THE MUSIC NETWORK
March 5, 2007
REMEMBERING A LEGEND
Not since the passing of Johnny O’Keefe has the loss of an Australian music figure engendered such a massive wave of grief, within and beyond the music industry. “This is so intense,” one industry commentator said at the end of a long day of media interviews. “It’s bigger than Michael Hutchence. It’s bigger than Shirley Strachan. This is just SO BIG.”
Big because Billy Thorpe was so genuine. Dead at age 60 from a heart attack last Wednesday February 28, Thorpie wasn’t a celebrity in the sense of today’s tabloid-frenzied celebrity culture. But he was celebrated for his genuine artistry, for his genuine prowess as a singer and musician, for his genuine humanity. And for his genuine volume. As the industry tributes flooded in, themes were repeated throughout. His aura. His incredible singing voice. His friendship. His love of family. His generosity. And his loudness.
“Volume is a wonderful tool,” Thorpe said in the book Songwriters Speak. “Volume is a form of expression. The louder the loud, the quieter the silence. It’s a dynamic. It’s not just bombast for the sake of being loud. In the hands of the wrong people it’s a nightmare. And in the hands of the right people and an expert and I am an expert it’s a wonderful thing. Sound is electrical energy; it charges the air. It creates different patterns in the air, and different wave patterns in the brain. People used to come to Aztec shows to get a feed of that energy.”
That Thorpie could sustain that energy over a 45-year career, and harness it for so many projects, even in the midst of middle age when others of his vintage might be slowing down, was almost taken for granted by his peers. Most people he knew thought he was healthy. While he was working tirelessly on benefit concerts for cancer-stricken Aztec member Lobby Loyde and Rose Tattoo’s Pete Wells, the clock was already ticking. Wells succumbed to his illness last year, Loyde is still hanging on, and nobody can quite believe that Thorpie has gone before him. But like the full-on force that he was, Thorpie was working to the end an acoustic concert tour, a new acoustic album, his Moroccan album project, and his charitable work.
His concern for the welfare of fellow musicians led him to join the board of Support Act Limited. At the inaugural “Music in the House” luncheon held at NSW Parliament House last October, Thorpie outlined his vision to raise a million dollars to ensure SAL could continue to assist the “family” of musicians over the coming years in a meaningful way. SAL’s Meryl Gross talks of Thorpie’s commitment to this cause in her tribute in these pages, and a letter Thorpie wrote to SAL outlining his vision is also published in this issue of TMN.
Thorpie was also involved with Corporate Countdown in 2005, an incorporated, philanthropic initiative to connect the corporate community, through music and entertainment, with charitable organisations that need it most. And he was often a riveting performing presence at the annual Golden Stave lunches that are overseen by his manager and long time close friend, Michael Chugg.
That the Prime Minister, John Howard, felt moved to comment on Thorpie’s passing was no less than such a cultural icon deserved. That the mainstream news media placed Thorpie’s death at the top of all TV and radio bulletins and on the front pages of newspapers the following day was a fitting testament to a man who entertained and influenced generations over five decades. The press accounts detailed his music career including chart hits, Beatlemania-like crowds, memorable gigs at Sunbury and the Myer Music Bowl, and his transformation into contemporary adult artist, screen composer and songwriter-for-hire in the US before returning to Australia, staging the Long Way To The Top tour and reinvigorating the careers of his contemporaries. They mentioned his two best-selling memoirs and his upcoming album releases. And they fittingly described the brash, loveable music larrikin whose legacy will never be forgotten.
This we all knew. Yes, he left a huge imprint on Australia’s cultural landscape, and subsequent Australian rockers have walked and played in his path. Yes, he was an Australian music legend and his passing is the end of an era. And yes, most people did think he was crazy. That is all reiterated in these pages, but what you will also see is the intimate relationship Billy Thorpe had with his beloved music industry. His friends and colleagues in Australia and overseas sent reams of tributes, spoke at length over the phone some didn’t seem to want to get off the phone and some cried as they shared their Thorpie stories. Here is a taste of the Billy Thorpe the industry knew and loved.