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Excerpt from Stephen Loomes’ unpublished novel

We were just like dreamers
Dreaming, in the sun
Situations ever-changing,
Changing everyone.

We were just like lovers
Lying B everyone
Wait till night time covers
Hiding, everyone.

Ian Rilen
Lyrics from a Sardine song

He took me one day to the place he’d found to live in Cook Road, Centennial Park. At that time there were still grand houses, Federation Houses as they were called in that street. It was a time before the incursion of what Ian Rilen would call, ‘the unit people’.

In the basement of one such Federation home, Bryan (Matthews) had found a cupboard-sized room where he could stay. The house was full of people not quite squatting, because at that stage someone was paying rent. The house clearly had been the mansion of a wealthy family in the recent past. It was paneled with cedar, and everywhere were beautiful leadlight windows. It had large halls, high moulded ceilings, and so many rooms I cannot remember the number. There was a servants’ quarters and a kitchen with an old fashioned wooden register on the wall which somehow, electrically triggered, would show an enameled name of the servant required in another part of the house.

Bryan said the house had been purchased by a developer to be demolished for the construction of a high-rise block of home units. In the meantime, it had been let to one vegetarian hippy, who in turn had invited others to join in paying the rent. By the time I came to visit, the original tenant had long been subsumed by the innumerable occupiers, paying and otherwise, who had moved in. There were musicians, painters, drug addicts, poets, film makers, disc jockeys and a family known as the Rilens living there.

There can be those rare times in life when a place exists which of itself and by itself attracts and generates energy and creativity.

But now, here I had arrived at a place where the memories were not yet in existence. Cook Road had a life of its own, and the participants were like the hippies of ten years before. There was life, love, creativity and always happiness and good feelings.

Bryan took me over to the Rilen’s flat which was in a dilapidated building next door to the mansion. Theirs was one side of the downstairs, and consisted of two rooms created from one large room by the insertion of high cupboards. There was a television set, a large table and a front window looking out onto Cook Road and then across to the Sydney Showground.

Stephanie, Ian’s wife, was busy bathing her baby Tallulah when I walked in, but they were warm and friendly and Bryan and I received an invitation to eat with them. It was clear to me that they had very little money, subsisting then on the dole. I was touched by their hospitality, taking in a stranger and feeding him.

Over the next few weeks I was a frequent visitor to Cook Road. The mansion and the adjoining house had become a convergence for an enormous amount of energy, and most of those living and visiting there were conscious and intelligent enough to be aware of the unique event in which they formed part.

At any time of the day one could wander through the halls of the mansion and listen for a party, or find a door open with someone playing guitar, and ready for conversation. Whatever the day, and whether I should be at work or not I would be organising some way to stop at Cook Road for a short visit. Usually I would allow myself the opportunity to pull the car up at the stone fence. Walk up the steps at steps at the crest of which on either side sat two stone lions, along the tessellated path and then through the beautiful wooden-framed leadlight door, which was never closed. In front would be the carpeted steps leading up to a long hall of high-ceilinged rooms.

This was a truly beautiful house from whose upper windows you could see the edge of the business centre of Sydney, and yet in whose gardens were the trees and shrubs of this grand home providing invisibility to the city which surrounded.

No-one ever asked anyone else where they had come from, what they had suffered from even where they were going. It was the unspoken rule that everyone have as nice a time as they could without hurting anyone else. That seemed fair enough, and it worked. There was a feeling of co-operation and friendliness which was tangible and effective.

From the day of Bryan’s introduction and my tentative peek into the front door, I had become a minor part of the magic in that house. I was not a central figure, but like all the others I was a part.

There would be strange night-time excursions with other members of the house to No Names, a spaghetti house in a back lane of Darlinghurst. Late night talks over coffee at Reggios Italian Coffee Shop. The very late night sojourns to the all night diner on Moore Park Road where the fluorescent lights would drain whatever life was left in our faces at that hour.

There was a tall blond fellow named Leigh who would be wandering around or James Scanlon, the tousle-haired boy-wonder. James would often hold court sitting in his bed.For a short while in later years he actually had a television show interviewing people who sat in bed with him. He was a small cherubic youth, with black curly hair and he wore spectacles in the shape of John Lennon’s glasses. His laugh, high pitched and unabashed would fill every conversation and his perspective on life was elevating and unique. I never saw him miserable or complaining although his life at times would have been trying to another. That was the mood of that house, at least in the beginning. It was a mood of optimism.

“I think I’ll get a band together” James said one time, “I might call it the Panic Merchants. Just think, their first hit single could be, ‘I’m Really Worried'”. We’d laugh over his ideas, and it would have you thinking of similar ones. James loved getting around in his pyjamas with or without slippers and dressing gown. The degree of night accoutrements was determined by the weather. This is not to say he was untidy, not at all. His dress was always impeccable. He would love to sit in bed, and one could sit in or on it with him and talk for hours. Often others would wander into the room, or I would wander out to return later and continue the conversation. This series would be punctuated by setting the kettle on the floor to boil, and then preparing a cup of tea to be enjoyed with a cigarette. James’ constant companion was a big Jewish-mama of a girl called Tanya. Tanya was boisterous and good humoured and had come from an establishment Jewish family in Melbourne. She and James would spend their lives enjoying life to the full.

Sometimes you would see Mick Cocks when he wasn’t out playing with the Rose Tattoo. His position was a reverenced one because he actually played with a working, successful rock’n’roll band. He was not just a hedonic consumer, or spectator. His words were measured and spared and his presence was truthfully incisive. His guitar playing was good, and he had a quite assurance.

In one of the better upstairs rooms lived Greg Skehill, who didn’t play professionally but did play guitar well, and was one of the consummate tea makers in the place. He too was intelligent, and although caught in the mood of optimism in the place was more wistful than the others. Greg later joined Stephanie, Ian and Phil Hall in Sardine.

I didn’t see much of Ian Rilen at first because most of my time was spent visiting the mansion and I rarely went to the old tenement next door.

One night Bryan mentioned he was rehearsing with some to the musicians next door and I joined him. In one of the backrooms the amplifiers and drums were set up and I walked over to hear the pounding drumming of Ian playing bass. We walked into the room spilling with sound. Bryan waiting for Ian’s acknowledgement, then picked up the microphone and started singing.

I doesn’t matter how much you think about things, nothing replaces feeling them. To sit next to an amplifier with leads all around your feet listening to drums, bass guitar and any other instrument is separate altogether from listening to a recording. Another thing which emerges when musicians play together is a communication between them which transcends words. The music does not have to be symphonic, it can be bad or good, it can vary from night to night and whatever the expression, it passes first between those playing before it spills out to the listener. Within this “conversation” there is differing levels of articulation, and there are the creators, and those who just play. Of those who are the creators, the ones who can sit down and create enthusiasm are the greatest performers. Ian was one such musician. It was obvious as I watched that a wealth of ideas and structure was flowing from him to the others.

“No, just try a little more of this” he would say to the others with an almost embarrassed smile and they would change and look quickly for his approval.

Most of the dialogue was with the instruments but Ian was clearly guiding.

The night was enjoyed drinking and listening to songs being rehearsed. I had not realised till that evening that Ian was an accomplished musician.

He had a remarkable gift of saying, “I thought of something today, listen to this” and picking up the bass and drumming out a beat which would catch you up. He would smile and sing the words which were simple but true. Here was a new poetry for me, an honest, plainly but cleverly expressed sentiment.

For those of us who spend most of our days working, it is good to meet an Ian Rilen. Often he would hand me the guitar and say “Play something.”

Surprisingly I would start tapping out some primitive rhythms and be amazed at my capacity to do so. In this way Ian would play something and say, “I just need some words for this line” or “I just need a line to end this song” and I would find myself reaching into my creativity to find something to match. I was being shown how to go to the well and reach the water. Every time the bucket went down I would feel an exhilaration, a remembering. Anyone can do this I thought, even I, why haven’t I tried this before?

Ian had a peculiar effect on people. Everyone wanted to be with him and they competed for his time and attention. He had the final word on any subject, not because he was arrogant or self-opinionated, but because he usually saw more than others. He had an affect of making people see some beauty in oneself, but Ian was a public figure. “A legend in his own neighbourhood”, some would jokingly say of his rejection of fame in the past. He was accused by many of arrogance, but they all liked him and in them one could only see the criticism came from envy and competitiveness.

This is not to say the man was saintly. The reverse was true. His behaviour and emotions were there to be seen and judged. This is what set him apart and made him an exemplar. It’s not that his conduct was impeccable, simply that it was honest. I reflected on this as my association with him developed, and I considered how I hid my feelings. If I wanted to be with someone I was too reserved to say so directly. When Ian loved someone, everyone new, thought about it, had an opinion on it and became part of what Ian was doing.

On one occasion, Bryan found Ian in bed with Kerri, an intelligent and sensual model with whom he had been sleeping. There was a fist fight in the hallway, an exceptional circumstance in itself to see someone actually confront Ian. If there were to be anyone to do so, only Bryan had the personal power. As the dissension continued over the next few days it became apparent that Ian was the aggrieved party, incensed with Bryan who had found the lovers and taken Ian=s son over to witness it.

Ian’s obvious sexual peregrinations continued and in the midst of it all Stephanie kept a fine home, fed endless guests and cared thoroughly for her children through those times. Her love for Ian was great and somehow hinged on the growth that she experienced by being with him. It was not without pain for both of them, and all of us who knew them shared in their relationship because of the nature of Ian’s honesty and Stephanie’s loyalty. I often compared Ian to other people I knew. When they had relationships they were clandestine, sneaky and if uncovered, fraught with guilt and endless recriminations. Here on the other hand was a man who showed his feelings, paid for them at the time and therefore did not live a fantasy.

Notwithstanding his faults, proud for all to see, there was the remarkable compassion of the man. In artistic circles, I learnt it is almost everything to be fashionable, but the approach to that varied with the people involved. To most, fashion involved rejecting certain of the outer members of the people who associated in the house. Turning away when that person was talking, and subtle means of ignoring a being, would be practiced by the pretenders to fashion. Ian was in his own right, “fashion”, and yet, would open his door to the most wayward and forlorn souls. Their words and intentions he would favour with equal time to the “more important people”. I remember going with him one day down to a single-mens’ hostel on William Street. We went in to visit an old friend of Ian’s called Norm (Roue). Norm, Ian said, was a great slide guitar player but he lost his way and ended up living like a derelict. Ian loved Norm and you could see Norm felt the same way about Ian. Norm sat there with the blacks of his pupils wide and the cigarette stains on his fingers talking gently. This was one of the many “uncool” people Ian took lovingly under his arm.

In that way too, I could reflect on the civilised members of society with whom I mixed, and I thought of their petulance, self-importance and cynicism. In the professions there are far more whose psychic motor is ego, than intelligence. In the best practitioners though, are always those whose concern is for all, not just those from whom advantage comes.

To witness this side of Ian’s conduct was particularly enlightening to me. The pleasure of being genuine in my dealings with all people had never really occurred to me until Ian had set the example.

Yet another thing which I learnt from Ian was the pleasure of children. At that time I was in my late twenties, and had always been as impatient with children as I had been with people who didn’t interest me. How shallow I was, and how much I gained from my association with Ian, Stephanie and their children. Ian’s love for his children was unfailing, he would do anything for them and above all else he spent time with them. The time spent was time in which he was absorbed, and in the way he taught me to recover lost feelings, so by this example he taught me that the love for children is not politicised as the love for one’s mate. The love for children is not qualified by their performance to expectation, but is unalloyed and endless, or it has the potential to be.

So in my association with this “punk musician” I was learning to be more honest about my feelings, but there was more to learn.

The current which ran beneath his nature was his unbelievable courage. In watching him it occurred to me that most of my acquaintances were cowards. Cowardice is not a vice of wartime alone, but in every day life one is called upon to choose, between courage and fear.

Everyone who remembers Ian will think of a huge figure, and psychically he was, although in socks, probably stood no more than five feet eight.

One day with Ian and Stephanie, Stephanie said “One night, Ian and I were walking through a park at Rose Bay. Suddenly a vicious dog appeared out of the dark and came at us snarling and ready to bite.”

What did you do? I asked.

“Ian got in front of me and the dog was barking all around us,” said Stephanie. “I was terrified, and then Ian let out this yell like I have never heard before, and the dog became terrified and ran away.”

“Yeah,” Ian said laughing, “I was so angry at the dog, something just came out of me and I blew it away.”

(c)Stephen Loomes 2011

Thank you to Stephen Loomes for allowing this excerpt to be included here.

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