Helen Razer writes in memory of Duncan Stewart, an Australian music patron and man who always declined to divulge his age. He died on October 9.
When a three-year old colt ran to victory in the Caulfield Guineas last weekend, Duncan Stewart’s eyes were closed. But, those who sat beside this great man knew and loved him well enough not to turn off the telly. He may not have seen Divine Prophet win the Group 1 event, and he likely didn’t take a last punt. I have reason to suspect, however, that he did request a final round. I hope so. Just the prospect of a beer with Duncan—at the races, a gig, an oncology ward—had long been sufficient to make even the teetotaller smile.
In Melbourne and in Sydney, Duncan Stewart was very widely known but very rarely documented.
He was a true and tireless patron of music and he had at least a thousand stories to tell—many of them litigable. I would have a beer with Duncan and he would tell me about the drinking depravity of that band, the bad habits of that virtuosic guitarist, that the performance by Lucinda Williams, which he had hosted as licensee of Sydney’s Petersham Inn, was as close to religion as he was likely to get. Then, I would start recording or taking notes, and he’d interrupt the story and say, “Not yet”.
When, then? When can I take these stories down? I would whine and remind him that our marginal histories needed to be written, and he would do a very creditable impression of me and say something like, “Oh, I should trust ‘our marginal histories’ to Miss Razer, should I?” I would just fall about laughing and drop my pompous pencil in the beer. Nothing was written. Today, with Duncan gone, I understand that was the way it had to be.
There was, as anyone who knew him will tell you, something about Duncan. It was something that existed in the air and so resisted any kind of factual account. You can’t write down the moment. You can’t take a picture of how it felt to hear Lucinda Williams sing. You can’t put your arms around a memory.
He was a flâneur, a gallant with gold rings and a Medici, but a Medici without the guilt.
But, you can say that the man was a punk rock gentleman. That he was a flâneur, a gallant with gold rings and a Medici, but a Medici without the guilt. Stewart, who so actively demanded music from musicians in both formal and informal roles, wasn’t trying to buy his way out of hell. With his advocacy for punk, roots, rock, rockabilly, gospel, bluegrass, psychedelia, country, blues and—very occasionally—electronica, he sought to release the soundtrack for hell as we know it on earth. Broken hearts and trampled dreams and rambling men and the women who locked them out for good. These were the stories he wanted us to hear.
The story of his own life must remain largely untold. I can tell you that he was the publican at Sydney’s Petersham Inn, whose rooms—Max’s and the Pismo Bar—heard some of the nation’s best and most diverse music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That they hosted some of our most questionable and vulgar music, too. People tell me that the very great Tex Perkins used to invent a band a week to play at The Petersham. There weren’t many promoters who would give a song like Fuck Your Dad an audience. Oedipal rage is, generally speaking, unprofitable.
He was an old-school bouncer led by good sense and wit.
But he wasn’t in it for the profit. He was in it for the songs of love and loss. When things at The Petersham wound down, he started another venture, of the sort that would not survive Baird’s Sydney of the present. I hear that the Britannia in Chippendale—now tragically renamed The Random Bar—was one of the first joints to give Troy Cassar-Daley a stage. I hear Gina Jeffreys used to go and listen to the country. I sometimes hear the lovely sound of a slide guitar in Australia, and I know that this heartbreak was in part made possible by Duncan.
I hear The Black Keys, The Sonics, Ma Rainey, Warumpi Band, and I think of Duncan. These were some of the artists the DJ played at Melbourne’s Cherry Bar last decade about which he had a very positive opinion. He was the door man there, and I was the coat check girl. This was both the lowest paid and, thanks to Duncan, the most rewarding gig I ever took. When Duncan wasn’t talking music or spinning those stories that can never be re-told, he was keeping a long, long line of kids in check. He was an old-school bouncer led by good sense and wit. There was an underage kid from Balwyn who tried to get in every Saturday. Once, when it seemed this little guy would cry if he were not permitted access to the bar he knew Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had elected to drink in, Duncan offered to rip his Ramones t-shirt for him so he could show it to his friends and pretend he’d got into a fight. The kid agreed. He came back on his 18th birthday, wearing the torn shirt.
You sit back. You talk some funny shit. You help the drunk young women to the cab on Friday. On Saturday, you greet them and you never let them know that you saw them pash another woman’s boyfriend in the laneway. You create the conditions for others to have the good time you enjoyed when you were young. You don’t talk out of school. For a narcissistic chatterbox like me, these were invaluable lessons. You don’t have to write everything down. You don’t have to be at the centre. If you want stories to be told, move to the side and let those others live them.
Duncan never really liked the storytelling Springsteen much, an oversight which I always took personally. But, I think he would have enjoyed the recent memoir. Springsteen explains why he plays three, sometimes four, hour gigs. He’s trying to find that moment. You create the moment, experienced as love and as unity, out of nothing. It comes from nowhere in a surge, and then it’s gone and that’s as good as rock’n’roll gets.
This tribute is thin on the details of a life. But, be assured, that life was rich and good. At the races, in the back bar at the Petersham or in the hospital, it was crammed with moments themselves made full by the patience of the dedicated patron.