I could feel the fragility of my tiny world and shivered glass-eyed at the vague visions my fear generated. Twenty-one, lost and alone. I had no idea.
The long fade out of my incomplete Bachelor of Arts degree lingered like the heavy, seaweed fog that routinely rolled in from Corio Bay. My old student hostel, once shiny and wild with naïve excitement, now slowly fragmented as its inhabitants graduated or failed or dropped out or went home or just moved out and on. The party was over. To say I chose to stay in Geelong during this time exaggerates my agency. I just let it happen.
Back at my mother’s house, my stepfather was dying of a mysterious illness. He was a good man, but I didn’t know it at the time. I wasn’t prepared for the grief that I was going to feel following his death. I was scared, but I didn’t know that either.
My torpor matched the mood of the nation. Malcolm Fraser was in his lost last year as Prime Minister, a period marked by ‘stagflation’ where rising inflation collided cruelly with escalating unemployment. Bill Hayden battled on as an ungainly, uncertain Opposition Leader.
The music I heard at that time matched my mood but offered little comfort. The sparky Catherine wheel of punk had burned itself out, replaced by the dim, grim, gothic post-punk resonance of the likes of Theatre of Hate, Bauhaus, Magazine and Public Image Limited. Despite the chill, I held the cold chrome sounds of these bands closer to my heart than the top selling singles of 1982. That year we endured the likes of Survivor’s enervating, Eye of The Tiger, Moving Pictures’ glossy in-joke, What About Me?, and the flaccid Key Largo, Bertie Higgins’ only hit.
As the regional youth unemployment rate continued its upward spiral, I accidently landed my first job. Sales assistant at Chris Randle’s Book City, Little Malop St, Geelong. Randle was the first person in this country to sell books by weight, like bananas, like potatoes.
Here I met Lester, an architecture student who also worked at the bookshop. The stereotype of the neat and ordered architect fitted Lester snuggly. He wore a tailored check sports coat and sported a tiny, tidy moustache. One day, after cleaning out his room, he offered me a small stack of LPs. “I never listen to them,” he declared, “They’re yours if you want them.” There were some horrors among his rejected selection, but I found two I thought I’d like and one of these was Jim Steinman’s Bad for Good.
Steinman’s album was, and is, an abomination. Bloated, billowing, histrionic and facile. Like punk had never happened. Its puffy production desperately seeks to punch life into a series of overblown musical corpses posing as songs. Originally written as the follow up to Meat Loaf’s epic Bat Out of Hell, there is little here (including Steinman’s annoyingly thin and weedy voice) that doesn’t strain and overextend itself.
Yet remarkably, and wonderfully, there is one track on this album that justifies my decision to accept Lester’s casual offerings – Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through. This song sounds like Phil Spector has died and is rising to heaven. The track is a religious pop song offering deep gratitude for the divinity that can sometimes find its way into the Top 40. This is a paean to the power of pop to hold, transform and deliver genuine salvation to the listener. When the unknown (and uncredited) Rory Dodd sings Steinman’s lyric, he does so as a man who has been saved by rock and roll, with steady conviction and complete absence of doubt. He sings:
The beat is yours forever
The beat is always new
And when you really really need it the most
That’s when rock and roll dreams come through
I believed. I needed to believe. And while everything else on Bad for Good made me wince, Rock and Roll Dreams brought tears to my eyes.
This is not a hollow hymn – it embodies the very thing its lyrics celebrate via the song’s melody, beat and celestial arrangement. It offers a profound and visceral truth known by fans of music everywhere – that a handful of notes, a simple rhythm, and a clean, heartfelt lyric can sometimes offer divine solace. This song spoke to and supported a young man who held a faint awareness that his already shaken confidence was soon to be shot through by grief, depression and an aching loneliness.
Despite being a musical form that all too often serves up the bland, the banal and the boring, my faith that pop music can somehow, sometimes offer hope, joy and buoyancy remains within me to this day. And when I experience this uplift, Steinman’s words sum it up better than most:
You’re never alone cause you can put on the phones
And let the drummer tell your heart what to do.