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.
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!
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!”
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.
All 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!
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.
The 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?”
But it was the audio visual side of things that really excited me. 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”.
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”.
I’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.”
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.
This 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.
‘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.
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.
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.