Eureka Hotel, Geelong. Late 1981
I heard Goanna a lot of times in a lot of places in the early 1980s – the Grand Pacific in Lorne, the Collendina in Ocean Grove, the Station Hotel in Prahran, Macy’s in Toorak, Chasers in St Kilda Rd, the Prospect Hill in Kew, Festival Hall when James Taylor toured, the Myer Music Bowl, to remember just a few. But mostly I heard Goanna at the Eureka Hotel, tucked away in Little Malop St, Geelong.
I was studying literature and writing in Melbourne but came home weekends to work at my parents’ TAB in Geelong West and to catch up with high school friends.
The Eureka hosted a who’s who of 1980s Australian pub rock. Ariel, Australian Crawl, Chain, Richard Clapton, Dragon, Mondo Rock and Weddings, Parties Anything played there regularly.
For Goanna, a Geelong band (via Warrnambool), the Eureka was their home ground, their stomping ground, their stamping ground. From the Eureka, Goanna took on the world. Or parts thereof.
Solid Rock took on the cause of Indigenous Australia. There had, and have, been other songs about the plight of Australia’s aborigines (Living In The Land Of Oz by Ross Wilson, Beds Are Burning by Midnight Oil, Treaty by Yothu Yindi, to name just three) but Solid Rock has stayed with me much more than the others.
That’s partly because it’s such a compelling, surging song and partly because – in my innocence and naivety – I tried to get too close to the band. As an aspiring journalist brought up on Rolling Stone magazine, I thought I could chronicle the band’s rise and rise. But can a fan be a journalist? Can a journalist be a fan? I found out I was just a groupie, with Goanna posters on my walls and, at most gigs, a notepad and a pen in my hand.
I had a filing cabinet drawer bulging with notes for Goanna stories. Some got published, some didn’t. None hit the mark the way I’d hoped. Still, it was an exciting ride for a while, especially when Solid Rock was released in October 1982 and spread way beyond the Eureka Hotel, going to number two on the charts.
But within a few years – 1985 – the band had fallen apart and I had learnt the hard way that it’s better to make your way by writing short articles about lots of bands than sticking to one band and one band only. And that it’s better to write about the wider world too – family, home, work, grief, love, parenting, sport. Life.
Goanna only released three albums: 1982’s Spirit of Place and 1985’s Oceania and the reunion album, 1998’s Spirit Returns. But songwriter Shane Howard has kept writing songs and has released a dozen solo albums. You won’t find another song like Solid Rock amongst them but you’ll find a fine body of sensitive work, a life’s work. (Check out, for instance, Rather Be Here from the 2006 album Songs of Love and Resistance and Don’t Give Up On Us from the 2010 album Goanna Dreaming.)
For many years I didn’t have a copy of the Solid Rock single or the Spirit of Place album in my Melbourne home. I’d heard the song often enough. Too often, probably. I deliberately left the single and the album at my parents’ beach home, 120 kilometres away – half-an-hour from the Eureka Hotel in Geelong and only a few dozen curves in the Great Ocean Road from the Grand Pacific in Lorne. I needed to hear other songs, see other bands. I needed to keep an emotional distance.
And, I felt I was an impostor – living my comfortable suburban life I would wonder, What have I ever done to help Indigenous people? I wore a land rights T-shirt for a while way back then; can still sense an alone-ness in wearing it at a Boxing Day Test match.
But, did I go to marches and rallies? Did I write letters to newspapers, to politicians? Did I join action groups? Did I wear badges? Put stickers on the back of the car? Did I ever really stand up to be counted, apart from in a pub listening to the song?
There’s a poster saying ‘You are on Aboriginal land’ in my study. There’s a wall map of Aboriginal nations in the family room. There’s a small print called Rainbow Serpent on the wall of the lounge-room. There’s a dictionary of Aboriginal words on a bookshelf. There’s a story I wrote for The Big Issue on another bookshelf. But are these objects political statements or household ornaments?
I console myself they are, at the very least, attempts to make a connection, a connection I might never have tried to make if not for a song.
Shane Howard is touring his new album, Deeper South, in 2015, beginning in February.
Further reading: Warwick McFadyen, of The Age, on the 30th anniversary of Solid Rock.