The un­sink­able Molly Mel­drum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - David Free

WHAT can you say about Molly Mel­drum that hasn’t al­ready been said, less elo­quently, by the man him­self? Not much, was al­ways the an­swer. Now, with the ap­pear­ance of his ge­nially can­did and self-dep­re­cat­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Molly has put even more of him­self out there. Like its au­thor, this book is im­pos­si­ble to dis­like. Show­biz is rife with peo­ple who claim not to take them­selves se­ri­ously but re­ally do. Molly re­ally doesn’t. In a celebrity mem­oirist — in a mem­oirist of any stripe — this is a rare qual­ity.

The book, we are told, has been in the works since 1979 and has passed through the hands of sev­eral ghost­writ­ers. No doubt that’s why it feels a bit all over the place struc­turally. It jumps around in time. Molly’s nar­ra­tive is con­stantly be­ing in­ter­rupted by quo­ta­tions, of vary­ing rel­e­vance, from other in­dus­try fig­ures. (“I will never for­get the en­cour­ag­ing smile of Molly,” Plas­tic Ber­trand breaks in to in­form us at one point.) Im­por­tant things are men­tioned only once or twice. We hear very lit­tle about the head in­jury that nearly killed the au­thor in late 2011. His child­hood is skimped. His mother ap­pears in the in­dex only once.

Then again, who would want to read a straight­faced au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Molly Mel­drum? Skimming over the stuff about short pants and per­sonal demons, Molly gives us the full scoop on the Count­down years. Few read­ers will be dis­ap­pointed. The book is rich with be­hind-the-scenes lore and gore. El­ton John chucks a tanty, not un­rea­son­ably, when Molly im­plies that Hall & Oates are a su­pe­rior live act. The guy from the Hu­man League, suf­fer­ing from toothache, throws a Cherry Ripe at a fan in the ABC can­teen. Iggy Pop ter­ri­fies a stu­dio full of school­girls by ram­ming a mike down his al­ready thor­oughly oc­cu­pied trousers.

Come to think of it, that last in­ci­dent did not oc­cur be­hind the scenes. It hap­pened in the full gaze of the Count­down cam­eras. So did a lot of other surreal and spon­ta­neous things. That was the charm of Molly’s show: the songs may have been mimed, but the ac­tion had a po­ten­tial for chaos that was well worth tun­ing in for.

Con­sid­er­ing his ver­bal abil­i­ties, it comes as small sur­prise to learn that Molly was never meant to be Count­down’s host. He was hired to be its tal­ent co-or­di­na­tor. He landed in front of the cam­era by ac­ci­dent, and ac­ci­dent be­came the key­note of his ca­reer. The au­di­ence seemed to like his nat­u­ral­ness, not to say his in­com­pe­tence. His method of en­dors­ing prod­uct — “do your­self a favour” — evolved as a sly way of get­ting around the ABC’s ban on ad­ver­tis­ing.

Mind you, he ut­tered that catch­phrase when hold­ing up many a dud piece of wax. His en­thu­si­asm, at times, seemed so all-en­com­pass­ing as to be mean­ing­less. But Molly has heard this be­fore. He has heard a lot of com­plaints be­fore. To prove it, he re­peats some of the harsh­est things his de­trac­tors have said. A mag­a­zine writer al­leges that Molly has “no ob­vi­ous tal­ent”. Gui­tarist Lobby Loyde calls Count­down “the death of mu­sic … def­i­nite Satan land … a shit show … the be­gin­ning of the f..king end”. The Never, Um, Ever End­ing Story: Life, Count­down and Ev­ery­thing in Be­tween By Ian “Molly” Mel­drum with Jeff Jenk­ins Allen & Un­win, 458pp, $39.99 (HB)

It’s a mea­sure of Molly’s good hu­mour that he will quote such stuff in his own mem­oir. He of­fers some per­sua­sive come­backs, too. Did he like pretty much ev­ery­thing he played? Yes, but he only had an hour to fill each week. Why fill it with stuff he didn’t care for? Did Count­down put the em­pha­sis on pop, if not pap? Yes, but the show was aimed at kids. If you could get young­sters into the light­weight stuff, Molly felt, there was a fair chance they’d get into the bet­ter stuff later on. That is surely a valid point. Taste ma­tures. The thing to ac­quire early on is pas­sion.

As a poster boy for that, Molly was al­ways the right choice. He has been a man of im­mod­er­ate en­thu­si­asms since his youth. Dur­ing the Bea­tles tour of 1964 he con­tracted an alarm­ing case of Beatle­ma­nia. At one of their Fes­ti­val Hall shows, just be­fore Paul launched into Long Tall Sally, Molly went so ape that se­cu­rity had to throw him out. A cou­ple of years later, his beloved St Kilda won their first and only AFL premier­ship. Molly was there, but he wasn’t con­scious. He had fainted a minute be­fore the fi­nal siren. If Molly weren’t Molly, one would take that anec­dote with a grain of salt. But we know, from years of video ev­i­dence, that the guy doesn’t do things by halves.

Con­sider his wreck of an in­ter­view with Prince Charles in 1977. Molly was an ar­dent roy­al­ist. More­over, the oc­ca­sion re­quired him to mem­o­rise a palace-ap­proved script, and mem­o­ri­sa­tion had never been his bag. As a con­se­quence, he got ner­vous. Not just ner­vous but car­toon ner­vous. He looked like the world’s ham­mi­est ac­tor por­tray­ing the qual­ity of ner­vous­ness in a game of cha­rades.

Molly’s writ­ten ac­count of this in­ci­dent makes you wish he were as good at evok­ing dis­as­ters as he was at caus­ing them. We’re told he breached pro­to­col by re­fer­ring to the Prince’s “mum”. “Prince Charles cor­rected me: ‘You mean Her Majesty The Queen.’ ” This, Molly seems to think, was a big deal. But we have to take his word for it be­cause he for­gets, a bit cru­cially, to tell us what tone of voice Charles used. Was the prince out­raged or more amused than an­noyed? Or was he not an­noyed at all? Is Molly play­ing up the ex­change to make it seem worse than it re­ally was? It’s hard to tell. Some­times de­tail is ev­ery­thing. With­out it, a world­class anec­dote can fall flat.

Molly isn’t al­ways so deaf to the elo­quent de­tail. Writ­ing about his child­hood, he re­calls, touch­ingly, that he liked go­ing to a friend’s house be­cause the friend had Akta-Vite, which Molly’s fam­ily couldn’t af­ford. That is the sort of par­tic­u­lar that brings you closer to a writer. Un­for­tu­nately Molly tends to shelve his rel­ish for specifics when talk­ing about his en­coun­ters with the fa­mous. “A high­light for me was get­ting to talk with one of my he­roes, the Bea­tles’ pro­ducer Sir George Martin.” Yes, but what did you talk about? The White Al­bum? The weather? If Molly can re­mem­ber, he doesn’t let on. Martin’s cameo ends there, as if the pres­ence of the big name is in­ter­est­ing in it­self. No doubt it was, if you were there.

Jeff Jenk­ins, Molly’s of­fi­cially cred­ited ghost, must have faced a dilemma when ham­mer­ing Molly’s rem­i­nis­cences into shape. Clearly, he couldn’t knock off too many rough edges or add per­ti­nence at ev­ery turn. Prose Molly still had to sound like the real Molly, within rea­son. And on the whole he does. He tells his sto­ries the way he tells them on TV: with gusto, but with a ten­dency, like Shake­speare’s Kent, to mar a cu­ri­ous tale in telling it.

This is a re­cur­rent fea­ture of celeb lit­er­a­ture, and in­deed of life in gen­eral. The peo­ple to whom the most in­ter­est­ing things hap­pen are rarely the same peo­ple who know how to tell a good story. Most of us, if we got into a fist­fight with Johnny Rot­ten, would mem­o­rise the en­counter in in­cred­i­ble de­tail. We would hone it into our premier anec­dote and bur­nish it with each telling. Molly, who re­ally does claim to have gone toe-to-toe with Rot­ten, de­scribes the mo­ment in dis­ap­point­ingly vague terms. “I un­leashed a bar­rage of blows on Rot­ten.” OK, but what was Rot­ten do­ing? Scream­ing? Bleed­ing? Fight­ing back? There is an art to mak­ing un­likely things sound as if they re­ally hap­pened.

But odd stuff hap­pens to Molly so of­ten that he doesn’t seem to re­alise how odd it is. It has been a big and im­prob­a­ble life. His en­thu­si­asm and his large-heart­ed­ness seem im­prob­a­ble too, so over-the-top they seem to not pos­si­bly be real. But they are, and they make you for­give him for short­com­ings you’d de­plore if he was any­body else. OK, so he’s a bit of a name-drop­per. He has a weak­ness for pranks, dou­ble en­ten­dres, and other less ad­vanced forms of hu­mour. He en­joys the company of peo­ple who quip that they have never turned right when board­ing an aero­plane.

Why are we in­clined to give Molly a free pass on th­ese things? Is it love? Yes, why not ad­mit it? It would be un­pa­tri­otic not to love the guy. He takes some of the bet­ter el­e­ments of the na­tional character — lack of pre­ten­sion, a love of sim­ple plea­sures — and cranks them up to 11. He’s not a ge­nius, but he has never claimed to be. He has never claimed to be any­thing he’s not. He started be­ing af­fa­bly un­se­cre­tive about his sex­u­al­ity — “I’m bi­sex­ual,” he con­firms at one point — in an era when that could be ca­reer sui­cide. If it isn’t any more, that’s largely be­cause of the brav­ery of peo­ple such as him. He’s part of the fam­ily. We grew up with him. If he’s never en­tirely grown up him­self, who would want it any other way?

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