My experience riding motorbikes is limited. As a teenager, a mate and I rode a couple of extremely low horse powered bikes on dirt tracks to his family’s West Australian property. We told ourselves that this was our ‘Easy Rider Trip’, despite the fact that, instead of choppers, we rode little postman bikes. We were laden with backpacks, which made it hard to balance. More than once my bike slid from beneath me, especially on the sandier tracks. It wasn’t until years later, in my early thirties, that I had another chance to try my luck on two wheels. Again it was on a rural property but this time in Victoria. My girlfriend and I had been invited by a friend whose stepfather happened to be one of Victoria’s richest men. The place had its own groundskeeper and he set us all up with bikes slightly bigger and faster than the one I had ridden years earlier. This one had more grunt to it and, no longer burdened by a pack on my back, I started to appreciate the thrill of such machines. My confidence grew, as did my speed. I was having fun gunning it up the embankments of the property’s several dams, riding along the top and then back down again. I had done this several times when, as I was speeding up a bank, I realised I was going way too fast. I got to the top and kept going, launching into the air and splashing down in the middle of the dam. By the time the others arrived, I was standing there, water up to my neck, face beet red. “Are you ok?” “Yeah.” The groundskeeper was a calm man. “Good. Now, we’ll need someone to tie a rope to the bike and then I’ll pull it out with the tractor.” I put my hand up. “I’ll do it.” Besides being eager to makes amends, I was the obvious candidate, practically standing on the mud embedded bike. So I dove down with the rope, unable to see a thing. I managed to tie it around a wheel. The tractor was brought in and the muddy machine was dragged out of the dam. And that was the last time I ever dared to ride a motorbike.
The symmetrical regularity is remarkable. We are seated in a jam packed Melbourne Cricket Ground, two years since the last time and four since the first, supporting a footy team with an uncanny knack of qualifying for the AFL Grand Final every two years. My son and I experienced the dizzy euphoria of witnessing an upset victory when the Sydney Swans took down the favoured Hawthorn Hawks four years ago. But when we returned to the MCG for our second GF two years later, the Hawks ripped the Swans apart, making it the most expensive disappointment of my life. Fortunately, this time our opponents aren’t the hated Hawks, who are missing from the GF for the first time in five years. Instead, our Swans face the feel good story of the comp, the Western Bulldogs – a team that hasn’t been in a GF since before I was born and the only one they actually won was over sixty years ago. It seems as if the whole rest of the country is behind them, making the Swans the team destined to kill Bambi. Our seats are the best yet, just behind the goals and ten rows from the playing field. The excitement builds as I look around the huge stadium with its quilt-like patches of red and blue. The game begins and it’s brutal. Our section of red and white clad supporters, looking like we’re cheering for Santa, erupt with every Swans goal. But we are drowned out each time the Doggies score, their fans achieving jet engine like decibels. The game ebbs and flows but remains tight. For three and a half quarters – it’s up for grabs. But then, half way through the final quarter, it’s the Doggies who want it more. They pull away and win it by 22 points. The siren sounds and the Bulldog fans go nuts. I’ve never seen so many happy crying tattooed bogans. Although I feel disappointed, this is countered by the wave of sheer joy generated by tens of thousands of delirious fans. The fairy tale has won the day. I head to the toilet quickly before the presentations. On the way back to my seat, the aisle is blocked by a big bellied bogan. We look at each other. Then he extends his hand. I’m moved by the gesture. I shake it and yell above the noise, “Your boys deserve it.” When I return to my seat, my son isn’t interested in staying for the medal ceremony. But I insist, saying that we are witnessing history. And we do, especially when the Bulldog’s coach gives his own medal over to his non-playing injured captain, who then triumphantly lifts up the premiership cup with the acting captain. The crowd roars. Okay, we can leave now. We follow the dancing Doggy fans out of the stadium, find a bit of grass and kick our red and white Swans ball back and forth. I savour the moment, knowing that this is likely to be the last AFL grand final my son and I will ever attend. We have been lucky to experience three: the joyous one, the depressing one and one that has left us with that in-between feeling. That’ll do.
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.
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.
No animals were harmed in “Horrible Man”
Me, Kriv and Greedy on ‘World Seems Difficult’ clip
Keeping my hero Reg dry
With Brendan Young on Mental’s ‘Overwhelmed’ clip
Brendan and a broken winged Greedy
Mentals in action
David Caesar directing a fruit shoot for a “My Friend the Chocolate Cake” clip
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
After 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So the question needs to be asked – as a self confessed underachiever – why bother telling my story? And, of course, as a reader, why bother surrendering any of your own precious time learning about someone you could really care less about? After all, mine is not a tale of great triumph over adversary (though I did survive a “Canadian Concentration School” – not everyone did); I am not a talented and driven personality who has attracted fame (though I have had a number of encounters with gifted people who have) and I haven’t had any especially lurid and depraved sexual adventures (at least none I’m willing to share). So again – why bother?
Firstly, let’s deal with the whole ‘underachiever’ tag. To dub oneself an ‘underachiever’ is a double act in self deprecation and trumpet blowing. On the one hand it’s an admission of failure and on the other it’s a declaration that, at least at one stage, the potential for better outcomes once existed – or so one believes. And I do believe that, especially in my twenties, I was showing promise of fulfilling at least one of my many ambitions of becoming either a writer, director, producer or media baron. The fact that a number of my peers from that time have since written books, directed movies, produced documentaries, television series etc. etc., only re-enforces my own sense of underachievement.
I have actually made numerous attempts over the years to write (scripts, stories, a novel), direct documentaries and create tv series. But although I can come up with decent ideas and begin the process, it is often in the follow through where I come unstuck. I attribute this largely to ingrained laziness and fear of failure. In fact – I even wrote a kid’s story about overcoming one’s fear of failure but gave up trying to get it published after a couple of knock backs. So given this combination, underachievement will remain my destiny.
However, I also believe that I have had a rather blessed life. I was fortunate enough to be born a white male in the world’s most prosperous country to loving parents who never beat me (though they did send me to a place where people did – you guessed it – “Canadian Concentration School”). I have lived in three different countries and have been lucky enough to travel to many more. I earn a living from home by watching tv and then re-arranging it in an effort to entice others to also watch tv. I am currently married to a gorgeous and, for the most part, tolerant woman who indulges me more than many would. I live about two minutes walk from one of the world’s most magnificent beaches. And, although somewhat of a late starter, I am the father of one of the most interesting, weird, lovable and infuriating boys on the planet. Oh – and I have a woolly two toned cavoodle who thinks I’m God. So I hardly consider myself a total loser (though you may already disagree).
So then – with such an underwhelming track record, is there really much point in attempting to document my life? Probably not. But here’s the thing – even though everything I’ve attempted in the past has not come to much – I’ve always enjoyed the creative process involved. I love the buzz of creating something new, something that starts as inspiration and then takes shape as a new entity. As lazy as I am, I still seem to have a creative itch begging to be scratched. And for some reason, the idea of writing my own story and flinging it out into the universe is one that has been gnawing at me for some time now.
I’m attracted to the idea of doing a ‘blog-oir’ – an internet memoir – but one that I do on my own terms. Apart from a series of condensed overviews (“A Brief History of Me”), the rest will not be a linear, chronological unveiling of my experiences. Instead, I will post individual episodes as I wish – most likely beginning with some of my encounters with famous high achievers such as (cue appropriate name dropping music) David Lynch, Michael Hutchence, Nick Cave, Timothy Leary and The Wiggles. Then I imagine I’ll move on to detailing what it was like to survive a “Canadian Concentration School” in the 1970’s. After that – who knows? In all likelihood my laziness will have won out by then and this will just be one more of my many unfinished under-achievements.
But why put this out into the world? Why risk being judged? Why not just write this for the creative buzz and leave it as a file on my laptop? These are valid questions. Perhaps I want to release my story via the net as some sort of exercise in self-validation – to prove that even though my life has not turned out how I once imagined, maybe somebody else out there might still find it interesting enough to spend time reading about it. Is this a pathetic notion?
The best advice a parent ever gave me was: “It doesn’t matter what other people think.” While this is a wonderful ideal, it is one that is difficult to always adhere to. After all – we all seek some sort of approval from others. Having said that, I am discovering that, the older I get, the easier it becomes to not give a stuff about what other people think about me. As an example – I am a grey haired man in his fifties who often gets around riding a scooter – not the motorized kind but one powered by my foot pushing against the pavement. This attracts various reactions from onlookers but I suspect the most common is them thinking: “What a dick.” I know this because, even though I’m a scooter pusher myself, as soon as I see another adult on a scooter, I always think: “What a dick.” Yet still I ride my scooter because I enjoy it and it’s a quick and fun way to get around.
So yes – assuming anyone at all stumbles across this and decides to read it – there is every possibility I could be judged to be a ‘dick’ – or worse. But as with my scooter, as long it continues to be fun to write my fading memories, this underachiever won’t really give a stuff about what other people think.