the longest to meet. In a photo of Donna with Daryl that I took on the day we finally cornered him, now battered and bent from decades in her wallet, Donna is crying. 'We'd gone around there a few times and never met him, but that particular day he did come down and that's why I was crying, because I finally got to meet Daryl in person,' says Donna. 'There was another time he came down with his German Shepherd, Sebastian, and got in his car. You and I ran down the street, jumped in a
taxi and said, "Quick, follow that car!" We followed for a while but the taxi lost him.'

Then it came back to me, the way we'd flag a cab, forage with increasing alarm among our belongings before confessing that we had no money to pay the fare, coyly playing dumb as we conned our way through the days with bubbly, cheeky charm. Donna says people let us get away with it because we were nice and made their day interesting. We talked to anyone, preaching the Gospel of Sherbet. 'We were always telling everybody how much we loved Sherbet. It's all we spoke about,' she says.

There was a dark side to this carefree rollicking. We both felt a chill recalling unsettling encounters and close shaves, when we accepted food, money or favours from sleazy benefactors before making speedy getaways, laughing with relief and bravado at the dark potential we had eluded. 'We put ourselves in such danger didn't we?' Donna now says in hushed tones.

 

OUR YEAR OF zealous fandom ended gradually. I left school midway through the second year of high school, and by the time I left home at fifteen to commence my juvenile nomadic travels Donna and I had drifted apart. The next year I moved to London and Donna met Ian, the boy who lived five doors down; they went on to marry and have two children. In the three decades since, Donna and

Ian have lived not far from Concord, while I've lived eight of my nine lives in different states and countries, in six long-term relationships. 'Our lives just took a different path, didn't they?' Donna observes.

Our lives also took a different path regarding Sherbet. Donna remained a staunch, lifelong fan, while I went on to disown my Sherbet roots in Sydney's 1980s post-punk live music scene. Keeping company with indie musicians I forgot my soft-rock past, as my childhood best friend, Donna Rowlands, became Mrs Donna Shelton.

Donna and Ian regularly go see Daryl's band play and she still listens to Sherbet. 'That time of being thirteen was magic, but also I really love their music. I think they were so talented and their music was meaningful. I often come home and put Sherbet on and dance around the kitchen,' she says.

She tells her family Daryl's her boyfriend and asks her indulgent man if she can take Daryl home as they leave his shows. The kids roll their eyes and groan good-humoured complaints about her fascination with 'Stale Braithwaite'. 'I still love Daryl,' she says. 'And I love that I've got a husband who is kind and that has always let me have my Daryl fantasy.'

After Harvey's death I wondered if Donna had heard the news. When I called I found her distraught that she had missed out on tickets to the 'Gimme that Guitar' Harvey James tribute show, a fundraiser Harvey helped organise but which became a musical memorial following his sooner-than-expected death.

I promised to see what I could do. I posted a YouTube link to the Flashez clip on the 'Send Your Love' page, with a plea for tickets. The clip had become a cultural icon. Donna discovered it in a Powerhouse Museum exhibit on the history of Australian rock years back and it aired recently on Rage. Debbie Kruger, the show's publicist, responded: the event had sold out, so it had been moved to the Enmore Theatre and more tickets had been released. Many fans were delighted to hear from us, 'the Flashez girls'. Donna and Ian shouted me a ticket, and the following week we met up for our first outing and Sherbet show in decades.

It was billed as the last Sherbet reunion ever, and part of every ticket sold was donated to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the rest to Harvey's family. Libby Gore, the comedian and an unabashed Sherbet fan, was MC for a time-warp line-up that included Kevin Borich, Jon English, Leo Sayer, Ian Moss and Richard Clapton. But Sherbet stole the show. With Daryl's voice in outstanding form, the old tunes received more than just nostalgic appreciation. Gabe James (Harvey's eldest) joined on guitar for 'I Have the Skill', a favourite of his dad's, and younger brother Josh added his weight to 'Howzat'. The finale, a cover of the Beatles' 'With a Little Help from My Friends', requested by Harvey and performed by a stage full of his friends, colleagues and family, was steeped in warm remembrance and grief.

As Donna danced I marvelled at the men present in AC/DC and Ramones T-shirts. I was surprised to bump into Steve Lorkin – ex-Psychotic Turnbuckles and chief of an indie label that hosted the likes of Johnny Dole and the Scabs, boasting a Radio Birdman T-shirt. When I said I wouldn't have picked him for a Sherbet fan, he replied that he liked 'more embarrassing stuff than Sherbet'.

It turned out that Harvey's family loved the Flashez clip, and Donna and I were ushered past tight security to post-show VIP drinks. Understandably emotional, Chris James and Harvey's kids nevertheless greeted us, and their entourage of friends and family members seemed as excited to meet us as we once were to meet Sherbet. Chris, who remembered us from our Underwood Street stalking, told us that she had 'loved every minute' of being a Sherbet guy's babe and had never minded fans like us, and Alexandra explained that our clip was special to her and her brothers because, as they were born well after Harvey's Sherbet superstardom, they hadn't understood how big his band had been. Our clip, she said, made them feel like they could go back in time and be part of their father's world. Watching the clip now I am amused and moved, awed by our innocence and excruciatingly embarrassed.

The Sherbet catalogue is undeniably significant in Australian music. It is the soundtrack to an era when the lucky country was still somewhat adolescent (as well as ignorant and awkward): a nation not yet on the world stage, not yet digitised and wired, isolated in its own summery postcolonial puberty.

Ultimately, my love of Sherbet, and all that I did in the name of that love, was about friendship. Donna was my solace, my partner in playful crime and the place where I could most be what I needed to be – a child. And so it is gratitude for Donna and her loyalty and companionship that I feel most keenly and tenderly when I watch those two besotted girls declaring their undying love of Sherbet.

Donna's most vivid memory is of me looking at her and singing 10CC's 'The Things We Do for Love,' the theme song for our misadventures. 'If I hear it now,' she says, 'I think of you singing it to me.

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