A Short History of Me Part Five: “New Sensations”

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In 1987 my life changed gears: new educational institution, new home and new relationship. Although I was drained from the breakdown of my marriage to Julia, I still managed to jump straight into a relationship with one of my fellow NSWIT students, Nikki. She was not only very striking but also possessed a sharp mind, a thirst for knowledge and an affinity for animals. She too had just come out of a failed marriage. Everyone was urging us to take it easy and go slowly – but we didn’t. This was mostly my fault. As we both needed somewhere new to live, it made sense to me for us to move in together. So we did – into a one bedroom flat in North Sydney, near Brett Whiteley’s place at Lavender Bay. Just me, Nikki…and her two guinea pigs. Can’t say I was a huge fan of my stinky little flat mates. Unfortunately, as compatible as Nikki and I were on many levels, it was the timing that sucked. Not only were neither of us really ready to move immediately on from our marriages, she was also seven years older and had different priorities. Plus, as in my marriage, my focus remained largely self-involved. So after only six months, our relationship seemed to kind of dissolve more than break up. But about ten years later – fate had a reprisal in store.

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Whilst my focus was still on acquiring the skills for a media career, the location had changed from the inner city and NSWIT (now UTS – University of Technology, Sydney) to the suburbs and AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School). Having failed to get into AFTRS twice before, by the time I did – I wasn’t really sure it was where I wanted to go – especially after already having been a student for about five years. Fortunately, my timing was perfect. They had decided to offer a few places for one year ‘extension courses’ for applicants who had already had a bit of experience. So I signed up for an extension in producing and headed out to the boring burbs.

 

AFTRS, at least back then, was a mixed blessing. Great facilities, amazing industry access and, importantly, you actually got paid to go there. But it was a long way out – a real pain to access via public transport – the building and surrounding area were sterile (a far cry from the buzz of the inner city) and the bureaucracy was painful (though it did teach me how to work a system – like booking a production van for months on end for my personal transport).

 

It did provide some awesome opportunities, however, like when I went on an attachment to the shoot for INXS’ “Need You Tonight” clip. This will definitely be ‘stand alone post’ (SAP) at some stage. But for the record, I wasn’t really an INXS fan (though I begrudgingly liked a few of their songs). I was far more interested in seeing director Richard Lowenstein, the 80’s indie film and music clip wunderkind. But the person who made the biggest impression on me was, of course, Michael Hutchence. I had never thought that much of him as a rock star but when meeting him – was quite stunned at how different he looked in person. I remember watching him perform in front of the camera and seeing this amazingly good looking, uber-cool dude. Then, I would look at the little tv monitor and there was ‘Michael Hutchence’. Amazing transformation – far cooler in the flesh. He was also quite affable – more than happy to sign an autograph for my teenage sister – who actually was a genuine fan (and who later embellished the truth somewhat by telling her friends that I had actually directed the clip!). Anyway, the experience and the fact that it’s actually such a great song (and clip) converted me into being an INXS fan.

Definitely the biggest advantage of AFTRS was working with other like-minded students on well resourced productions. The first film I ever production managed was Greg Woodland’s “Green”, a bigger than Ben Hur environmental epic, that taught me, amongst other things, that I was never going to cut it as a production manager. I preferred assistant directing, where you were at least part of the action. It was while assisting on “A Telegram for Mrs. Edwards”, a non verbal war tragedy, that I first got to work with the stupendously talented, Kriv Stenders (who years later directed “Red Dog”). He looked the part – with his swept back blonde locks, glasses and white t-shirt. Kriv had been directing for years, starting as a Super 8 whizz kid. I was lucky enough to produce his final year film, “Horrible Man”, where we took advantage of the size of the brand new AFTRS studio by shooting an elephant (though not literally). After film school, we worked together on several music videos, including a couple for my favourite band at the time, “Mental As Anything” (SAP to come). I also produced clips for a couple of other talented AFTRS mates, David Caesar (extremely down to earth, no bullshit director of two of my all time favourite Aussie films: “Idiot Box” and “Mullet”) and Brendon Young, the Fellini fanatic. Interestingly, not one of this trio was actually enrolled in the AFTRS Directing department – they were all Cinematography students.

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No animals were harmed in “Horrible Man”

 

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“Horrible Man”

 

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Me, Kriv and Greedy on ‘World Seems Difficult’ clip

 

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Keeping my hero Reg dry

 

 

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With Brendan Young on Mental’s ‘Overwhelmed’ clip

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Brendan and a broken winged Greedy

 

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Mentals in action

 

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David Caesar directing a fruit shoot for a “My Friend the Chocolate Cake” clip

 

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Lamington anyone?

 

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Although I had moved on from NSWIT, I hadn’t abandoned my ‘baby’ –“Off Air” video magazine. I was able to talk AFTRS into letting me and the Off Air team produce it there – with much better resources of course. It felt good to infiltrate film school with my former NSWIT mates – at least two of whom ended up there shortly thereafter. In 1988, we produced the “Sink the Fleet” issue, in response to all the bi-centennial bullshit that was happening that year. For the opening sequence, we paid these kids to take model ships into the harbour just after it had rained and we filmed them, obscuring the sign that warned people not go into the harbour just after it rained. When the kids said they were feeling sick – we paid them five bucks and then got the hell away. Hope they’re still with us.

 

While that would become the final “Off Air” ever released, I was still convinced that video magazines were the medium of the future. So after AFTRS, I went door knocking and got a production company on board to help produce a video magazine that focussed on the dance party culture of the time. Hosted by popular Triple J radio personality Maynard F# Crabbes, it was called “Video Manic”. It was an interesting, though ultimately failed project. A definite highlight, however, was getting Mental As Anything guitarist and Mambo artist Reg Mombassa to interview Timothy Leary – the former LSD guru and recent convert to all things ‘cyber-delic’. Reg gave Leary a couple of his particularly out there Mambo T-shirts, which Leary declared were very ‘cyber-delic’ indeed (SAP to come).

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Manic Maynard

 

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Because AFTRS had a limited number of students, it was necessary to enlist volunteers to help crew productions. I had been on the phone to one particular volunteer several times, organising this and that for a film shoot. And then – I met her. Long dark hair, Ray Ban sunnies, black leather jacket and ruby red lips. WOW! She was also very bright, witty and good company. I fell immediately in lust. A fact of which she was obliviously unaware – until I drunkenly threw myself at her while dancing one night a party. Fortunately for me, she was not completely repulsed. And so began my love affair with the fabulous Trish.

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We took it slowly. I was by then living in a shared house in Glebe while Trish was part of an amazing household of Adelaide girls. They had moved up to Sydney the previous year into a huge freestanding house in Newtown. There was Corrie – a talented photographer who was the matriarchal figure for a couple of generations of weird and wonderful arty types. She had a teenage daughter, Morgana, who would later become a bit of rock star in an all girl group. And there was Liberty, Corrie’s stunning musician girlfriend. The house, which was chock full of extraordinary art and furniture, was always alive with activity – teens, artists, musos and big dogs – all swarming through a cloud of smoke (Drum tobacco, mostly).

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It was through this eclectic household that I first met John, who initially came over to teach us yoga on a Saturday. He was a happy chappy – a bit rotund and not what you would expect from a yoga teacher. It turns out he was much more than that – a man with an amazing story. John had cancer as a teenager, had much of his stomach removed and was given a death sentence. So he ran away from hospital, hooked up with some gypsies, learned tantric yoga, cured himself of cancer and even managed to re-grow his stomach (a fact he claims has been verified through x-rays). He then continued learning from a range of teachers from different cultures and practices: Tibetan, Aboriginal and Alchemic, to name just a few. John is the man who is responsible for my daily yoga routine and much of my ‘pluralist’ approach to spirituality (which is, by its very nature, impossible to put into any one category – though I do tend to put ‘pagan’ as my religion for the census, as it gives me a little rebellious buzz).

 

After about a year and a half, things between Trish and I ground to a halt and we split up – for about five months. I have in the past referred to this as my ‘slut period’, during which I had numerous liaisons (including time with a Spanish dancer called Salome!). Anyway, Trish and I decided not only to give it another go but to take it up a notch and moved in together soon after into a small house in Newtown, near her ex- Adelaide housemates.

 

I had been out of film school for a couple of years and was managing to eek out a living producing music clips and training videos. But this was during the recession of the early 90’s and there wasn’t a heap of work about. So I decided to get my taxi licence. While driving cabs was an eye opener, it also had a surprising upside. I had expected it to make me even more cynical about the human race. But it actually did the opposite. I soon realised that, with the exception of some genuine dickheads, most people (in Sydney at least) were actually good natured. I didn’t see that coming. Bloody hard way to earn a living though – twelve hour shifts and no guarantee that you’ll even make any money. My respect for cab drivers dramatically increased (as did my wariness – when I’m driving my car, I never try to second guess what a cab might do – I steer as clear away as possible).

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I received a very generous gift at the end of 1991. My Dad, who had returned to Albuquerque a couple of years earlier, flew me over for Christmas. It was amazing to see the city in which my first memories were formed but now with the eyes and experience of a 28 year old. This was when the smell of mesquite smoke was re-booted in my brain – a scent I had not come across in the previous 20 years. I remember that the night before Christmas, after walking around looking at the luminaries (candles in paper bags – non electric Mexican Christmas lights), we went to an abandoned hill and set off some fireworks my Dad had been saving. It was great fun – though the local dogs didn’t agree.

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IMG_5708After Christmas we went on what was dubbed ‘The Blues Cruise’ – an epic road trip in my Dad’s brand new blue pickup across Texas, to New Orleans for New Years eve (wow!), up to Memphis to see Elvis’s Gracelands on my birthday and back again. It was a very special trip and worth it’s own post at some point. But I must mention one story that has now become part of Amsden lore. All along the way we had been staying in twin rooms in fairly cheap motels. And my Dad kept talking up the New Orleans hotel he had booked. “Wait til you see it.” Well, when I finally did see it, I was impressed – very posh. Then the porter took us upstairs and opened the door to reveal a lovely room…with one bed. This literally didn’t add up. So I go in and start looking around, even checking out the ensuite just in case. But no – it was bedless. I looked at my Dad, who was by now staring at his feet as he mumbled, “Oh yeah – there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell ya.” And that is how I shared a bed with my father for a few nights. I can not even begin to describe the horror – so I won’t. Let’s just say the phrase “scarred for life” comes to mind.

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After returning from the States, I felt a bit restless and in need of a change. So Trish and I started looking for a new abode. And as luck would have it – we found one – a two bedroom unit in Kirribilli that was right on the harbour – opposite the Opera House. Weirdly, it just so happened that this was the building my Dad and I had sneaked in front of on Christmas day 1986. In one respect, it felt like a dream come true – in a city where harbour-side homes are the ultimate prize, it seemed like we had won a housing lottery. The view was always changing, depending upon what the weather and water traffic were doing. Sometimes while watching tv, the room would go dark. We’d look out the window and see a tanker passing by, completely obliterating the city lights. It was an amazing privilege to live there and easily my favourite home ever.

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The work situation had also picked up considerably, once again thanks to a bit of luck. Trish had managed to secure a position at ABC Music, the recording label for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This involved her making tv spots promoting their CDs and directing music clips for a range of acts. Initially I helped her out in various ways but when she decided to move across into film production, I inherited her ABC gig. This is how I ended up directing the second ever Wiggles’ music video (Trish did the first): “Dorothy the Dinosaur”. This was before they even had their different coloured skivvies and when there was actually a fifth Wiggle (perhaps not quite as bad as having been the ‘fifth Beatle’ – but close). I discovered recently that I am actually mentioned in ‘Wiggle-pedia” – surely a much higher honour than ‘Wikipedia”! It was fantastic to see them take over the world – they worked so hard and were lovely guys. When my son went through his Wiggles phase, he only ever used to wear yellow – he was in love with Greg the singer. Years later when the original line up did their farewell tour, I asked my son, by then around ten, if he wanted to go with me. He just gave me a nasty look and walked away. So I went with a friend and her young daughter (who fell asleep). I loved it and must admit, got a bit teary as they left the stage in their big red car.

 

 

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The Kirribilli years encompassed a few significant birthdays: both mine and Trish’s 30ths, and my sister’s 21st (I felt honoured when she came to Sydney to spend her special day with us – which culminated in seeing Lucinda Williams perform in a pub). But the biggest milestone of that period was actually celebrated in Perth when my father came over for his 50th. He still had quite a few mates in Perth and it was decided to throw him a big birthday bash at Clancy’s pub in Fremantle. Since many of his mates were musos, they formed a band for the occasion (which later continued on as “Charlie’s Party”). I decided to attempt to sing a re-worked version of Hank Williams Junior’s “Family Tradition” and wore an especially bizarre cowboy outfit (which came in handy a couple of weeks later when I was nominated for a Golden Guitar Award in Tamworth for a country clip I directed for ABC music). My brother played guitar and my sister two-stepped with my Dad. Priceless.

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The Kirribilli years also marked a turning point in my life. Although I still had ambitions to write (I wrote a feature script called “Dinkum Karoke”) and produce (I applied for funding for various projects), I gradually lifted my foot off the pedal. I had a steady gig with the ABC that provided a decent living as well as enough time to develop my own projects. But as time went on and the rejections mounted, I found that I was increasingly happy to take it easy and instead of pushing towards my goals, started having lots of naps (I slept through much of the 90’s).

 

It’s likely that this growing slothfulness contributed towards the end of my relationship with Trish. It was December 1996, Friday the 13th. She had just returned from a shoot in Adelaide and although we had been engaged for about a month after I had proposed on a recent visit, she had decided she’d rather move on. So instead of marriage and babies, I was staring down the barrel of bachelorhood.

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A Short History of Me Part Four: “Bright Lights, Big City”

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As the train pulled away from Perth railway station in January of 1984, I tried to comfort my girlfriend as tears slid down her face. Her family were on the platform, visually upset to see her leaving with the strange looking young man who had not only wrecked their car but was now whisking their beloved daughter off to Sin City – Sydney. Fortunately, there was also a young rockabilly couple aboard – Brett and Annette. Seeing Julia was so upset, they suggested a sure fire cure – alcohol and a game of cards. So, many hands were dealt and many drinks were drunk as our carriage rattled its way across one of the planet’s most boring expanses: the Nullarbor Plain.

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Although our ultimate destination was Sydney, we only took the train as far as Adelaide, where we then unloaded my beat up old Holden station wagon (which was no doubt thankful we didn’t drive it across the Nullarbor). We bid our new greasy haired friends farewell and promised to catch up with them when we rocked up to Sydney in a week or so. We then climbed into the Holden and headed off.

Except for brief stops at friends in Adelaide and Melbourne, we camped most of the way. It was as we were heading up the south coast of New South Wales that I made one of the biggest decisions of my life: I decided to ask Julia to marry me. I had been feeling bad that she was leaving everyone she knew and loved to strike out on an adventure that was entirely for my benefit. I thought it was a very courageous act of commitment on her part. So it seemed only fair to offer her one in return. Besides, I reasoned, it could also help us get the tertiary student living allowance (it didn’t). And the fact that I was only 21 and Julia was still 19 didn’t bother me in the slightest. Compared to my parents’ ages when they married shortly before I was born – we seemed practically middle-aged!

It was in the car park of ‘Mrs. Murphy’s Chicken Shack’ in Ulladulla that I popped the question. Julia was very surprised. It really wasn’t what she was expecting when we pulled over for a bit of a chook lunch. But being the romantic that she was, she said yes. And so after lunch, with chicken grease still shining from our lips, we were off to the Ulladulla Tourist Information kiosk to ask where we could get married. The girl behind the desk was very excited. Believe it or not – she’d never been asked that question before. After a little research, she suggested we go to the Mollymook court house up the road. What a great place to get married, we thought – Mollymook!

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But, of course, it was not that straight forward. The court was literally in session when we burst through the doors. All eyes, innocent and guilty alike, were on us. “Yes?” “Uh – we’re here to get married.” “Right. Go around to the side and see the court officer”. So we stood in line with several dodgy looking characters holding official looking bits of paper until it was our turn. “Yes?” “We’re here to get married”. “Right. You have your paperwork?” “What paperwork?” “The paperwork you filled out at least one month and a day ago.” “Oh. No. We haven’t done that.” Eyes were rolled, papers shuffled. “Ok. Here. Fill this out and then we’ll see you in a month and a day.” “Oh. We’ll be in Sydney by then.” “Good for you. You can get married there. Is that all?” “Yes”. “Good. Next!”

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The following day we drove the battered wagon into Sydney. We rang the rockabillies and told them our big news. They were very excited. Not so much our respective parents.But the biggest surprise came from Julia’s father – the man who had initially been very uncomfortable when we began ‘living in sin’. His response to our engagement: “But what’s wrong with just living together?”

In our somewhat foolish naivety, we had hoped to elope – just get married in Mollymook and then tell the world that the deed had been done. But the month and a day rule sunk that idea. Not so for Elton John – who very bizarrely was also engaged at that time – to a woman! He wanted to get married in Sydney on Valentine’s Day – so the rule was waived for his benefit. I guess things may have been different for us had I been the campest singing piano player in the world. But since I wasn’t and since Julia’s family so wanted to be there, they booked three flights to Sydney to attend our registry office wedding on March 21st, 1984. Despite their wish for a proper church wedding in Perth, Julia’s parents were very supportive in the end – even buying my op shop wedding jacket (which had possibly belonged to a 1970’s game show host) and paying for a photographer.

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FullSizeRender 8All their generosity only added to the guilt I experienced moments before the wedding. We had all caught a cab into the city and were for some reason walking through Woolworth’s department store (we must have been quite a sight). I got separated from the rest and experienced a fleeting case of cold feet. I was briefly tempted to take off, if for no other reason than to give Julia a great sob story: “He abandoned me in Woolies on the way to the altar!” But, fortunately, I’m not a total scumbag and the moment passed. We had a short, simple ceremony, did some photos in front of the Opera House and Bridge and had dinner at the revolving restaurant on top of Sydney Tower. Elton John – eat your heart out!

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Those first six months in Sydney were tough. We initially lived in a shared house with a bunch of bong happy hippies. That didn’t really work. Then we moved into a tiny bedsit in Kings Cross. That was even worse. It wasn’t until we moved into the top half of a house in Surry Hills that we started to really enjoy our new city. About a year later we found a cute little miner’s cottage across the bridge in North Sydney, opposite the mayor’s mansion. Despite having an outside toilet and a shower that could only be accessed through a hole in the kitchen wall, it had a certain charm and was easy walking distance to several spots on the harbour.

NSWIT 2The whole incentive of moving across the continent to Australia’s biggest city was so that I could pursue my dream of some sort of media career. Despite being interviewed the previous year, I had not been accepted into the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS). But as it turned out, my second choice proved to have been much better option. Having already completed nearly half of a communications degree at Murdoch University, I was accepted into the New South Wales Institute of Technology (NSWIT) as a mature aged student (at the grand old age of 21). This would be the only way I was ever going to get into this highly popular course – the matriculation score needed for school leavers was just below that required for studying medicine. And sure enough – the students who were straight out of school ran circles around me intellectually (though not an overly difficult task).

The course at Murdoch was good but it all stepped up a couple of gears at NSWIT. The media lecturers were the best in the country – they even had written our text-books! I remember one lecturer who talked about the impending ‘information age’ – where soon we could all access any information that was imaginable. I remember thinking – “That sounds boring – why would you want to do that?”

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FullSizeRenderBut it was the audio visual side of things that really excited IMG_5683me. Despite having already done numerous videos in Perth, the first group project I was involved in was a tape/slide show. At first I was less than impressed with the concept. But then I suggested we do ours on Sydney’s derelicts, with whom I had recently become fascinated. This involved approaching drunken deros, and once consent was granted, photographing and recording them. The sound and images were then married together as a presentation. It was an incredible experience – especially the night I spent at a men’s shelter, The Mathew Talbot. I used that experience a couple of years later for a short story I entered in the ‘Year of Youth Writing Competition’. Amazingly, the story, ‘Byron’s Rose’, was selected and published in the Penguin anthology: ‘Kissing the Toad”.

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Sydney had a thriving music and cabaret scene in the 1980’s and having access to video equipment was a great way to meet musos and performers. “Hey – I love what you do. Want a free video?” This is how I met the Dadaist comedy troupe ‘Funny Stories’ and the country music cabaret act ‘The Gone Rong Girls’ – whose specialty was Nancy Sinatra and Tammy Wynette songs. They performed at Julia’s 21st birthday party in a Glebe gallery. Great night. And I did a short animated 16mm film of one of the ‘Funny Stories’ member’s monologues called ‘Worry’ that was later shown on ABC TV and nominated for a couple of awards. But the epic undertaking that defined my time at NSWIT was a video magazine series called “Off Air”.

IMG_5667I’m not sure that I’ve had many ‘eureka moments’ in my life but I know I’ve had at least one. It was 1985 and I was sitting in a screening of NSWIT student videos – everything from music clips to experimental drama. As I was watching these slightly rough-edged but absolutely innovative works, it suddenly came to me – why not compile these pieces, put them on vhs, then package and sell them in bookshops and record stores? I put the idea to some of my fellow students and the NSWIT staff and the reaction was enthusiastically positive. The idea evolved into also doing some specific ‘magazine’ type reports and interviews. And in October 1985, issue #1 of ‘Off Air – a video cassette magazine’ was unleashed onto the world (well, inner city Sydney at least). The accompanying program urged viewers to “feel free to treat it like you would any magazine: be selective – watch what seems interesting and fast forward through anything else. The idea of ‘Off Air’ is simply to provide a new and entertaining medium for talent that might otherwise be overlooked.”FullSizeRender 15

And so began a journey that would last two and half years, result in seven issues and span two media institutions. Some highlights included covering the 1986 Adelaide Fringe Festival (featuring an early outing from the ‘Doug Anthony All Stars’), a rambunctious interview with two members of punk outfit ‘The Damned’ and an in-depth investigative piece into the introduction of ‘pay for play’ for music videos. But the biggest coup for ‘Off Air’ was interviewing Nick Cave for issue #2, released in December 1985.

FullSizeRender 14This is worthy of a stand-alone post, which I will definitely do at some stage. But generally, I was very impressed with how funny Nick was (off camera at least). He was very dry (though not literally – had a drink in his hand the whole way through and God knows what pumping through his veins). He was a bit cantankerous but that wasn’t such a surprise. What did startle me was when, at the end of the interview, while we were doing cut away ‘noddies’ of the nervous and inexperienced interviewer, Nick Cave started instructing her on how to do them. “No – not like that. Like this (holding his chin and nodding furiously). Like – ‘yes – that’s very interesting Nick!’” Of course, this was gold – so I included it in the final edit.

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Some of the talented ‘Off Air’ crew

‘Off Air’ was very much a collaborative effort and many talented people were involved. But it was my baby – or so I felt. Consequently, I became extremely driven and obsessed. And sadly, this impacted on my relationship with Julia. I was very stressed and irritable and not much fun to live with. Plus I began to feel that I wasn’t being fair to Julia. She deserved, and at times demanded, to be my priority. And she no longer was. So I kind of intentionally sabotaged things by committing the most unoriginal sin. This hurt her very much but even then she wanted to find a way to make things work. But I didn’t. The marriage ended towards the close of 1986.

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I feel very blessed to have had Julia as my first love. She was and remains an extraordinary person. I’m happy to say that she later found a far better, less self-involved partner and went on to raise two beautiful children in the Blue Mountains while contributing to the community as a social worker. Though we very much live separate lives, we still stay in touch and attended each other’s second weddings. Julia will always have a special place in my heart.

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It turned out that 1986 was a bad year for Amsden marriages. After over twenty years together, my parents also split.  As this meant that my father would have had to spend Christmas on his own in Perth, he did an extraordinary thing – he hitch hiked across the country and landed on my doorstep on Christmas morning. It was so good to see him. I was still reeling from the aftermath of my own split with Julia and generally exhausted. Moments after he arrived, we went for a walk down to the harbour. We somehow managed to worm our way in between a couple of buildings and ended up in a great spot opposite the Opera House and in the shadow of the bridge. Little did we know that we were standing in front of what would be, in about another five years, my harbour side home.

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