THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY

To Aus­tralians he needs no in­tro­duc­tion, and to oth­ers he’s dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. It seems in­suf­fi­cient to de­scribe him as just a mu­sic pro­ducer, a jour­nal­ist, a TV host… even adding the words “pas­sion­ate” and “sham­bolic” doesn’t paint the Ian “Molly” Mel

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

The leg­end of mu­sic and me­dia, Molly Meldrum still caus­ing trou­ble! By Nick Cook.

It was un­doubt­edly one of the high­lights of my ca­reer; a story I of­ten tell that I sus­pect many peo­ple don’t be­lieve. Late in 2011 I was sit­ting at home when my phone rang and the un­mis­take­ably ocker voice of Ian “Molly” Meldrum came down the line.

“I was talk­ing to El­ton John af­ter his con­cert last night and your name came up,” he said. “I thought you’d like to know that he read your most re­cent story and loved it.” I cer­tainly did want to know and I was grin­ning for the rest of the week. It doesn’t get much bet­ter than be­ing phoned by a true icon of Aus­tralian me­dia and be­ing told that one of the great­est mu­si­cians on the planet is aware of me, if only in the most fleet­ing and per­func­tory way.

I’d be­come friends with Molly a few months ear­lier. I was Fea­tures Ed­i­tor for DNA at the time and I’d in­ter­viewed him for a pro­file piece. It was meant to be a sim­ple one-hour in­ter­view at his house but it turned into a heavy drink­ing ses­sion that moved to his lo­cal bar and stretched into the evening. Of all my en­coun­ters with celebri­ties, this was by far the most fun and it felt more like a catch-up with a favourite un­cle. Over the phone, Molly in­vited me back to his house for an­other drink the next time I was in Mel­bourne and I in­stantly agreed, ea­ger to hear more about his ex­tra­or­di­nary life and share his in­cred­i­bly warm com­pany.

Sadly, though, it never hap­pened. Just a few weeks later I woke, with the rest of Aus­tralia, to the shock­ing news that Molly was ly­ing in a coma at Mel­bourne’s Alfred Hos­pi­tal, fight­ing for his life.

He’d fallen off a lad­der while in­stalling Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions in his back­yard and suf­fered se­vere in­juries that in­cluded a bro­ken shoul­der, ribs and ver­te­brae, as well as a punc­tured lung. Most trou­bling was his frac­tured skull and the se­vere swelling to his brain. Even if he lived, which was by no means cer­tain, there were grave con­cerns that he would be per­ma­nently dis­abled. He even­tu­ally pulled through and left the hos­pi­tal, but many feared the Molly Meldrum we had all grown to love had ceased to ex­ist.

These thoughts weigh heav­ily on my mind as I en­ter his front yard at 11am on a Fri­day, past the mu­ral-cov­ered walls that loudly de­clare his love for Mel­bourne Storm in the NRL and St Kilda in the AFL. I knock on the front door, which is wide open, and Molly calls out for me to en­ter. It be­comes in­stantly ap­par­ent that we’re not off to a good start. He’s sit­ting in the lounge room in a fluffy jacket and a pair of pants that look like part of his py­ja­mas. Most sur­pris­ing is the dark beanie on his head. It’s the first time I’ve seen him with­out his trade­mark Stet­son hat. He’s ob­vi­ously for­got­ten about the sched­uled in­ter­view and al­ready has a guest. He asks if I will come back in an hour and I agree, walk­ing to a nearby park where I sit on a bench and be­come ever more con­cerned for him as I wait.

When I re­turn there is far more warmth in his

Fall­ing off a lad­der, his in­juries in­cluded a bro­ken shoul­der, ribs and ver­te­brae, a punc­tured lung, a frac­tured skull and se­vere swelling to the brain. He has since been hit by a tuk-tuk. “Apart from all that I’m fine,” says Molly.

greet­ing as he mo­tions me to sit on the op­po­site lounge. His house seems smaller than the last time I was here, which, I as­sume, is be­cause he has con­tin­ued adding to his crowded col­lec­tion of sou­venirs and an­tiques that mostly follow an Egyp­tian theme. It doesn’t help that there is, in­ex­pli­ca­bly for the mid­dle of June, a large and fully dec­o­rated Christ­mas tree in the cor­ner. His place is also much less tidy than I re­call, with empty glasses and beer cans among the items lit­ter­ing his cof­fee ta­ble, and I at­tribute this to the fact that his long-term part­ner Yan Wongngam no longer lives here. The pair broke up last year but have re­mained close friends.

There’s a very fa­mil­iar vibe to Molly’s liv­ing area and it takes me a while to re­alise that it re­minds me of my house when I was a young bach­e­lor, even down to the fact that he smokes in­side and en­cour­ages me to do the same. It’s a thrilling ex­pe­ri­ence. I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I was able to light a cig­a­rette while there was a roof above my head.

My first ques­tion is the same one I’ve been asked by ev­ery­body who’s found out I was in­ter­view­ing Molly: how is his health? When I put the ques­tion to him he takes a sip of beer from his glass and an­swers frankly.

“I’m good. It’s a slow process with my spine be­cause it has to grow nat­u­rally. It re­ally was bad and I can’t have any mas­sages… so I have to put up with all of that.”

It doesn’t help at all that he se­verely hurt his back again while vis­it­ing his adopted son Mor­gan in Thai­land, when he tripped over a toy next to the pool. Then last year there was an­other med­i­cal scare when he was struck by a tuk-tuk while cross­ing the road in Bangkok. “That set me back a bit with my shoul­der and ev­ery­thing, I was in hos­pi­tal again,” he says. It re­veals a lot about Molly’s ex­tra­or­di­nary per­se­ver­ance that af­ter out­lin­ing a se­ries of ail­ments that would trou­ble most peo­ple he shrugs, takes an­other sip of beer and says, “Apart from all that I’m fine.”

At this point we need to pause for a mo­ment to bring our in­ter­na­tional read­ers, as well as some of our youngest Aus­tralian read­ers, fully up to speed with the im­mense role Molly Meldrum has played in Aus­tralian cul­ture over the past five decades.

The height of his im­pact came in the ’70s and ’80s when he hosted pop mu­sic show Count­down, draw­ing an in­cred­i­ble au­di­ence of three mil­lion peo­ple every Sun­day night at a time when Aus­tralia’s to­tal pop­u­la­tion was less than 16 mil­lion. His in­flu­ence could clearly be seen in the sky­rock­et­ing record sales on a Mon­day morn­ing, as ev­ery­body took Molly’s ad­vice to “do your­self a favour” and lis­ten to his lat­est favourite artist. Global acts like ABBA, Madonna, Blondie, Meat­loaf, Cyndi Lau­per and many oth­ers had their first hits thanks en­tirely to Molly break­ing them in Aus­tralia. Even to­day he is the first choice as an in­ter­viewer for many stars when they visit Aus­tralia, most re­cently Bruce Spring­steen.

The full ex­tent of Molly’s place in Aus­tralian cul­ture, not to men­tion the in­ter­na­tional mu­sic >>

>> scene, could clearly be found in the re­ac­tion to his ac­ci­dent. In the days af­ter his fall the na­tion tuned into the news each morn­ing with bated breath, anx­ious to know if he was go­ing to sur­vive, while some of the world’s big­gest stars de­clared their af­fec­tion for him. Kylie Minogue tweeted, “Love You Molly. Send­ing LOTS of love to Molly Meldrum. Get well soon,” while Rus­sell Crowe’s tweet read, “Send­ing Ian Meldrum love. Think­ing of you mate.” Madonna said Molly had been an in­spi­ra­tion to her and added, “He is a one and only. I’ve al­ways adored Molly and I’m pray­ing around the clock.” One of the get-well cards even came from the White House.

One of the most en­dear­ing fea­tures of Molly’s char­ac­ter is his mod­esty. He’s cer­tainly a lively and ex­trav­a­gant man, but no­body would ever call him ar­ro­gant. “All the flow­ers com­ing in and the emails and the cards, it ac­tu­ally shocked the hell out of me,” he says. “I’m a very shy sort of per­son, be­lieve it or not, and I felt em­bar­rassed that I’d caused such a stir. I was very grate­ful for it, but I didn’t quite know what to do. I wanted to hide be­cause I felt I didn’t de­serve that.”

Ev­i­dence of the high place Molly still holds in the heart of the na­tion led to the pro­duc­tion of a two-part mini-se­ries about him that aired last year to a stag­ger­ing 2.7 mil­lion view­ers, eas­ily win­ning its times­lot. It was pro­duced by Molly’s long-time friend Michael Gudin­ski, who agreed when Molly sug­gested the lead role be played by Sa­muel John­son.

“Molly’s had great in­stincts,” Gudin­ski said about the de­ci­sion. “A lot of peo­ple don’t re­alise what a great pro­ducer the guy is. He’s like the Phil Spec­tor of Aus­tralia. When he men­tioned [Sa­muel John­son] to me, I ac­tu­ally lis­tened.” Of course, not all Molly’s ideas were taken on board: “He did sug­gest that my son play me. He’s bet­ter look­ing than me and he’s not an ac­tor, so af­ter picking Sa­muel, I thought ‘you’d bet­ter stay out of this’.”

There were strong ru­mours that Molly hated the se­ries and when I ask him about it his re­sponse is less than en­thu­si­as­tic. In fact, he says he’s never even watched it and has only seen parts. He is cer­tainly not pleased about some of those parts, such as the por­trayal of his trans­gen­der friend Caro­line Jenk­ins. “She looked like a drag queen, but she was a very pretty woman,” he says. An­other cast­ing choice that both­ered him was the fa­cial hair on the man who played one of his boyfriends. “Of course I didn’t go out with a man who had a beard,” he scoffs.

Molly’s strong­est praise about the mini-se­ries is re­served for Sa­muel, who he says did a great job. The rest of Aus­tralia agreed and Sa­muel was awarded last year’s Gold Lo­gie for his per­for­mance. This led to an­other in­stantly clas­sic mo­ment of Aus­tralian television when Molly fol­lowed Sa­muel up on stage at the cer­e­mony to present him with a gold-painted Stet­son, iden­ti­cal to the head­wear the mu­sic guru has made so fa­mous.

Like many of Molly’s great mo­ments on the flat screen, it is largely mem­o­rable for be­ing

some­thing of a disas­ter. In the wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age of the event Molly’s speech was most of­ten de­scribed as “ram­bling”, but that’s not fair. It’s im­pos­si­ble to judge the con­tent of his mum­bled words be­cause they were al­most en­tirely in­com­pre­hen­si­ble, apart from the re­peated f-bombs he dropped and the sur­pris­ing ref­er­ence to his friend Yael’s “tits”. He fin­ished by say­ing to Sa­muel, “I know it’s very hard to play an old drama queen like my­self, and you did a great job, right. So on be­half of the drama queen of Aus­tralia, I would like to crown you also with my gold hat, here it is, well done. Thank you ev­ery­one.”

When I saw it I couldn’t help but laugh at such a vin­tage mo­ment of pure Molly-ness. It was like watch­ing a drunk un­cle grab the mi­cro­phone at a fam­ily wed­ding, send­ing the or­gan­is­ers into a panic but caus­ing wide­spread joy among the guests. I wasn’t the only one who en­joyed it, with this tweet ex­press­ing much of the mood: “I have no idea what Molly said, but that was the best #TVWEEKLo­gies speech ever.”

How­ever, there were many oth­ers who took an en­tirely dif­fer­ent view, adopt­ing the rather pa­tro­n­is­ing and frankly quite of­fen­sive po­si­tion that Molly sud­denly needs to be pro­tected from him­self. “Poor Molly. So sad to see him like that. Or­gan­is­ers should have man­aged it bet­ter,” was one com­ment on so­cial me­dia, while an­other read, “Very sad to see how much Molly had de­te­ri­o­rated af­ter all his health is­sues.” One un­named source, pre­sum­ably some­body within the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, had this to say to news.com.au: “The ex­cuse ‘that’s just Molly’ isn’t enough… He’s a leg­end who shouldn’t be put in a live TV sit­u­a­tion. Aus­tralia loves Molly, idolises him, but maybe it’s time to say enough. It’s wrong and it’s hu­mil­i­at­ing to an Aus­tralian icon. He de­serves more re­spect than to be put in a po­si­tion to hu­mil­i­ate him­self.”

Those who were both­ered by Molly’s ap­pear­ance at the Lo­gies are for­get­ting one very im­por­tant fact: he is the first to ad­mit that he has never had an ex­cep­tional abil­ity as a pro­fes­sional broad­caster. His first au­to­bi­og­ra­phy was even called The Never, Um, End­ing Story, while the sec­ond was named, Ah Well, No­body’s Per­fect. And who can for­get Molly’s dis­as­trously botched in­ter­view with Prince Charles? His Royal High­ness cer­tainly hasn’t for­got­ten. Prince Charles recorded this mes­sage for Molly as part of cel­e­bra­tions for the 40th an­niver­sary of Count­down: “There is an old show busi­ness say­ing which warns never to work with an­i­mals or chil­dren but no­body pre­pared me for Molly Meldrum. Was it re­ally 40 years ago? It seems like yes­ter­day. I wish it were to­mor­row, I’d can­cel it.”

A huge part of Molly’s charm lies in the fact that he is not per­fect and has never pre­tended to be. Much of our en­joy­ment in watch­ing him comes from the an­tic­i­pa­tory thrill of won­der­ing what might go wrong, but even more than that is the con­nec­tion we feel to a man who does not place him­self above his au­di­ence in any man­ner.

There is an old show busi­ness say­ing never to work with an­i­mals or chil­dren, but no­body pre­pared me for Molly Meldrum. Was it re­ally 40 years ago? It seems like yes­ter­day. I wish it were to­mor­row, I’d can­cel it. – HRH, Prince Charles

While speak­ing to Molly about the Lo­gies in­ci­dent I fish for some state­ment of re­gret, won­der­ing if he would do it dif­fer­ently given an­other chance, but the clos­est we get is, “I should have used ‘breasts’ and not ‘tits’ be­cause tits is not a very nice word for girls.” In fact, it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that he isn’t even aware of the de­bate he sparked about his health and his abil­ity to still be on television. Many celebri­ties in­sist they don’t read what is writ­ten about them and it’s ob­vi­ous they are ly­ing, but I’ve come to be­lieve that Molly is telling the truth when he says this.

He does tell me one very im­por­tant fact about the in­ci­dent that would have been valu­able in­for­ma­tion in the de­bate that fol­lowed: that he didn’t “in­vade the stage” or “hi­jack Sa­muel John­son’s ac­cep­tance speech” as most of the head­lines claimed. “I didn’t want to be up there for a start and they said, ‘No, you’ve got to go up and give him the hat.’ It was my idea to give him the gold hat, but not on television.”

Molly has since heard that Sa­muel auc­tioned off the hat. He shrugs, say­ing he doesn’t care in a way that makes me sus­pect he does a lit­tle. The pair have had a close re­la­tion­ship over the years, which be­gan through Molly’s friend­ship with Sa­muel’s fa­ther. Molly was a strong sup­porter >>

>> of Sa­muel’s in­cred­i­ble uni­cy­cle ride around Aus­tralia to raise aware­ness and funds for the bat­tle against can­cer, while Sa­muel was one of Molly’s strong­est de­fend­ers in the af­ter­math of the Lo­gies in­ci­dent.

When in­ter­viewed on The Pro­ject, Sa­muel ad­mit­ted it was “awk­ward” and that Molly “must have been loosey-goosey”, but he also said,

“It was touch­ing in its way and, un­derneath it all, it was a re­ally sweet act and I hope peo­ple un­der­stand that.”

Of course, few of Molly’s friend­ships are with­out drama and at pre-drinks for this year’s LGBTI Awards they had a fierce ar­gu­ment when Molly chas­tised Sa­muel for not thank­ing enough peo­ple on the stage when he re­ceived his AACTA Award.

“I was try­ing to ex­plain to him that it’s very im­por­tant to thank all the peo­ple who help,” Molly says. “On Count­down and Hey! Hey! It’s Satur­day and the other shows, we were all a team. I would never have got­ten any­where if it wasn’t for ev­ery­body else do­ing their job so well.” Sa­muel was there to present Molly with his LGBTI Life­time Achieve­ment Award, but in the end Molly asked some­body else to do it.

Per­haps not too much should be read into this al­ter­ca­tion. Molly is renowned for his tur­bu­lent re­la­tion­ships and a fight with him seems to be a sign of his af­fec­tion. John Paul Young once had Molly ar­rested and Michael Gudin­ski dis­pelled the myth that he jammed Molly’s head in a mi­crowave oven by say­ing, “I only banged his head against it. I couldn’t shut the door.” The mes­sage writ­ten by El­ton John on the wall of Molly’s house reads, “So many years, so many rows, but so many great times.”

He’s ac­tu­ally in the mid­dle of a row with El­ton at the mo­ment af­ter some nasty off-the-record com­ments about Madonna were aired in a 2012 in­ter­view be­tween El­ton and Molly. Madonna has since for­given Molly, in­sist­ing he at­tend one of her Aus­tralian con­certs and ded­i­cat­ing a song to him, but El­ton is still an­gry. “He kept say­ing, ‘You must have seen it.’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t see it.’ He said, ‘Well you should have fuck­ing seen it then!’ … But no, we’ll be friends again.”

Through­out his ca­reer, Molly has earned an im­pres­sive ar­ray of awards and ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing ARIAs and an Or­der of Aus­tralia, which are on a desk at the side of his liv­ing room. How­ever, his LGBTI Life­time Achieve­ment Award is not among them. In­stead, sits in pride of place in the cen­tre of the room. These were the very first Aus­tralian LGBTI Awards, a fact that is worth paus­ing on for a mo­ment. Of all the great LGBTI peo­ple in our en­tire na­tion, Molly’s life­time was cho­sen as the first to be recog­nised for its ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ments. The sig­nif­i­cance is cer­tainly not lost on him. “I was shocked and very hon­oured,” he says.

In ex­plain­ing the de­ci­sion to recog­nise Molly, LGBTI Awards co-founder Silke Bader said, “Molly’s achieve­ment was fo­cused on him be­ing out for a very long time and fore­front in the me­dia… He came out in a time when many

I have no idea what Molly said, but that was the best #TVWEEKLo­gies speech ever.

peo­ple feared they could not be out and true to them­selves. But Molly is Molly and was al­ways true to him­self.”

Yes, Molly cer­tainly is Molly and says about the cer­e­mony, “The week be­fore, I saw these rain­bow pants and I thought, ‘I’ll get those and I can wear those as my un­der­pants and I’ll drop my pants.’ And that’s what I did.”

Yes, that’s right, af­ter re­ceiv­ing his Life­time Achieve­ment Award, Molly dropped his pants on stage.

Molly is never de­scribed as a gay rights spokesper­son, which is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing. He is cer­tainly out­spo­ken and doesn’t hes­i­tate to call out ho­mo­pho­bia when he sees it. For in­stance, he launches, un­prompted, into a tirade against for­mer ten­nis player Mar­garet Court, who not only op­poses gay mar­riage but has said that ten­nis is “full of les­bians” and that trans­gen­der chil­dren are the work of the devil. Molly’s crit­i­cism ends with a line of ar­gu­ment that is a lit­tle hard to follow but cer­tainly cre­ates a strong im­age, in­sist­ing that Mar­garet should be cast as the wicked witch in the up­com­ing stage pro­duc­tion of The Wiz­ard Of Oz. “Then I would hope that she would get on the rain­bow and follow it into hell. You know what I mean?”

Molly is now in his sev­en­ties and says he is look­ing for­ward to a bit of a break in the near fu­ture but gives no in­di­ca­tion of ac­tu­ally re­tir­ing. He’s still working for Chan­nel Seven, with two new shows that are cur­rently in the mak­ing, as well as Foxtel where he hosts count­downs on the mu­sic chan­nels. He is also still pro­duc­ing mu­sic and next year will be the 50th an­niver­sary of his first hit, Hush by Some­body’s Im­age. Right now he’s working on a new ver­sion of Ali­cia Bridges’ clas­sic disco hit I Love The Nightlife.

By the time I leave I’m cer­tain the Molly Meldrum we have al­ways loved is still very much alive and well. Phys­i­cally he’s not in the great­est shape, which is clearly ev­i­dent in his stiff walk as he ac­com­pa­nies me to the front yard and hugs me good­bye, but that can only be ex­pected with the se­ri­ous in­juries he’s suf­fered. Men­tally and emo­tion­ally he is just as lively, colour­ful and oc­ca­sion­ally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble as he has al­ways been. I had ex­pected to feel sorry for him but that is not the case at all. How could you pos­si­bly pity some­body who has en­joyed such an in­cred­i­ble life and achieved so much?

A taxi picks me up and when the driver re­alises I’ve been at Molly’s house there is gen­uine con­cern in her voice as she asks, “How is he? Is he okay af­ter the fall and ev­ery­thing else?”

I can only smile as I re­ply. “He’s great.”

Michael Jack­son (above) and Kylie (be­low) on Count­down.

Molly’s fa­mously dis­as­trous in­ter­view with Prince Charles.

Molly, star­ring Sa­muel John­son, recre­ated Count­down’s in­fa­mous 100th show.

Count­down’s ac­tual 100th show (Molly cen­tre).

(Above) Sa­muel and Molly ar­rive at the Aus­tralian LGBTI Awards, (right) Sa­muel John­son in his Lo­gie Award-win­ning role as his mate Molly in Molly. Sa­muel was Molly’s own cast­ing choice.

Molly re­ceived the Life­time Achieve­ment Award, but not pre­sented by Sa­muel as sched­uled.

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