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Edition 42

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Essay

The myth of Charlie McMahon

THERE’S A MAN and a musician who’s been behind the scenes and across this country for many a year. You could even say he helped Australia grow up a bit. Through it all he’s carried many weary struggles and still wears a steady grin. A hub of creation surrounds him. The need to do. To the core. To continue.

At a festival you can make him out dressed in black with his bushman’s hat, grey moustache, sparkling eyes. And so now know some of his adventures to glimpse a secret that helps you understand those who forge through.  

Here we may find some of the tracts from our unsung visionary’s life.

The Blue Mountains. Eucalypts tower above a slivery road that houses cling to. Charlie crawls outside watching his grandfather tend the garden. Pop grows wondrous things by grafting plants. He can smell the heady mulch and feel nature brimming.

It’s the mid 1950s and the McMahons are going on a family outing. The shady village of Glenbrook boasts a cinema. Inside with his brothers, Charlie sees the outback. Tribal Aboriginal men are projected in colour. Then a raw new sound registers. A man is playing a didgeridoo. Brrrriiooong, Brrrrrioooooing, Brrrrr, Brrrr, Grrrr. The bass through the speakers shakes the seats. When he gets home Charlie imitates the man with a vacuum cleaner pipe. His family look on and encourage him. ‘Go Charlie Go, more, more…’ And he’s just four.

After Charlie’s folks divorce he goes to live at his uncle and aunt’s farm near Yass. Real rural. Sheep and wheat country. He undertakes correspondence schooling and after his work is done wanders out alone into wide paddocks feeling very happy. When he’s wild they say lightly, ‘that kid’s a bit myall, eh!’ Myall being slang for an uncivilised blackfella.

 

CHARLIE MOVES TO Blacktown a year later with his mum and brothers. West of Sydney, Blacktown has grown with a huge housing commission development. Built in a flash. Settled by European migrants, war vets and low-income families. Great open storm water drains run behind the blocks and beside the roads.

At Seven Hills Primary he’s often caught looking out the window. Just wondering what else is out there. ‘Hey,’ the teacher says, ‘McMahon, dreamer, wake up!’ All through school Charlie’s off to his uncle and aunt’s farm for holidays. Often with his brothers. Shooting rabbits, collecting dead-wool, catching fish and shrimp. He even catches birds. Tries to figure out how to cook ’em. Sometimes he takes off as much of his clothing as he can get away with and runs around the bush.

So the ’60s hit and odd times they are. On a railway overpass between Blacktown and Seven Hills someone has painted the slogan Build Bombs Defend Freedom. Parallel to the tracks a vast rubbish tip swallows the land. It’s even filled in a creek. The tip burns, stinks, breeds rats and filth. Each arvo when the old manager Jock closes up, it’s then that a swarm of kids descend. It’s their playground. Some kids even live off it. The gang go through and collect scrap metal for a buck. And where the earth is deeply gouged out Charlie excavates fossil beds of reeds and insects.

But there’s bigger kicks to be had. Some older Bodgies are making explosions from stuff found at the tip. Bang goes the sound in Charlie’s head. He starts at Blacktown Boys’ High and pays particular attention to chemistry. With money made from the scrap metal, he buys chemicals, chlorate by the kilo. Sulphur too. Charlie starts his own rocket-making crew with Ronnie – an apprentice fitter who makes the fuselages. They’re pretty serious about it. Do compression tests. It’s a fine line between exploding and flaring. Pipe bombs are the go. Back down at the tip underground explosions eventuate, splashing the trains passing above with mud. Who knows where that came from? Charlie knows. He’s sixteen now.

In his mum’s backyard is a corrugated iron shed. Inside it Ronnie sits on a bag of potatoes reading a magazine. Charlie pours chlorate into a 200 millimetre pipe he has in a vice. His right hand is burnt from a flare the day before. He’s bandaged it from the Boy Scouts’ first aid kit and hopes no one will see it. Won’t stop Charlie though. He’s sealing off the pipe with a pair of trusty Stilsons. There’s a friction problem. Suddenly everything goes into nothing. The shed disappears. Ronnie disappears. Charlie gets blasted into a plum tree. He thuds to the ground with shrapnel in his mouth and leg and can’t see or hear properly, he’s a real mess. He wakes later in intensive care and realises, ‘Oh shit, I’ve got no arm!’

The doctor tells him he’s lucky to still have his left leg. Only saved because he has a double artery. Ronnie’s there with eye injuries and a few fingers amputated. A friend, Bob, a bit dismayed when Charlie’s too weak to drink his smuggled-in beer, leans over the hospital bed and says, ‘You’re only half a man now, mate.’

So our young rebel has survived and straightened his act, no hanging with car thieves, it’s a journey through the HSC getting used to his prosthetic arm, but he succeeds. Winning high jump again, and jamming on steel pipes with his new friend Biafra (who’s real skinny). And after being told that he’s ineligible for teaching, Charlie makes it to Sydney Uni on a scholarship from the Water Board. 

 

IT’S 1970 AND a wave of alternative awakening is lapping up on Australian shores. Change is in the air. Charlie gets into the radicalism of the time. The youth are not accepting the old social norms. He perks up when he slips on a hook instead of the prosthetic hand. It’s a lot more useful, too. He’s less self conscious and is getting out there. He buys his first didj at the Aboriginal Advancement League shop. He sells literature and socialist books down Main St, Blacktown, and puts on alternative film nights at the Prospect Church Graveyard, showing films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Super 8 films shot by himself and friends. And he brings music too. But the forces around are antagonistic. The council and the cops. After all, Charlie’s mob are making their own fun. It’s not sanctioned, it’s not in the pubs or sports clubs and these kids look wild, so they’re eventually run out of town. But they don’t care. Down by the sandbars and willow forests on the banks of the Hawkesbury River they carry on. Taking drums, they dress up, paint their faces and dance, jamming into the night. It feels like a mad corroboree where the kids are breaking free.

Charlie travels up to the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin to play and has his mind opened to experimental music by a strange dulcimer player named Peter who’s performing with the White Company. Charlie also begins to circular breathe on the didj. It just happens intuitively.

After a year at the Water Board, Charlie becomes a town planning tutor with the Department of Social Work back at Sydney Uni. He has different ideas to some about the academic paths being taken, alerting students to the danger of shopping malls destroying neighbourhoods by keeping zoning areas separate and sterile. The rooms at the uni are a bit stifling so they usually take class outside, until one rainy day they land down in the Fisher Library basement. It’s dull and dingy. Why were they sent here? It’s certainly not conducive to imagining towns.

‘Oh we could paint some windows,’ a student says, meant as a joke.

‘Oh, we won’t be allowed to do that,’ another quips.

But Charlie’s mind races ahead.

‘Go ahead, paint some windows on the walls,’ he says, ‘make your own social comment about this environment, once you finish your degrees you’re probably gonna end up working for big institutions and occasionally you have to speak out.’

The head professor freaks out over the painting incident so Charlie finds himself sitting alone in the Vice Chancellor’s office. In the centre of the huge desk Charlie’s dossier lies open. He has a quick look to see his prior education.

When the VC enters he has a quick look at it too then stares straight up to Charlie.

‘And what school did you go to Mr McMahon?’

It’s too bleeding obvious. But Charlie chews the bait and spits it back out.

‘One of the best, Mister Chancellor,’ he replies.

Then he states his case calmly, but really he’s had enough.

Charlie then sends the VC a memo on a point missed in the meeting. It’s written on a pie bag. The gathered senate members grin as it is handed around with his file. So the boy from Blackie is sent out the gate.

 

CHARLIE IS OUT of the race and he buys a bush block with his brothers. They work it hard, clearing and fencing, planting an orchard, building a shack, himself succeeding in these things that he never imagined only half a man could do. He works out how to amplify his didj and when he visits Sydney he always carries one, wrapped up. Walking along Oxford Street one night he hears some music with tough energy coming from French’s wine bar, so he steps inside to check out a new band. They’re called Midnight Oil. Their drummer guesses what Charlie’s carrying, so next thing he’s been asked to join in. He keeps meeting up with them for gigs and develops a new style, holding the didj up to the standing microphone, then out to the crowd. Hey, this feels different, he thinks. He’s rocking it on stage now. 

 

THEN SUDDENLY THE man is swept to the interior, off on a flight landing in Alice Springs. It looks to him like a desert town version of Canberra. Charlie’s new role is supposed to be a bureaucrat reporting on Aboriginal communities taking on self-determination.

Out at Yuendumu the sky rumbles over the red land. Then the dust rises. Charlie has never seen anything like it. This beautiful great big dark black thunderhead brewing. Almost unconsciously he wanders out from the shelter, is engulfed by it. Next thing he’s got a strange fear and starts running back. He’s knocked down as a lighting bolt strikes the ground right next to him. Oh my god, I’ve just been let off again, he thinks.

‘Oh Charlie, you been out in the wet,’ an Aboriginal Affairs officer says when he walks back in, as they’re all working their way through a slab of beer.

There are people who are close to Aboriginal people, who socialise with them and then there are those who don’t, Charlie finds out. But then there are those who hate, too. Back in Alice one day Charlie’s walking out from his house when he gets attacked by a mad bluey-bull terrier cross. It rips into Charlie’s leg, puncturing his calf muscle.

‘Oh shit, I’m sorry mate, he’s only supposed to go for Coons,’ the dog’s owner across the road says. What? This is terrible, Charlie thinks.

At Jay Creek, an Aboriginal fella, Geoff, gives Charlie a shovel-nose stabbing spear after hearing the story. ‘Hey, dat cheeky whitefella dog, but he shouldn’t go for you.’ Then he looks at Charlie again, ‘you sure you proper full white-fella,’ and pulls his head back questioningly.

‘Now when you leave dat house,’ Geoff goes on, ‘when you walk out dat back lane you pick up dat spear and if dat dog come at you, you stab ’im. Then hide ’im in the bush, that spear for dat cheeky dog.’ Later at the Alice folk club, Charlie sings a song about the ‘dog in the bag’, after he was told how some whitefellas put their dog in a bag, throw in the clothes of Aboriginal people and beat it until it comes out mad as hell. Charlie begins to feel safer again when his great big dog, Danger, arrives.

Out to Papunya settlement. Well west of Alice. One of the centres where the desert Aboriginal people have been sent. A thousand Aboriginal people living here. Many clans were thrown together and expected to live the same, in a new ‘white’ way, without thought to their kinship ties or traditional lands. The Pintupi people wish to get back to their own land, out towards the Gibson Desert, get out of the chaos, away from the alcohol and fighting. They along with other clans are living on someone else’s land. Their Outstations Co-ordinator had a nervous breakdown and so Charlie’s asked if he’s up for the job. The Outstations Movement is about setting up small family groups with the facilities they need to relocate to their lands. Yes, Charlie is up for it, so he ends up working directly for the people. He goes on reconnaissance missions hundreds of kilometres away from the settlement, even over the West Australian border. On these journeys the Old Men he’s taking out break into song as they reach their spiritual lands.

Charlie nominates sites for drilling underground bores to reach potable water. To set up the places where the Pintupi want to live, so they can survive properly back out in their desert lands. He sweats it out running stores and water to the outstations while working on the bores and often sleeping in his swag. The work is non-stop and the conditions extreme and a doctor eventually gives Charlie something special to get him through, but he’s so worn out and pissed off after helping with a Christmas party and a fight that erupted there too, that he takes off and sets up his camp alone in the dark. Slipping out of his swag to get a drink, Charlie steps on what feels like a soft hose and it’s then he comes close to the edge again. With the lingering effect of the  hallucinogen and no sleep for days, he drifts, while, a strange soaring snake dream takes him to another reality. When he wakes , groggy as hell, he somehow manages to drive to Alice to see the doctor, where they treat him for septicaemia. He’s feverish and semi-conscious for days.

 

AND IT IS from this life that the man travels far on working musical holidays. Surviving as a muso on the west coast of the United States for a few months. Charlie plays with his band, the Yidaki Brothers, tells stories and meets Timothy Leary. Then, back in Oz, the old Aquarius meeting with Peter Carolan comes good. They release an album, Terra Incognita (1984), and it’s something else, something new. It climbs into a remarkable new territory of what an album can be, with Pete’s otherworldly synthesiser and Charlie’s original rhythms transporting with his ‘double breath morning didj riff’ setting the standard for contemporary playing. So listen well and you could just hear this riff playing on ABC Radio National’s Awaye program, today. And Charlie invents a shifting pitch didgeridoo, that can tune into orchestral settings. He refines it, into the future, from the metal dbone to to the plasticdbone to the dijeribone.

Back in the desert, Charlie knows the people well now. It’s taken a few years but the bores have been drilled and he’s erecting a huge old Comet Windmill for an outstation when Henry Tjapaltarri arrives with unbelievable news.

‘That Pinta Pinta came back from Wimparrku. He reckon he met two debils!’ he tells Charlie. Real myall Aboriginals, not wearing clothes or shoes, approached Pinta Pinta. At first he thought they must be ‘debils’, kadaitcha who are punishment men spirits, his belief was that strong, but everyone’s just as stunned when they work out the devils are real people. So Charlie and some of the Pintupi set off deep into the desert, over flats and sand hills to find them. That night after his 4WD crawls up a huge sand hill Charlie surveys the scene below. He can see the fire of his tracking party and then the fire of the others ahead. He takes a deep breath. The next day the tracking party make ‘first contact’ in a family reunion of amazement for the Pintupi. They meet the group of nine Aboriginal men, women and teenagers, who had never come into the settlement, who had stayed out hunting and living in purely traditional ways. They speak the same language, of course, and quickly work out their relations. And this is 1984. 

Charlie hears the call and lets the music truly take him. With Pete, the band Gondwanaland continues. They play at the Bicentenary, release more records and tour remote Aboriginal communities. Blazing the trail in performing music in places white bands haven’t been before. Charlie goes solo and records with Aboriginal singers and travels on tour with the Oils through the desert communities.

And Charlie’s out there still, Japan or Russia, his music morphing from an atmospheric world to live samples in a tribal trance. He’s even engineered a special seismic microphone. It picks up the sound inside the body and the vibration from his didj now creates a thunderous sound.

This man, who’s carried through, who has discovered, seen, who has worked and played, who has vibrated a backbone between the music of different cultures, has formed his own mythology. So look beneath the surface for what culturally binds and to those who have made it. To this innovator following an experimental bent, through the complexities and follies of true Australian journeying. And listen, when you come across an adventurer ready to tell, just as I did with Charlie, as he spoke his tale to me.

I can see Charlie popping his head up in Wim Wenders’ film, Until the End of the World (1991), where he’s driving the travellers through the desert to the safety of an Aboriginal community.

He holds the knowledge and has become our guide.


From Griffith Review Edition 42: Once Upon a Time in Oz © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review