Fresh off the release of his new biography, we sat down for a chat with the one and only Jeff Apter.
Jeff Apter is an Aussie legend. Former Rolling Stone journalist and active music biographer, he’s got more incredible stories than anyone I know.
Fresh off the release of his latest biography, we were lucky enough to sit down with Apter to chat his career, his future projects, and the story behind Friday On My Mind.
HAPPY: Jeff, thanks for joining me today. So, you were a writer at Australian Rolling Stone in the ‘90s and you have written over 25 books, including biographies of The Finn Brothers, Johnny O’Keefe, Mark Hunter, the Bee Gees, Daniel Johns, Angus Young, and many more.
JEFF: The list goes on!
HAPPY: You’re known in the industry for doing meticulous research. How challenging is it for you to write comprehensive biographies about people you can’t talk to or, in some cases, they may not want to talk to you? Can you take me through that process?
JEFF: Yes, I get your point! I never really encounter too many problems, but that may be the simple end result of having written so many books and knowing how to deal with certain situations. Certainly, when you have someone on tap, it’s fantastic. I’ve just finished a book, for instance, about John English which was written on the encouragement of his family, which meant everyone (except for poor John) was available, and that made the process a lot easier. At the same time, I kind of like the challenge of writing when you know, either your principles are dead or, in the case of Angus Young for instance, you know he’s never gonna talk to you because he doesn’t talk to anybody apart from his neighbours. I think, and every few years he calls his bandmates!
HAPPY: Well that would be a challenge!
JEFF: Yeah, it’s just a different set of circumstances and challenges. But I really learned how to and where to dig. I think that’s the important thing. Things like Trove, which is the State Library resource, is just fantastic and obviously, the internet is a wonderful tool if used wisely. But also, over the course of so many books and as a ghostwriter and all different things, I just built up a really good list of contacts.
HAPPY: Absolutely! Where did this fascination with all these artists begin?
JEFF: Well, I was a product of Sydney in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which was a fantastic time. Any night of the week, you could go to your local pub and there will be 500 people there wanting to see Dragons, Skyhooks, Rose Tattoo with the Angels, AC/DC, all these amazing bands. When I left Rolling Stone, I got a series of contracts with an international publisher, an English publisher and I was writing about bands, not that I had no interest in, but no real understanding of. I did a book on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, one on The Cure, which as great as they are, I didn’t feel the same connection to them that I would have with Shirley Strachen, with Mark Hunter, or any of the Young brothers or AC/DC, because I just knew that stuff better. I made a very conscious decision about 15 books ago or so ago not to do anymore international stuff because it just didn’t seem to fit my area of expertise. I just felt like I was being a bit of a fraud and I thought what I really know is Australian stuff and really so much of it is untouched and undocumented that it really… it’s a very open market in a lot of ways. Probably recent events, not very high paying gigs.
HAPPY: On the note of outsiders in your most recent book Friday On My Mind, you bring your focus to George Young as a Glaswegian teenager who arrived in Australia as a 10-pound Pom in 1963 through the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme. Obviously, three years later, his band The Easybeats were dominating the charts. Do you think this had a lot to do with the fact that he was an outsider and could see Australian culture through a different lens?
JEFF: Yeah perhaps. It is interesting to see the first strong bond he made in Australia was with a fellow outsider, Harry Vanda. The legend is that he wandered into the laundry room at the migrant hostel one day and there’s this tall blonde kid strumming a guitar, who could speak very little English but he could play really well. There was definitely a bond amongst all The Easybeats though, Stevie Wright had been in the migrant hostel as well as had Dick Diamond and their drummer was living in the East Hill migrant hostel when they tracked him down. They were all outsiders, so there was definitely that bond.
They were also bringing in a lot of influences from overseas. For instance, George’s older brother Alex was already an established musician in the UK when George left to come to Australia. Snowy Fleeter played in bands in Liverpool, he knew Paul McCartney, and then Harry Vanda played in the band called The Starfighters. They had all this musical experience and Stevie Wright – he might not be the world’s greatest singer, but he could charm the birds from the tree. He was a natural frontman, so all this stuff fell together really quick and it was like the perfect storm almost. Certainly that bond of outsiderness was definitely there and really a big factor in simply how The Easybeats came together.
HAPPY: It would be terrible for me to talk to you and not ask you how your interviews with Aretha Franklin and The Stones came about.
JEFF: Aretha was really funny. This is pre-Rolling Stone, I’d been working as a freelancer for a long time, probably seven or eight years, and my life changed around. I moved to the states in ‘96 and I was there for a couple of years. I set myself up as what they used to call the international correspondent, which basically meant you were just a Stringer and the record companies knew who you were. I’d be filing stories back to newspapers here in Australia, Rolling Stone and a bunch of other magazines. Every week you get a press call: “come to this gig.” And it was great ’cause I’m living just outside of New York and this particular one, Aretha Franklin had a new record.
They said come down to Le Cirque, which is in this really swanky midtown, it’s a sort of restaurant but sort of a private club, it’s a very New York kind of place. It’s the middle of summer and, typically, these press junkets have six to seven people. You have the guy from Germany, the guy from Sweden, the guy from Canada and me, and we’d all be on nodding acquaintance since we see each other so often. So, before she came into the room, these two big dudes positioned themselves at either exit, wearing these very large trench coats… remember it’s the middle of summer. These were her bodyguards, these are Aretha’s people.
Immediately, it’s gone serious, but she came in, she was great. She was really friendly, down to earth. What would happen is, you get a group discussion, you are throwing out the usual questions and then you have a little one-on-one for about five minutes. When I sat down with her, she said, “you’re from Australia?” And I said, “yes.” She said, “I need to ask you a question about The Thorn Birds” – Colleen McCulloch’s book. I’m thinking of all the books right now, why didn’t she ask me about something by Peter Carey? I could have handled that but not Colleen, I’ve never read Colleen McCulloch! She asked me this question about whether some mythical creature was real or not and I did the whole kind of uhh, stumbled through, thinking I’m talking to the Queen Of Soul! I’ve gotta make an impression here and the only impression I’m left with was of a bumbling, ill-informed Australian who hadn’t read The Thorn Birds.
She was great, she was very polite and what happened was 15 years later, I was interviewing Helen Reddy (may she rest in peace). She was just about to leave Sydney to go back to LA to live with her family. She was great, we did this long interview and at the end, she said to me, “look, I’m clearing out my place, anything on the bookshelf that you want just take it, I don’t wanna take all this stuff with me.” And there it was: a copy of The Thorn Birds, first edition, signed by Colleen McCulloch. I’m thinking, oh God! If I could switch this around, if I’d had this when I met Aretha, I would’ve been on a Christmas card list for sure!
JEFF: The Rolling Stones was really funny. It was another press junket and, at the time, Brooklyn was a wilderness. You didn’t go to Brooklyn unless you were dragged there in the boot of a car. It was a pretty empty, barren, deserted place and the press call was to go and assemble under the Brooklyn Bridge. When I got there, it was a large gathering of maybe 70 to 80 press, but it was also your MTV, there’s a lot of TV cameras, no one really knew what was going on. Suddenly, the screen flicked it on and you could hear a helicopter, what’s going on? We looked up and it was a pink Cadillac containing the four Stones across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge was shut down, this is the middle of the day in midweek Manhattan, shut it down for The Stones! Mick, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie were wearing these quite well-cut suits. Not Keith, he’s got a Bob Marley T-shirt, he’s got the big shades on and he’s just looking like Keith Richards.
So, we’re looking at this on-screen and then suddenly, they were right in front of us! They jump out of the pink Cadillac and stand on stage. The experience of being close to a group that had the power to shut down midtown Manhattan! Shut down the Brooklyn Bridge! It was pretty amazing. It was quite funny because the questions thrown at everybody were answered quite professionally except for Keith, who I think answered the question that was in his head at the time, not the question he had been asked. We were like, “what’s he saying?” It’s got no relation to what we asked? But it was Keith and it was cool. He had the kind of pirate look going on.
Soon after, I found out that Keith lived in Northern Connecticut, not too far from where I was living, and a friend of mine was Keith Richard’s chimney sweep. It gets cold up there right, everybody’s got these huge fireplaces! My friend said, “it’s really funny, I was there one day cleaning out the chimney and I looked up and there was this huge portrait of Keith as a pirate!” As the story goes, Johnny Depp came up for dinner one night, looked up and said, “I think I could use that.” That’s how the young Jack Sparrow character came about.
HAPPY: Great Jeff! Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a real pleasure!
JEFF: Nick thank you very much for your time.
Grab your copy of Friday on My Mind: The life of George Young here