Earl O’Neill
Leichardt, Sydney, 1985

“What, you haven’t heard it?” said a surprised Greg and he slapped the single, an original pressing, of course, onto the turntable and gave the volume a serious nudge.

1985, I was 19, Greg 32, we’d only recently met but would become the very best of friends. He taught me about music, string sections f’rinstance. I was hip to horns, having a few Stax albums by then, but strings? Wasn’t that what my parents listened to? He got me there, eventually. By 21C, when we’d be having just another six hour conversation in his loungeroom, we’d pause every now and then to pay attention to a song or a passage of music and then I’d say something like “Wow, that’s a terrific oboe solo.”

He told me a story about a friend of his who’d gone over to Detroit just to see Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, tracked them down to a bar in the dirtiest part of town and there were six people in the audience. No-one really cared about a band featuring Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, formerly guitarist in the MC5, Scott ‘Rock Action’ Asheton, ex-Stooges drummer, Scott Morgan, ex-Rationals singer and guitarist and Gary Rasmussen, ex The Up bassplayer.

They couldn’t even afford to mix and master two songs for the sole single released in the band’s lifetime. So City Slang, released in 1978, was on both sides: one labelled ‘Stereo’, the other ‘Mono’ – tho there was no difference.

Listen to it. It starts with a bass riff, the drums come in, nice and tight. Then it explodes.

Couple years later, I tracked down a French album with Ron Asheton’s Destroy All Monsters on one side and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band on the other. It wasn’t an original pressing of the single, but it was mine and I could listen to it whenever I wanted.

City Slang became something of a touchstone, a leitmotif thru my life. I lived in Surry Hills, right at the centre of inner-city rock and roll. I went out five or six nights a week, to catch bands or hang out in sleazy bars or just be out. What if something happened and I was at home watching telly? That’d never do. Sex, drugs and rock and roll were too important for a young fellow. I played guitar in bands, some half-serious, some half-hours.

Late ’93, Hearney sold the Hopetoun and that was the end of that wonderful era, that started in 1974 when Radio Birdman got together. It was a mesh of factors, a generation of hip kids who were seeking excitement, a time when inner-city rents were cement-cheap, the dole was easy to fiddle and rock and roll still seemed like something important.

City Slang rattled thru my mental jukebox, with ever more potency. Those last notes of Fred’s guitar, just before the fadeout, climbing and falling, climbing and falling, sum up the desperate urgency that we felt, that rock and roll was on its last legs. And so it proved.

Not that there aren’t any hotshit rock and roll bands around anymore, but they’re old men playing to an aging audience. City Slang never went platinum and no-one knows the lyrics. When the song was recorded, Fred took some papers from his pocket, put them on a music stand for the duration and re-pocketed them as soon as the song was done. None of the band saw them.

That’s wonderful! It only adds to the mystery of this song and to the interpretations any of us can put to it.

Greg and I continued to talk at great length. Renal cancer ate him from the inside out. Jenny and I did our first proper motorcycling road trip together in October ’11 and I sent him a picture of us on the Sprint on a dirt road outside Gulgong. His reply was almost the last coherent thing I heard from him. A few days later I was in Royal Prince Alfred, demanding the staff do something for my brother when he was obviously in great pain. We didn’t share bloodlines, but, by the gods, we were brothers.

Fred Smith married Patti Smith, retired from music, raised a family, got a pilot’s licence, made a large and little acknowledged contribution to her comeback album and died in November 1994.

Greg married Colleen, his #1 girl since 1973, 36 hours before he died. I brought along a portable CD player and played soul songs. Colleen, Jenny and I were there for his last conscious moments, when he awoke from the painkillers in agony, when I held out my arm for him to grasp and said “It’s okay brother, I can handle it” and he gripped my arm with all his strength and gasped “Thank you Earl.”


Detroit, Chicago, New York, LA

They’re all talking ‘bout City Slang