Books, Music, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Book review: Peter Garrett's memoir 'Big Blue Sky'

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What point is it at which the production of memoirs by Australian politicians occasions some form of intervention by the police to break the whole thing up?
There have been many provocations to date — Rob Oakeshott’s The Independent Member for Calare, Chriistopher Pyne’s pieties, and everything by Chris Bowen. But Peter Garrett’s Big Blue Sky might be the one that does it.
That’s not because Garrett’s life and career are without interest. Quite the opposite. I mean, duh. Iconic singer in a legendary band who passed through activism to lead the country’s largest conservation body, and then into parliament, for Labor rather than the Greens, Garrett has had three interesting and important lifetimes, where many political memoirists have barely had one.
So why does Big Blue Sky read more like one of those Dictionary of Biography volumes (Northern Approaches: Memoirs of Queensland’s Longest Serving Minister for Aviation Support) than the ripsnorter it should be?
Why does one feel, as one does with other memoirs, than you’re not so much reading as prospecting, looking for flecks of gold amid the flow of mud?
The fault lies in the genre itself, and the whole way in which the political memoir process has become a production line. Polly does their career, exits in triumph or ignominy or both, big publisher gives them a contract, and they come back X months, years later with a manuscript, which lands on the gift-for-dad market.
The publisher gets a chance to keep the lights on, and the polly gets a chance to justify themselves post-hoc. But more importantly, they get a chance to do what we all want to do, and that’s reminisce about childhood and golden years at length in front of a semi-captive audience.
The childhoods are pretty much the same, coming in at about four basic types, but you have to wade through them in case, when he or she was twelve, the author killed a guy.
Peter Garrett, innovative as he and Midnight Oil were in reshaping musical form, does not buck the trend. Growing up in Pymble, he recalls the sights, sounds etc of post-war Sydney, fibro suburbs, long evenings in the streets, days at the beach in the Holden, uni in Canberra and on and on and on.
The book begins to grip when, during his 20s, Garrett’s mother is killed in a fire at their family home — a fire that Garrett himself survives, with the added weight of guilt and loss.
But we’re all really waiting for the moment when the music starts to take over, and Farm, the early ’70s rock/blues/proto-punk band Garrett has joined, morphs into the Oils, and something really new starts to happen.
Midnight Oil, like them or loathe them were important, nationally, even globally. They took a range of influences — surf music, pub rock, sound collage — and put them together with lyrics that expressed in plain language, the suspicion and sense of alienation of Fraser-era Australian politics.
The book starts to get really good when this starts to take off, and the band acquire a passionate following up the NSW coast, and then nationally. They channelled an anger that a lot of people were beginning to feel at the lost promise of the Australian fair-go, the real one, which seemed possible in the ’70s.
As it failed to materialise in the ’80s, and as it became clear that Australia was to be a carve-up between mates with clout, the Oils’ expanded their musical and lyrical range, with multilayered dystopian mini-operas such as The Power and The Passion.
They never did much for me, but they cast a near incantatory power over people who grew up with their music. When three Melbourne hackers, one of whom might have been Julian Assange, released the ‘wankworm’ virus onto the internet in the late ’80s — a program designed to jam up US military computers — the first page of the worm included a quote from a Midnight Oil song (‘you talk of times of peace for all and then prepare for war’).
Garrett’s writing is a record of those years, and the way in which the band became the go-to benefit headliner, made links with indigenous peoples and groups such as Warumpi. But a lot of it is inevitably unshaped, a record of goings back and forth, loading and unloading, with a lot of story, but lacking a certain viscerality.
What did it feel like, the reader wants to know, to be this sort of band on the road? What did things look like, what were the arguments, the conflicts, the, well, power and the passion?
Ditto with the years in the Australian Conservation Foundation. I remember stories of Garrett being a fearsome meeting chair, determined to put some order into an organisation that still bore traces of a looser earlier era — and thus simultaneously doing much good and causing much hurt. The book bought those stories back to mind, but it would be good to have them in it.
We could do with more of such material; of others we could do with less. In older political memoirs, personal life scarcely appears at all, an omission. In these chuck-it-all-in books momentous struggles get equal time, and equal emphasis with doing up the house at Mittagong, etc. The prose breaks down to the quality of pub yarn and yak. There’s too much of it, and fore and background get lost.
There may be a degree of special pleading here, for the final section, of Garrett’s years as a cabinet minister, have something important to address, and that’s squaring the angry, beat-driven argument that Midnight Oil made about power and deceit, with the compromises necessary to being part of a government laced into the US alliance, and run by Kevin Rudd, a back-corridors man with a taste for governing by announceables.
This was a pretty important issue to address. After all, Midnight Oil weren’t singing passionate anthems to gradual reform within the perceived possible frameworks; they were summoning rejection of the usual hypocrisies, and counterposing ‘power’ to ‘passion’.
I’m not sure Garrett is fully aware of how disappointed how many people felt — many now in their forties and fifties — at the way in which a standardbearer of the voice of the ‘others’ slid so easily into the front benches.
No-one went to a Oils concert for the harmonies after all (Garrett relates how, to improve his voice, he went to a singing teacher, who sacked him as irredeemable), and umpteen bands rocked as hard.
It was the fusion of words and music, the sense of an urgent truth-to-tell that gave the Oils their edge. Garrett’s prevarications about matters such as Pine Gap, a place some of his fans spent much of the ’70s and ’80s trying to close down — and against which he ran as Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984 — don’t begin to fully address the issue of how one thinks about the changing nature of politics, the matter of age, or the bitter business of life.

Life is what Garrett has had, and from it, a more intense and moving memoir might have been made. But that would require a degree of thinking about what such memoirs are for, and the different ways there might be of writing them, varied for the life concerned.
If nothing else, a co-written memoir/autobiography would eliminate some of the terrible writing that lurks among the many compelling passages. When Garrett gets hold of a bad metaphor he doesn’t let it go. ANU is a ‘buzzing kaleidoscope’; young love is a ‘ship of fools that eventually rights itself and goes in search of the One, as it has since the first of never’. And so on.
Such phrases are reminiscent of Oils lyrics, which often sounded as if they were written on the back cover of a school exercise book, and from whence came much of their power. They’re less welcome between hard covers.
Nevertheless, among the 400 sprawling pages there’s a lot of great passages, and the inside story of a man who set the agenda for many —  many of whom now forty-something public servants, will buy it as much for insights into recent policy formation as for the hits and memories. The passion, then the power.
Big Sky Blue is published by Allen and Unwin. You can buy it here.
Related Stories:
Midnight Oil archive on show at Arts Centre, Melbourne
Australia’s top 10 political rock songs

14 responses to “Book review: Peter Garrett's memoir 'Big Blue Sky'

  1. “I’m not sure Garrett is fully aware of how disappointed how many people felt — many now in their forties and fifties — at the way in which a standardbearer of the voice of the ‘others’ slid so easily into the front benches.”
    I don’t wish on anyone the weight of this disappointment, but on the other hand I can’t bear the thought that he doesn’t feel at least some of it. This forty-something was and is gutted, despite the nagging realisation that we new better even at the time.
    Thanks for reading this so I don’t have to, Guy.

  2. Surely this man must stand out as a reason that Labour and Rudd eventually failed. He was promoted way beyond his capabilities, made mistake after mistake in EVERY ministry he had any control over, and eventually he had to be correctly pushed into the background out of the public eye . His inability to accept his own failings and complete lack of any oversight of his appointments left everyone, left or right, in complete confusion as to why he reached any Government positions.
    We were all left in no doubt that had he not been a “popular entertainer ” his lack of any ability would have prevented him from holding a pencil never mind a seat in Government . I won`t go into his part in the scandalous roof insulation fiasco, a dreadful scenario that cost lives and correctly his portfolio.
    I doubt there will be a less able minister appointed in my lifetime .
    No I wont be reading his semi autobiography, the mere fact he has had to have help to put his own life on paper only confirms his lack of ability and again I suspect it will be crammed with half truths, self deception and how badly he was treated .

    1. Let me introduce you to Peter Dutton, George Brandis, Kevin Andrews, Erica Betz, Mal Brough, and the leader of the pack, Tony Abbott.

    2. Here we go again. The so-called “roof insulation fiasco” actually saved lives and properties. There was a piece done at the time, in Crikey, by the columnist Possum Comitatus that demonstrated a dramatic improvement in the rate of house fires per thousand homes insulated. To my knowledge, no-one has been able to demonstrate that the four unfortunate deaths was in any way unusual in this industry. No one seemed to care what happened before it became a political hot potato. Unfortunately, apart from Possum Comitatus, it seemed that every journalist at the time was too lazy to question the outrageous propaganda spewing forth from the Murdoch press. Admittedly the scheme was rushed and mistakes were made, but I think the biggest mistake was to shut it down too early. And the rush to start it, followed by the rush to stop it, were down to Kevin Rudd.

      1. Times two Scott Grant. Analysis is never the strong point of the masses, and the blame for the insulation fiasco was not Garrett’s but Rudd’s.
        Possum Comitatus’ work on this was analysis at its very best. Way too good for the average numpty to understand. History will record Murdoch’s perspective and will be recounted by the likes of K. Goodwin, but it won’t anywhere approximate the truth.

  3. Garrett sold out his long relationship with The Greens to ‘get power’
    And look where it got him.
    The essence of Garrett the politician (Like Rundle I have little time for the musi, overblown and overacted) was his inability to get a stop the plastic bags law through.
    Weak as.

  4. His betrayal of the trust engendered by his Green associations was total in joining the party that collaborated with the Libs to, just barely, deny the NDP the Senate seat in 1984.
    Oddly, there is no record of his being love-bombed into abandoning principle to join the ALP like Kernot nor born-agains like Dylan.

  5. Instead of lengthy meandering hagiography about Peter the Chameleon, why not run a story about how long before he became a Parliamentarian, Peter was silently selling out causes which didn’t further his career ambitions, not to mention making dramatic changes to whatever his current Holy Grail happened to be.

  6. Gosh. Naive people who think that the green movement is the same as the Greens are shocked that a rock star and political activist didn’t keep singing songs and dancing when he later was so talented as to also become a cabinet minister in the Federal Government of Australia, much to the delight and admiration of Lou Reed, Billy Bragg and many others.

  7. I am a left wing rat bag and absolutely loved the Oils and Peter Garrett. So when he threw his hat into the ALP, I hoped he had made a choice to go with a mainstream party as a means to squeak through some groundbreaking legislation on the environment. Nah didn’t happen. US Forces Give the Nod and he danced to their bloody tune just like the rest of the useless conflicted Labor party. Grow a spine Garrett and explain to us why you bothered to join Labor, become a Minister and then do stuff all about everything you previously stood for. Very disappointing.

  8. Thank goodness for a spot of analytical work like this review. Not being the slightest bit interested in Garrett, I only chanced on it having escaped hurriedly from the smh/age, and I read this, and it was good. It was an island of sanity amid the property-prices-infused hysteria that is the fairfax website today.

  9. Midnight Oil were huge in the ’80s, despite little radio play or advertising and generally avoiding playing the ‘industry’ game. And not just amongst middle-class rebel wannabes – all over the western suburbs you’d see Midnight Oil spray-painted along railway lines and back alley walls. The wannabes are now fighting tepidly for fairer selection procedures in the public service and wringing their hands about gay marriage; I suspect the westies have only got the anger left, if even that. The betrayal of principle that Garrett represented probably knocked the wind out of a lot of people that didn’t have much wind left. I’ve heard the other Oils have continued on in a quieter version of their younger selves and aren’t too impressed with Peter’s progress, but are decent enough not to make a big deal of it.
    As far as Garrett the person – or show pony – goes, the best thing I’ve read is Neil Murray’s thinly fictionalised (and excellent) book about his time with the Warumpis, Sing for me countryman, which includes an account of their joint tour with Midnight Oil – Garrett comes across pretty poorly to say the least! (as does Andrew McMillan, whose book Strict Rules: The Blackfella-Whitefella Tour portrays it very differently)
    One of my favourite passages has Garrett as white man safari hunter out on a boat trip off the Arnhem coast, complete with big knife strapped to his leg, acting like a complete dick. Seems he was always the chameleon, big, inspiriting, but ultimately empty. Even for someone like me who wasn’t a huge fan of the Oils and had heard negative things about Garrett through activist circles, his undemocratic shoehorning into Maroubra was pretty disillusioning, though his complete inability to get anything done once in Parliament was completely unsurprising – Kernot had shown just a few short years earlier what happens with celebrity candidates once they’ve secured their seat!

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