Six foot six

Peter Garrett — formerly the hard-to-forget lead singer for Midnight Oil — is Australia’s Minister for the Environment, Heritage, and  the Arts. He’s hard to forget because he’s at least 6’6″ (one Internet source says seven feet), imposingly bald, and, when he was a rock star, impassioned.

Now he’s a seasoned politician. He spoke at the Australian classical music summit I’ve been blogging about (scroll back to see). He dressed informally (open shirt, no tie; don’t know if that’s a rock thing, an Australian thing, or a Peter Garrett thing), and spoke in relaxed generalities, though he charmed us all by building bridges, telling us he’d sung Vaughn Williams in an Anglican choir when he was a boy.

But otherwise he was exactly the guy i remember seeing onstage when Midnight Oil played an LA club, back in the ’80s. I was having flashbacks, followed by jumps forward. Flash! Rock & roll! Flash! Cabinet Minister!

I was curious to hear him again, so on iTunes I bought the Midnight Oil album I best remember, Devils and Dust, from 1987. The opening song — “Beds Are Burning,” a top 20 hit in the US — came right back at me, as if I’d heard it only yesterday.

The time has come
A fact’s a fact
It belongs to them
Let’s give it back

“It” meaning the land, and “them” being Australia’s indigenous people. Good lyrics for a left-wing politician, and in fact the band always stood out for its activism, environmental and otherwise.

But here’s why I’m writing this: Peter Garrett’s singing voice. The same voice that spoke, with such easy polish, at the classical music summit. Except back then, on the record, it had rock & roll attitude.

And so again I had double vision. Just could not believe a rock singer — that rock singer, the one I was hearing again after so many years — could be in the government! I have to laugh at myself. I’m the one who says rock & roll can be art. I’m the one who says the culture has changed, and that we in the classical music world have to learn that rock culture is mainstream. Respectable. Cabinet-worthy.

And I know perfectly well that Garrett had a real political career, that he’s not just an activist, that he’d been elected to parliament.

But something inside of me doesn’t quite believe it could happen. He’s a rock singer!

Old attitudes die hard.

(Reminds me of 20 years or so ago, when rock stars like Mick Jagger were turning 50. People couldn’t believe you could be 50 and still sing rock & roll. Wasn’t a grownup thing to do, i guess. It was Robert Palmer, the late, superlative rock and blues writer who pointed out to me that no one said this about anyone black. No one thought Ray Charles shouldn’t go on rocking,at 50 and beyond. As if African-Americans couldn’t be or didn’t have to be adults, but — absurdly, given his character — we expected something more from Mick Jagger.

(Well, we know better now. Jagger will enter his 70s, still rocking. And African-Americans were way ahead of us white folks, being perfectly easy as adults with a beat. But still my shock at Peter Garrett sandbagged me. Old attitudes die hard.)

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  1. says

    “I’m the one who says the culture has changed, and that we in the classical music world have to learn that rock culture is mainstream. Respectable. Cabinet-worthy.”

    Rock music IS popular and mainstream, and “popular artists” have held many cabinet positions. Do Reagan and Swarzenegger ring a bell?

    No, it would be real news if a (not so mainstream) classical musician would hold a cabinet position. Any of these in Australia?

    I’m not sure many rock musicians have held important government posts. Actors and athletes seem to have an easier time.

    I’d love to know about a classical musician who’s served in politics. There must be one, or more than one, somewhere in the world.

    But with all respect, I think you’re missing my point. I laughed at myself for being surprised at a rock star as a cabinet minister. Many of us were previously shocked when Reagan and Schwarzenegger became politicians (though both of them were/are quite good at it, and S. has been quite a surprise, because of his force, intelligence, and independence). But after all my arguments about how serious and artistic rock is, I genuinely was surprised at my reaction — which, by the way, wasn’t that Garrett would presumably not be qualified, but that his rock & roll attitude wasn’t suitable for a government job.

  2. says

    Political journalists in Australia might smirk at the characterisation of Peter Garrett as a ‘seasoned’ politician – he, like many who enter politics after successful careers in some high profile arena, has struggled to have a feel for the ‘politics’ of being a politician. Further, the policies of the Australian Labour party are sometimes at odds with his clearly enunciated personal political views and objectives (see any Midnight Oil album).

    On the other hand, I think there is a lot of sympathy for someone wanting to make a difference and deciding to do that from *within* the system, even if that decision involves a certain amount of compromise – after all, compromise is really what effective politics is all about.

    Australia’s politicians have included Dawn Fraser (one of the most significant Olympic swimming champions of all time), Maxine McKew (former national television newsreader), Pat Farmer (exceptional ultra-marathon runner), and Malcolm Turnbull (prominent barrister and investment banker). So Peter Garrett keeps good company. But surely nothing can be as shocking as actor Ronald Reagan becoming President of the United States [unless it’s former body-builder and Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor of California!].

    Hi, Elissa! I’m glad you’re as quick to tweak me when you think I’m wrong, as you are to praise me when you think I’m right! This is what I get for brashly wading into another country’s politics.

    We’ve had athletes in politics — Bill Bradley, a basketball star, who became a senator, Jim Bunning, a baseball player, who become an especially boneheaded senator. Blanking on the name of the football (American style) player who became a prominent Republican politician.

    Am i wrong, though, to think it’s still rare for a rock start to go into politics? Not as an agitator (Bono and so many others have done that), but as a legislator,or cabinet minister.

    Reagan learned to play the rorle of president very well. But it turns out, now that he’s dead, that he was more independent and more effective than many of us thought, opposing all his advisors to make peace with Gorbachev. I’ll give him credit for that, actor or not. (And, also to be fair, when he became president he’d already served as governor of California, not ineffectively — leaving aside, of course, my strong opposition to his policies.)

  3. says

    Elissa is more generous than me. For me, and the circle of friends and colleagues that I am connected to, Garrett has been such a profound disappointment, and I struggle to reconcile the reality of his political persona with the passion and activism an integrity of Midnight Oil and his time at the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation. The ‘compromise’ has been so great that it doesn’t make sense with what we knew of him and his politics before, which makes it difficult to believe in him now.

    I thought his keynote address somewhat vague and waffle-y. He didn’t really say anything – the most memorable moment was when, at the end of a summary of the aims/intentions/visions of the classical music institutions of Australia, he paused, looked up at us all away from his notes and said wryly, “So, good luck with that!”

    Such a powerful person, huge charisma… he was our great hope in 2007. We haven’t abandoned that hope entirely. But it is hard not to be cynical.

    On the other hand Greg, your keynote speech was great! I think it gave excellent context to the discussions that took place that day. I’m very glad the MCA was able to invite you and the Australia Council able to fund your visit.

  4. says

    The football player you’re trying to remember is Jack Kemp. Buffalo Bills QB and later Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Bush the Former. His political career was pretty admirable IMO.

    Do we want to cite Congressman Sonny Bono here?

    This article kind of makes your point for you because it’s so thin:

    Thanks! Of course Kemp’s name came to me as soon as I turned off my computer.

    And — reading through the site you linked — I should have remembered John Hall. He’s the (excellent) congressman from the district where my country house is.