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.)