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
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.