Vale Chrissy Amphlett. I was 7, maybe 8, when I first saw you on the tele. I was pretty newly arrived in Australia and without any new heroes to help me through the bullying and difference of newly suburban Nerang, a highway town they’d started carving out of agistment acreage and farms in the 70’s.
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor like you would in the Pleasure and Pain video, engrossed in my essential weekly show Countdown. I’m pretty sure it was Boys In Town. I remember then putting Boys In Town on the jukebox at a pub near my school where my Dad was playing pool. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the context but, as I grew into my body and my teens, that song became my Suburban Girl’s Escape Manual, “I was just a red brassiere/to all the boys in town/put this bus in top gear/get me out of here…” Aussie girls were tough, sassy. I would be tough and sassy too.
I was in immediate thrall to your toughness, your wildness. You thrilled me. I was glued to the TV or the radio every time you were on. It took me a little more maturity to see your equal and brave vulnerability. You were so tough because you laid your whole self on the line – defiantly, provocatively – Are you man enough to handle me? Please be man enough to handle me.
You had the onstage stance of a school brawler: squared off, sharp elbows, crouching and ready – a female John Wayne cowboy in a sailor suit, flat shoes and suspenders. Rather than your spectacular writhing on the industrial grid flooring in Pleasure and Pain, I was struck by your quick, ugly, angular arm gestures and wide, confronting eyes. You, Chrissy, pointing and sarcastic, “Ha! Oh please don’t ask me how I been getting on.” It took me years to understand you were singing, “how I been getting off” – a world of difference. Your sarcastic ‘Ha!” was also in Hey Little Boy, the last Divinyls song I really liked. “Ha! Well! I’m talking to YOU!”
In 1986, a bunch of cowboy promoters staged Australian Made, an all-Australian music festival I was too young to go to. But I wore out the video watching, well, Michael Hutchence – who wouldn’t… and you, Chrissy. Breaking the fourth wall. Getting off the stage and wobbling precariously on the camera track behind the crowd barrier. Sitting open-legged on the lip of the stage. Yelling, “Where are all the boys?”. Sitting next to Hutchence saying, “I just do my thing, Troy. Whatever happens, you know, the moment takes over.” I wanted to be you so badly. I practiced being you with a broomstick mic stand and hairbrush microphone. I wasn’t a tough girl, but I was a mouthy girl, a quietly provocative girl, a girl with a strutting walk – liquid on the inside and solid brass on the outside. I wanted to be you so badly, I got into singing.
Your gasping, sucking breathing in songs, your hiccuping yodels and growled, fried notes were so against the normal rules of recorded singing and so important to the intensity of your sound, and mine. I got into my first band at 15 and, with you as my patron saint, finally began to enjoy myself and confuse my fellow students at lunchtime gigs. Strangely, I don’t remember us doing Divinyls songs. They were such a tight band with such classy, rippling lead lines, a killer pop singles band, that we couldn’t touch those sounds, but I was never really looking at Mark McEntee.
Your conversational tone with the audience during Temperamental, your cowboy walk from the hips, your pointing and simply owning the stage as if this argument was in your comfortable kitchen at home. Your red hair. Your open mouth. I absorbed all of this from you.
I saw you once in the toilets at the Athanaeum Theatre in Melbourne during a Tex, Don and Charlie concert. I sat in the cubicle bracing myself to say hello, thank you for your inspiration. As I emerged, another woman beat me to it, catching her eyes in the mirror (she couldn’t look directly) and offering you, “You inspired me and my girlfriends to be tough and strong. Thank you.” She’d said what I would have said and you just kind of looked at her and drawled, “Yeeeaaaaahhhhhhhh.” No big-sisterly smile and wink, nothing. I slunk out without a word, appalled but exhilarated to have been in your presence. Praise or bile, like Dean Martin, you seemed truly not to give a fuck.
I turn 38 next month, Chrissy. You were only 14 years older than me. I’m so happy you went peacefully in your sleep after your body was ravaged by both cancer and MS. In interviews, you seemed to take a lot of wisdom and strength even from two solid body blows like that – a brawler ’til the end. I’ve now strapped on an electric guitar and, vocally and musically, I’m aiming for the mix of cool, vulnerability, wry humour and balls that you taught me, Chrissy. You were my first musical hero. What you offered us shaped me on stage and helped give me a place and an identity as an immigrant to Australia. Thank you.