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The Rolling Stone Story by Clinton Walker

“I play rock’n’roll for a livin’, I ain’t doin’ all that well,
I play rock’n’roll for a livin’, as if you couldn’t tell.
I’m a rock’n’roll man,
We’re just doin’ it ’cause we can”
– Ian Rilen, “Rock’n’Roll Man”, 1999

Ian Rilen was doing a short stretch at Long Bay in 1970 when he made the decision that changed his life. He decided he was going to be a bass player, and not just any bass player, but a great bass player. There were nights, later – and more than a few – when he was just that; when, in fact, he was one of the great rock’n’rollers. The story goes, as he’d told me, that when he was inside there was another young inmate there who wanted to be a drummer, and so the pair would run their exercise in the yard like a rhythm section, stamping out and mouthing their respective parts.

“Got out of jail,” Ian says, “went to the Cross, had a coffee and a steak, it was beautiful, met these working girls, went back to their place, then this bloke comes along, selling pot or buying pot I dunno, we got talking, I said I wanted to play bass, and the next day he bought one around me for me.”

He’s told other versions of how he first got a bass. In another story, he put a down payment on one with Reno Tehei, of the La De Das, because Tehie wanted to put a bet on a horse. But then Tehei got busted and deported and Ian still owes him $120 for the axe!

Either way, Rilen – who died in Melbourne on October 30, aged 59 – obtained a bass, and this was the instrument upon which he writ a legend large. Once called a national treasure by Don Walker, you don’t have to trot out all the clichés: The original bad boy for love (he wrote the song, after all), Ian Rilen was a star. A force of nature. Ian was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder only maybe nine months back. But even then it had already spread. Ian was too unwell to attend the benefit held in his honour over two nights at Melbourne’s Prince of Wales Hotel in early October, which boasted a bill including Rose Tattoo, Don Walker, the Beasts of Bourbon, the Hoodoo Gurus, Tim Rogers and Phil Jamieson. The end came quickly but peacefully, surrounded by family and friends at home. Ian was the loving father of four children.

I first met Ian in 1980 when the first X were still just going and he lived in a big house on Palmer St, Darlinghurst, with his family, and he drove a 1959 Pontiac. I wrote reams of material on Ian in the 1980s and we lived in the much the same world, and I’d have to say I considered him a friend. Not close but a friend. But that was one of his great graces – he made everybody feel like they were his long-lost last best mate. He would greet everyone, male and female, with kisses, big wet, tonguey kisses. You just have to start to adjust to the fact that he’s not going to be around anymore.

But if there’s anyone about whom you could say their spirit permeated the scene and the music even in their lifetime, it’s Ian Rilen. Whether in his early bands like Band of Light and Rose Tattoo, or his real life’s work X, or Sardine or Hell to Pay, the Love Addicts and solo, Rilen laid down such a monumental groove and swing and attitude, it not only immortalised all his own music, it spread an influence, a huge influence. If there is any sort of Australian classic rock sound, Ian helped shape a huge swathe of it.

He could have been a bigger name, he could have made more money, but then it probably wouldn’t have been Ian Rilen any more. He was always rich in life and music. His legacy has already survived him.

“He had a special, natural instinct and that’s something there’s not enough of anymore, and something we should admire,” says Sebastian Chase. Chase’s relationship with Rilen had a unique symmetry, since it was Chase who helped him start his career and, as it turned out, helped him end it, as the manager of Band of Light and co-creator of Rose Tattoo and, currently, boss of MGM Music.

“He was just the most awesome dude – he had heart, soul, style, he was a romantic, he had attitude, he could play, he was just everything I love.”

“Rilen is one of the great visionaries,” says Lobby Loyde. “The music industry never understood him.”

“He was full of energy, as usual, right up to the end, until he couldn’t get around any more,” says Cathy Green, long-time partner in crime. “When he had to hang up his guitar, that was hard, and it happened pretty quickly after that. He was all grace and style. I can’t liken him to anyone, like, say, Keith Richards – I can understand why some people would, because they need a reference point – but to me, there was no-one like him.”

The last time I saw Ian, about three months back, the news was out and so I wanted to see him, see the Love Addicts and try and get together. One last time as it turned out. The Love Addicts were terrific. At the Sando in Newtown on a Saturday night after a football match, I inducted a couple of younger friends to the world of Ian Rilen, and they loved it too. Ian, the band, it was great. Really that was what Ian lived for, just to get up there and play. It was his church, his ritual, his transcendence. Part of ours too.

My baby she done left me, didn’t leave me on my own,
She left me with my teenage babies and a hire-purchase loan,
Friends ask me did I see it comin’, I have to answer yes,
Cause I’m a bad man when I’m drinkin’ – you can guess the rest

It was only when Ian came around one Friday afternoon after the Sando gig that I learned, after all these years, that he was born in the same place I was, Bendigo. Birthplace of the Chiko Roll! Ten years before me though, in 1947.

He never ever seemed a day over 23, except you could see every mile on his face. But it was in the eyes. The glint in his eye never left him.

As everyone’s been saying for years now, his life would make a great movie. But no-one would believe it! To say he lived large would be another massive understatement. As he himself told digTV only a couple of months ago, “I’m surprised I’m still here!”

Everybody’s got an Ian Rilen story. Ian made a lot of friends in his life, and he took everyone into his world. For Ian, art and life were intertwined. This was another feed into his music that helped make it greater, more real.

Most of the millions of people around the world who own an AC/DC album, or a Rose Tattoo album or Jet album, or a Guns & Roses or Rollins album, or Beasts of Bourbon album, will never have heard of Ian Rilen. This was his blessing and his curse. He was the eternal outsider, the baddest bad boy for love, the most likeable rogue. But as his friend Paul Kelly sang in a song that was always understood to be about him, What makes such a sweet guy turn so mean? He could be his own worst enemy. X always seemed somehow able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Yeah, sure, they were always capable of turning over a record company boardroom table, but isn’t that part of the rock’n’roll job description? It was one of the few things that rankled Ian, his ‘bad reputation’. Sure, see him at 4am after a gig and he could be in any kind of state. But as most will say, did X ever blow out a show without good reason? Did they ever perform giving less the 130%?

“Ian never approached anything half way,” says Sebastian Chase, laughing at his own understatement. “He lived for the music, that time on stage, but after the gig, well yeah, that’s when his outrageous personality really kicked in, he liked to have fun, and he was always great fun. Maybe for some people he was too much fun!”

You don’t have to talk up Ian’s seminal status when you just consider his biography. As a teenager growing up in Geelong in the 1960s, he banged around on guitar a bit, but it was only after he went to the Thumpin’ Tum in Melbourne and saw Yuk Harrison playing bass in Max Merrit and the Meteors that he was given to feel the stirrings that led to the decision he made in jail in Sydney. (That rock’n’soul sound of the Meteors in their late 60s/early 70s incarnation remains vastly underrated.) Ian’s first recording was Band of Light’s 1973 debut Total Union, an album that’s only now getting its due with an Aztec Music CD re-release. To a young teenager like me when it came out, I loved it as much as Chain’sToward the Blues or the Masters Apprentices’ Toast to Panama Red. Great records.

Band of Light was led by former La De Da Phil Key, but the band’s not-so-secret weapon was (not Rilen! but) slide guitarist Norm Roue. Roue had short hair and a white SG and a bottleneck slide; Australia had never seen or heard anything like him. Rilen and Roue left Band of Light and Roue joined Buffalo, alongside guitarist, the late Peter Wells, whilst he and Rilen continued trying to get their own thing together.

But Roue drifted away from music – and that was a nameless loss that Ian Rilen would be the first to tell you about! But then after Buffalo broke up, Pete Wells, who sadly died earlier this year too, learnt to play slide, and he and Rilen, under the guiding hand of Sebastian Chase, founded Rose Tattoo. The Tatts’ story is well-documented. After Melbourne sharpie band Buster Brown broke up, drummer Phil Rudd joined AC/DC and singer Angry Anderson joined Rose Tattoo. Rilen (and Sebastian Chase) left the band just as its first single, Rilen’s “Bad Boy for Love,” produced by Vanda/Young, was climbing the charts. Rilen walked out on the

Tatts and straight into a rehearsal with a couple of young blokes in church hall in Balmain. Nominally named Evil Rumours, they played so hard their guitars were covered in blood and thusly was X anointed.

X are the great power trio of all time. Guitarist Ian Krahe died of an overdose virtually even before the band got out of the blocks, but singer Steve Lucas took a crash course on guitar and for more than two decades he was one of Rilen’s most enduring musical partners.

In a short-lived post on Wikipedia on October 30, Lucas credited Ian as the early ‘creator’ or leader of X, who showed him “how to go to the well and reach the water.” Rilen was already 30 and the father of three kids when X started. He became a godfather to many, many more.

With Rilen’s old mate Lobby Loyde behind the desk, X recorded the album X-Aspirations in 1980. It was brilliant but a cult secret. The band went into retirement. That was when Ian put Sardine V together with his then-wife, the extraordinary and beautiful Stephanie Falconer, mother of Gentilla, J.J. and Talullah. Ian sold his car, a ’56 Chev, to buy her a Farfisa organ. Sardine was inner city modern and looked like a million bucks with Ian in a powder blue suit and his hair all slicked back like a gangster and Steph in an evening gown, but it just fizzled out and X re-formed in 1983.

Taking over on drums was the exceptional and beautiful Cathy Green, who would become another of Ian’s enduring if typically torrid partnerships. With Lobby Loyde at the helm again, the band cut At Home with You in 1985 and it was flooring the Strawberry Hills or wherever. Sometimes in those days Chris Wilson would guest with them on baritone sax and the all-engulfing power became almost unearthly. X is better than sex, all the girls used to say. Hunters & Collectors were a different band after Mark Seymour saw Ian Rilen at work.

It was only after I’d written half a dozen articles about Ian and his bands that I think I got close to the truth, in a 1987 piece for the late lamented RAM magazine, which opened like this (if you’ll excuse the ripeness): “Love: It’s not a quality you’d usually associate with this sort of sound, something so loud and obnoxious, so mean and nasty and ugly… It’s love that’s the fuel that fires them.”

Music was always purely visceral for Ian Rilen. He said it himself, X was physical music. Elemental. Again, Ian made no distinction between art and life. X was totally about chemistry and nothing else mattered and it oozed through the music like a lightning rod. X didn’t so much play music as the music played them. I coined that cliché so I reserve the right to use it again here. There was absolutely no intellectualisation about it.

When I asked Ian about any Australian sound he might have had a hand in forging and he replied, “I dunno, I never really thought about it,” he wasn’t being disingenuous. He was an intelligent person, it was just that the question held no interest for him whatsoever. He was the kind of person who couldn’t sit still.

Besides, he was smart enough to leave well enough alone: Why mess with the magic?

Ian was a cipher of pure sensual pleasure. I don’t think anybody who knew him would think it a stretch to call him a sensualist. Those who mistook the seeming brutality of X for a lack of sophistication missed the point.

As Iggy Pop once said of the sense of buoyancy and power the Stooges generated and gave him, “The process is far more important than the result.” The connection – for X too – was spiritual, a parched and yearning power-drive.

One thing Ian always took great pride in was the diversity of X audiences. It was a measure of his common touch. From bank robbers to architects he used to say, and he took them all in the same way: Openly.

But in commercial terms, X just couldn’t take that step up. The weakness of their third album, 1989’s … and more (Mushroom), was a harbinger of the band’s second break-up. Rilen and Cathy Green formed Hell to Pay with Ian on guitar and vocals, Cathy on bass, Spencer Jones on guitar and Tony Biggs, drums. After one album for Red Eye Records, Hell to Pay split in 1993 and X arose again.

Along the way, Ian weighed in with two significant bands that went unrecorded, Illustrated Man (in the mid 80s, basically the original Tatts minus Angry) and Skindiver (in the mid 90s, with Bones Martin). In 1999, he played a real Rose Tattoo reformation tour of Australia (he never would play outside his own country; but then neither did Elvis). Angry and Wellsy required that they be treated as separate entities from Ian and guitarist Mick Cocks in terms of travel and accommodation arrangements! “Rilen and Cocksy put the oomph back into it,” Lobby Loyde told Col Gray.

1999/2000, Ian cut a debut solo album Love is Murder. When Cruel Sea keyboardist James Cruickshank first proposed producing an Ian Rilen solo album, people were terrified at the prospect of these two reprobates loose in the studio together, but the result remains one of the great

Australian albums of the era bar none, wth Rilen mining an extraordinary vein of songs and feels. And when he most needed it, Sebastian Chase rode to Ian’s rescue to release the album on Phantom as part of a three-record deal. It was scarily up-close both sonically and artistically, personally. When Ian opened his mouth to sing you could hear every pockmark on his face.

Cath was still playing drums in X but it was another Cath, Cath Synnerdahl, when in 2003, to celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary, they recorded a live album at the Basement in Sydney. When Laughing Outlaw Records released the album, Evil Rumours, following Spiral Scratch Records’ release of a 1978-vintage show called Live at the Stagedoor Tavern, it did seem like an epitaph.

By then, Ian was already lost in the formation of the growling, swampy

Love Addicts with Cathy Green on bass and Kim Volkman, guitar. This band released Passion, Boots & Bruises in 2005. If not for what Steve Lucas called his ‘rejection of fame’, Ian Rilen could always have made more money out of music, but he wouldn’t prostitute himself. He deliberately got himself fired from Ian Moss’s road band. For a wild man of rock, he had very real moral code. Besides, as he always said, he’d been drinking “Bad Boy for Love” for years. Recently, when the song was licensed for a car ad, Ian, armed with a fat cheque, flew straight to Brisbane to buy a new car for himself, a ’63 Buick Riviera. There’s a whole story to that too, but it’s just another of the hundreds there’s not the space for here.

As Steve Lucas put it, Ian was “a man who showed his feelings, paid for them at the time and therefore did not live a fantasy.”

“He was flawed,” said Sebastian Chase, “and he understood that, who he was, he was full of contradictions, but he always wore his heart on his sleeve. That made him a sort of super-human being. He always exuded camaraderie, love and friendship.”

For all his rust and scratches and dents, he retained a terminally charming, almost child-like sense of wonder and naivety, and an uncanny ability to bounce back. These qualities are perhaps not unrelated. When he came over to visit, he didn’t seem like a man ready to die. I was disappointed he didn’t drive the Riviera, so we could go for a cruise, but once he got it to Sydney, he explained, he left it garaged at his hotel.

Maybe there was a touch of sombreness there, and certainly tiredness, but in all the mood swings in a long and tempestuous life, Ian had touched on the bottom almost as much as he did the top. No, correct that – he touched on the top more:

Anyone that ever saw him play one of the thousands of great gigs he played in his life can testify to that. It didn’t matter if he had no money, if his life was in a mess, he would get on stage and play it all out and that was his gift, the pay-off. He had a habit of turning conversation around to the now. He never wanted to talk about his place in music history, it was always the music he was yet to make. He was busy. His mobile kept ringing. He was wanting to pack as much in as possible. But again, he was always like that. He had come from the studio, and had to go back there. He was working on a new Love Addicts album virtually up to the day he died (the album will be released by Phantom early in the new year).

He showed me a photo of his new baby boy Romeo. Ian lived on the edge by most people’s standards, but he was dedicated to all his children. Special sympathy must go to one year-old Romeo, and his mother Bridget. Ian was pleased to enjoy the Tatts induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame, but, as everyone felt, it was a shame it was too late for Pete Wells. But what does that shit matter anyway, he said. When was anything but the music a core promise?

Ian was unable to play his last gig. Just a week after his benefit show, the Love Addicts were booked to play the Greyhound in Melbourne.

“He was determined,” says Cathy Green, “he said, I’m coming up, and he drove all the way up. Everything was set up for a sound check, and so he strapped on his guitar and we started “Booze to Blame” and we really only got about half a line into it and he just couldn’t do it, couldn’t sing. He just didn’t have the breath, the tumour was pressing onto his lungs.”

His funeral was held in Melbourne on November 4. Seating for 800 at the service was insufficient for the crowd. Ian’s newest car, a white Cadillac, led the procession, followed by a Cadillac hearse carrying the coffin. All St.Kilda was at half mast.

The corporeal frame of Ian Rilen is gone now and we won’t see his like again. The music was always ageless.

I think I’ll just keep playin’, in those all-night whiskey bars,
Playin’ guitar and singin’, stayin’ up with the stars

Thanks to Clinton Walker for allowing this article to be republished here.

  1. Brian Robinson says:

    Ian was my younger second or third cousin – my mother’s maiden name was Rilen – and Ian was a quiet kid when I knew him – we went rabbiting together at Buangor, in Western Victoria, while we stayed with our mutual aunt during school holidays. Ian told me a local girl would let us see her in the nude – suddenly rabbits had very little appeal, although the three of us – us boys, anyway, remained virgins for some years after that!

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