Whatever took me so long: I’d been a fan of Chrissy Amphlett and Divinyls since the release of their 1983 Monkey Grip EP, yet it took me until the summer of 1988-9 to see Chrissy live on her Temperamental tour at The Sevens Creek Run Woolshed auditorium at Euroa.
It was a hot, balmy night, so the outdoor seating, even with the odd mosquito, was perfect. The band started with a slow heartbeat guitar rhythm building louder and louder, punctuated by psychopathic, menacing icy scratches. The stage was pitch-black. A single overhead light ever-so-slowly turned up: there she was, Chrissy herself, in a sparkling blue dress, head forlornly bowed, hiding her face in a blond wig. Immediately I sensed another persona: she had transformed herself, taken on all the grief, pain and emotional baggage of ‘Elsie’, a mentally twisted, drug-affected, abused girl with the weight of a degraded life driving her deeper and deeper into manic depression:
‘She just sleeps all day
In her squalid little slum
And takes little white pills
To make her body feel all numb.’
Elsie was my favourite song from the Monkey Grip EP. Chrissy’s sensitive, sharp, slightly country twang cut through the heavily-laden atmosphere with pure poetry, full of knowing and compassion:
‘She never had an education
Uses life as her vocation
Standing on ledges
Clinging to the edges
The world’s a hard place to land on.’
She sang, danced — well hardly danced, more like twisted her body into torturous contortions as Elsie struggled belligerently in her straitjacket. I was witnessing the greatest piece of method acting I had ever seen, and for pure drama, she’d out-Spielberged Spielberg. After an overwhelming seven minutes, the band faded down, as did the lights, leaving a stunned audience in the dark, wondering what was next. Like Elsie’s relentless life coming out of a drug-protected oblivion, the music, the lights and Chrissy faded up again to a manic lead-guitar screaming crescendo that went on for another seven minutes. At the end I was exhausted, Chrissy was exhausted: she’d put the entire audience through the mill. Such power — we’d been to hell and back.
My daughter, Jacqui, turned to me and said, ‘She’s insane’.
‘No’, I replied: ‘She’s just great.’ That night, I went to bed wondering how I could possibly thank Chrissy and Elsie for the experience. I had to do something.
The next morning it hit me. I rang Divinyls’ manager, Andrew McManus (now more famous for his guest list at his Melbourne Cup marquee), and arranged to meet Chrissy before her next gig at the Village Green Hotel in Springvale to take photographs — ‘I’ve got to paint her for the Archibald.’
At the time I’d been managing my son Jamie’s band, Degenerates, for a few years and had heard about Chrissy Amphlett’s testy temperament. Rock ’n’ roll was dominated by males, tough-arsed pub owners and a dog-eat-dog hierarchy. Chrissy’s protection was to get in first. Attack and keep them off-guard. I remember a drummer once telling me, ‘Be careful mate, if she doesn’t like you, she’ll kill you.’ Somehow, her stand-up-for-herself persona, combined with her great talent and wild beauty, made her even more appealing. I went to the Village Green with joyous trepidation. She handed me a scotch while replacing her street-vibe makeup with stage, painting her siren lips pearl pink. There was tension in the air — I wanted to do a good job and had to get close quickly; she had to psych herself up for the gig. We chatted pleasantly while I waited patiently with my camera for the right shot — and there it was. I’m not sure if she was starting to resent my presence but there was a moment of split personality in her eyes. One warm and inviting, the other with a hint of defiant nastiness. It was her. I had the shot, and headed off home.
The right photo well and good, but the test was to get all the bits I knew and felt about her into the painting. I slightly tilted the head and used the flow of her bright auburn-red hair to create that Botticelli goddess ‘S’-shaped curve — the curve in his Birth of Venus. Luckily, her eyes came easily to me and were altered very little from the original photograph but it was her lips that needed the most devotion, the icing on the cake, or as I call it, the nipple on the breast. In my dreams they were lips where a teenage schoolboy could spend his entire summer holidays exploring. I had to catch the colour and light rolling through those deep valleys and hills, lusciously expressive, yet showing the stress, wear and tear of a singer’s life on the road. I was happy, I’d nailed it; even better, I sent her a photo and she loved it, too.
So I entered it into the 1990 Archibald Prize, believing that she had a good chance of winning. Somehow, I didn’t look on it as my entry, but Chrissy and Elsie’s, so I was pretty devastated for them when it not only didn’t win, but didn’t even make the cut for hanging in the competition. At least Elsie ‘relates well to rejection’. I didn’t have the heart to tell Chrissy, I just left it.
Many years later, the portrait, Temperamental, was on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, where by all reports it was extremely popular. I went to see a Divinyls gig with my son, Jamie, in Sydney. We arrived there early and got a prime position right in front of the stage, bang in the middle. As the place filled, our stamina was tested by the weight of a thousand screaming, devoted fans pushing for a front possie.
Chrissy recognised me and Jamie, as by this time his band, Degenerates, had quite often supported Divinyls at gigs. When Chrissy started up her latest number one hit, I Touch Myself, she came straight to the edge of the stage, knelt in front of us, reached for Jamie’s hand and locked it between her legs for the entire song, occasionally glancing my way with a subtle grin. She certainly hadn’t lost her edge.
The phone rang the next day: it was Chrissy. ‘Could I have the painting?’ I was on the spot; my heart sank as I searched for a reply. She deserved the painting but I felt there was a bigger place for it. So, gritting my teeth and apologising profusely, I said ‘no’. She was good about it. Unloading my stress, I immediately rang Andrew Sayers at the National Portrait Gallery and donated it to the collection, where it now hangs in a prime spot, in a beautiful new building. Chrissy is very pleased, and I feel that Elsie has finally hit the big time — sometimes life works out.
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
King Edward Terrace, Parkes, ACT
Open daily 10am-5pm
Tel. 02 6102 7000